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India's most prominent painter, M.F. Hussain, dies

The Associated Press, Wednesday, June 8, 2011, 11:56pm (PDT)

NEW DELHI (AP) -- M.F. Hussain, who rose from a career as movie billboard artist to become India's most sought-after painter before going into exile in 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 Hussain, often described as India's Picasso, died at the Royal Brompton hospital in London. His lawyer, Akhil Sibal, confirmed the death.

Hussain had lived in self-imposed exile Dubai since 2006 after coming under attack 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 Hussain but who was known simply as M.F. Hussain, started out as a poster artist for India's prolific Bollywood film industry. 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.

With his free flowing white beard and hair, Hussain 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. He became especially well known for paintings of horses earlier in his career.

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 Hussain is a Muslim.

Hard-liners issued several death threats against him, prompting him to leave the country.

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

Well-known actress Shabana Azmi, a close family friend of the artist, said that she was "deeply, deeply saddened," to learn of Hussain's death.

She described him as an "iconoclastic painter, a wonderful human being and a very good friend."

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