In the month before he died in 2011, the godfather of contemporary Indian art, Maqbool Fida Husain, still had fantasies about returning home. He had at the time been living in exile for five years, having received death threats and multiple lawsuits from Hindu fundamentalists outraged at paintings that featured their gods unclothed. The threats had begun a decade earlier when the artist's home in Mumbai was ransacked and paintings destroyed. By 2011, aged 95, Husain was dividing his time between Qatar and London. His son, Owais, also a painter and film-maker, recalls how in those last weeks, his father would obsessively whisper plans about going back just for an afternoon. "He had this idea that he could get a flight and just slip in, perhaps sit for a while in a tea shop, and slip out," Owais Husain recalled to me on the phone last week. "He wanted just to be at home one final time. But of course the reality was there was no way my father could have got back without the authorities knowing. . ."
Instead, Husain was forced to satisfy himself with the India he carried in his head. This was the insistently inclusive world of his youth; alive with mythologies and faith, hungry for independence and progressive politics. Husain, who had the ambition to be more prolific than Picasso, described the act of painting as something close to transcription, the ongoing fulfilment of a need to put those interior visions down on canvas. In 2010 he embarked on what seemed a final grand distillation of that interior world; 30 large triptychs on the theme of Indian civilisation, his definitive home thoughts from abroad. In the event he completed eight of the three-part panels in a commission for Usha Mittal, wife of Lakshmi Mittal, the steel tycoon. Those panels, designed to walk among, each one a vivid bay window into another world, are now on display for the first time at the V&A.
They are not only a dramatic statement of the things Husain held dear - a private mythology that framed Gandhi with Ganesh and juxtaposed Mother Teresa with the Mahabharata - but also represent another kind of homecoming. Husain was artist in residence at the museum for a year in the 1990s, wandering the Italianate courtyard barefoot; it was at the V&A that he established the large-scale style of his later years. The Mittals had first invited him to London in 1996, when his troubles with the fringe nationalists of Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal began. The commission for these paintings grew out of a series of conversations between the painter and Usha Mittal. She explained to me how after immersing himself "in books on Indian history, making notes and sketches along the way. . . he began to paint, unusually choosing to start with modern India with the plan to work backwards". When she visited Husain in the hotel rooms he made a studio he would be working on the floor, as was his habit since his long apprenticeship painting Bollywood film hoardings, effortlessly filling his canvases with a 3ft-long brush.
I remember encountering Husain in just this spirit at a visit to his apartment hotel room in Mayfair in 2007. It was a month after his last significant London show, at Asia House, had been closed after another attack by a fundamentalist armed with spray paint. He was sanguine about the way the haters were following him across the world. "It's not a lot of people. They have never stopped me working, they never will of course. There are no restrictions to what I do." He talked of the long tradition of eroticism in Hindu painting, and observed, smiling, that "at least the show opened, and if you want to see the work now it is on the internet".
In the Mayfair flat a vivid new series, of elephants - "bringing in Indian ideas of hospitality, and drought" - was taking shape around the walls. Though brought up a Muslim in Maharashtra, Husain was adamant about his right to depict whatever he wanted. "For centuries India has accommodated all faiths," he said, in a breathy voice that I leaned forward in my chair to hear. "It was a unique composite culture. But there are forces within every culture that want to turn away from that. To purify things. I've wanted to celebrate this composite culture. I once did a series called Painting from the Nine Religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and everything else ism. Those paintings were exhibited in the United Nations building. But a few for political reasons of their own started to raise a hue and cry, saying I was corrupting Indian culture, by which they mean Hindu culture. They are just political people. It is the painting I care about."
Husain's career really began with independence in 1947. It was the year of his first exhibition. It was also the year his father died. He became grouped with a number of young artists called the Bombay Progressive Artists' Group with a desire to forge a modern Indian art for a new country. He came to Europe for the first time in 1953, did a barefoot grand tour. "I saw Picasso, Matisse, but Paul Klee was the big influence," he told me, "because he was so steeped in Indian philosophy he had made himself almost an Indian painter."
The Progressive painters led a political movement of sorts. Husain had watched Gandhi and Jinnah speak at rallies in Bombay and was deeply committed to the new freedoms, though he said he never voted "because a painter's job is to observe". He was once invited by Rajiv Gandhi to take up a seat in the upper house of the Indian parliament along with the musician Ravi Shankar and the writer RK Narayan. He attended sessions for six years without once speaking, simply keeping a sketchbook which he later published.
He talked to me, at 91, excitedly about the huge plans he still had for his work. He was interrupted in this conversation from time to time by persistent phone calls from friends and dealers (each one announced by a startling ring tone that was a recording of a cock crowing in the village he grew up in). The plans included "making an Indian Buster Keaton film"; writing another volume of memoirs, and numerous series of paintings, including the one now on show. There was also the film that his son, Owais, was working on, about his extraordinary life. A film that may, Owais suggested to me last week, finally be finished in the coming year.
When he talked about the past Husain returned again and again to his childhood - the current series of paintings sees him in one panel in self-portrait hiding under his bed, drawing. "My mother died when I was one and a half years old. Without a mother there was no real care for me," he said, suddenly quite childlike. "From seven or eight years old I was on the street all day, just going back to my father's house to sleep." He believed painting was always an attempt to fill that maternal absence. "In Hindu culture it is the mother, Shakti, the goddess who takes care of us. My painting has always been a kind of searching for that," he said.
That searching went on right through his 10 decades of work, and an estimated 40,000 completed paintings. Owais tells me how his father had a bypass operation at 76 and the doctor told him he had to slow down. That was something like fighting talk to the artist. His productivity became part of the legend. Owais recalls how on one occasion for a major exhibition in Cyprus, his father arrived by plane the day before the gallery was set to open and instructed his hosts to drive him to the nearest art materials shop. He then locked himself in his hotel room overnight and had created all the paintings to fill the exhibition by morning.
When we met I asked him how he stayed so energetic.
He put it down to three things: not worrying about critics and fundamentalists, working every day, and never wearing shoes: "It is good for my knees, it means I can sit on the floor and paint for four or five hours."
I wondered how he organised his days.
"I work early," he said. "Get up at five or six and I always feel it's my first day. I don't get bored with sunrise. I then work hard for three or four hours."
And after that?
"Ah, the rest of the time," he said, "I think it is very important just to loiter around."
MF Husain: Master of Modern Indian Painting is at the V&A, London SW5 until 27 July
Laura Cumming is away
Traditional Indian Festivals, 2008-11, a triptych from the Indian Civilisation series by Maqbool Fida Husain. Courtesy of Usha Mittal (C) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
MF Husain in 2005:
put his energy down
to 'not worrying about critics, working
every day and never wearing shoes'. Getty Images