- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2011

NEW DELHI (AP) - M.F. Husain, a former movie billboard artist who rose to become India’s most sought-after painter before going into self-imposed exile during an uproar over nude images of Hindu icons, died Thursday. He was 95.

CNN-IBN TV channel quoted a friend, Arun Vadehra, as saying that Husain, often described as India’s Picasso, died at the Royal Brompton hospital in London. His lawyer, Akhil Sibal, confirmed the death to The Associated Press.

Husain had lived in Dubai since 2006 after receiving death threats from Hindu hard-liners in India for a nude painting of a woman shaped like India’s map, often depicted as “Mother India” in popular arts, folklore and literature. A nude of Hindu goddess Saraswati also angered the hard-liners.

No details of the cause of his death were immediately known.

The artist, whose full name was Maqbool Fida Husain but who was known simply as M.F. Husain, started out as a poster artist for India’s prolific Bollywood film industry in the 1930s. Decades later, his paintings and even his simple pencil drawings became status symbols for India’s wealthy elite, with his works commanding price tags running into millions of dollars.

Husain almost never wore anything on his feet. With his free flowing white beard and hair, he was an instantly recognizable figure in India’s art world.

He first became well-known in the late 1940s as part of group of artists headed by Francis Newton Souza who broke with traditional Indian painting styles.

Husain was considered a master of color and lines, with works inspired by Hindu temple art and Cubism. His paintings could be a jumble of monkeys, elephants and horses from Indian folk tales and Hindu mythology, but his favorite subject was woman as giver of life and love.

“He will forever be India’s greatest artist of all times,” art collector Shashank Sinha said. “He was a pioneer. He led the art movement as a youngster and shaped the way Indian art has evolved.”

Some of the artwork that angered the Hindu right had been around since the 1970s but came to their notice in the 1990s.

The most controversial painting shows a nude woman on her knees, creating the shape of India’s geographic borders. It caused an outcry among hard-line Hindu groups that said associating India with nudity was disrespectful. Several legal cases were brought against him. His depiction of Hindu goddesses in the nude also provoked anger among some Hindus, especially because Husain is a Muslim.

In 2008, India’s Supreme Court judges described “Mother India” as a work of art and cleared him of the charge of causing offense to Hindus, but criticism from radical groups continued.

Husain spoke of a desire to return home during several interviews in recent years.

“He wanted to return to India and was convinced that he would at some point,” said Sibal, his lawyer. “But he was also quite philosophical and believed that the people of India loved him even if he was not physically present here.”

Actress Shabana Azmi, a close family friend of the artist, said that she was “deeply, deeply saddened,” to learn of Husain’s death.

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