Undying art

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

M.F. Husain in his London studio on October 25, 2009. - N. RAM

M.F. Husain in his London studio on October 25, 2009. - N. RAM

Maqbool Fida Husain (1915-2011), India's most charismatic artist, was romance personified in both work and life.

MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN, India's most charismatic artist, passed away in exile in London on June 9. He had been ailing for the last one and a half months. He was a hero for those who, including this writer, believe that not only must an artist create beauty but his life must also be the subject of romance. Husain, at work and in life, was romance personified. Everything about him was larger than life. That he was driven away from the land of his birth by intellectual pygmies tainted by bigotry was only to be expected. What was at first surprising, then acutely disappointing, and then downright unforgiveable was the desire on the part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to appease the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its support organisations rather than vigorously enforce the rule of law and restore the dignity of the ordinary citizen.

Husain's alleged crime was that he had painted Hindu gods, and, worse, goddesses, in the nude sometime in the 1970s. No use pointing out that there are numerous examples of Hindu deities depicted in the nude in exquisite ancient temple sculptures. The Hindu Right decided to hound him out of India, and the simplest way to do so was by slapping hundreds of fake cases on him in different parts of the country. Husain suddenly became the bogey man for the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RSS and its allies. The equally benighted Muslim fundamentalist organisations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind and others had washed their hands of him long ago. The so-called civil society was too ineffectual to be civil or civic. A splendidly gifted man with style and flair, in his late eighties, left the shores of India for good.

To set the record straight, Maqbool Fida Husain was born on September 17, 1915, in a poor household in Pandharpur, Maharashtra. The First World War had begun the year before. By the time he reached boyhood, the family had moved to Indore, Madhya Pradesh. His father was a timekeeper in a small mill and had the additional responsibility of bringing up his motherless son. Maqbool Fida had lost his mother when he was an infant. He remained a devotee of women and womanhood for the rest of his life. It is interesting to note that his telling and moving portraits of Mother Teresa, the Albanian nun who devoted her life to serving with complete dedication the wretchedly poor in Calcutta (now Kolkata), have no facial details, but the outer contours are so accurately drawn that there is no mistaking her for anyone else. He saw Mother Teresa as a great nurturing mother. To think that Husain's devotion to the all-encompassing aspects of womanhood would land him in enormous trouble is ironic.

His playfulness and joy can be seen in the series devoted to the romance between Prince Salim (later emperor Jehangir) and Anarkali, a dancer in the court of his father, the emperor Jalaluddin Akbar, from the popular Hindi film, Mughal-e-Azam (1961). He did these pictures, coloured graphics really, in exile in the early years of this century. There is a really witty picture of Salim trying to woo Anarkali with a flower he hides behind his back like an ardent suitor while Akbar peeks around a corner, like a comic character out of Vaudeville. Husain's zest for life and youthful spirit come through in these works. To spoil the mood: when an exhibition of prints of these works was held at the India International Centre, Delhi, the programme office was subjected to a continuous barrage of filthy abuse by RSS activists over the telephone. There was an attempt by Hindu fundamentalists to damage the prints. It was foiled in the nick of time, and the rest of the show was held under strict police supervision. Regardless of this, the show was a hit.

Husain's biography is fairly well documented. He went to study at V.D. Devlalikar's art school in Indore while in his teens. The family's finances were strained, but it somehow managed to send him to the school of Devlalikar because he was a respected artist and teacher who painted in the Indian style. Sometime after Husain, other artists who were destined to become famous, such as S.H. Raza, H.A. Gade and Ingole, also studied under Devlalikar.

The necessity of earning a living took young Husain to Bombay, as Mumbai was known then. He certainly had photogenic looks and wanted to become an actor but could not. Instead, he became a painter of huge film banners. The money, which was not much, was nevertheless welcome. He also studied for a while at the Sir JJ School of Art. Husain also came into contact with the Austrian expressionist Langheimer and the art critic Rudy Von Leydon, both refugees from Hitler's Nazi Germany. These two men played a seminal role in introducing 20th century Western art in Bombay. Husain became a co-founder, along with Francis Newton Souza, of the Progressive Artists Group in 1948. Other members to distinguish themselves in the coming years were K.H. Ara, V.S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, and S.H. Raza.

Husain's training in painting big film hoardings gave his lines power and suppleness. The only one among Husain's contemporaries whose drawing had a similar intensity was Souza, a Goan, whose artistic journey was inspired by Western art and his own Roman Catholic upbringing. Husain's art, for all its eclecticism, was from the beginning rooted in Indian soil. One look at any of his works will tell you that he knew the Indian artistic and cultural tradition really well and was indeed an organic part of it. In the late 1970s, if memory serves, there was a Husain retrospective in Delhi organised by that prince of art appreciation, Ibrahim Alkazi, through the Art Heritage Gallery, which he owned. One of the early works, done possibly on jute, was of a woman with children going about her chores. She looked like a peasant woman from western India and may have been inspired by his wife's visage. It was a dynamic composition that had come out of a vibrant regional folk art tradition. The strong point of this work was its draughtsmanship, the perfect balance between line and colour in the creation of the composition. Drawing always played a dominant role in all his work.

In the late 1960s, the Films Division of India commissioned him to do a short film. The result was Through The Eyes of A Painter, which won the Golden Bear in its category at the Berlin Film Festival. Before the film won the award, Information and Broadcasting Ministry officials at home were puzzled by it. They could not understand, for instance, why images of a bicycle, a lantern and an umbrella were repeated through the film in juxtaposition with other images. It was abstract without being abstruse. The subaltern visual tradition, if you like, of Rajasthan had been uncannily captured in black and white. The umbrella, lantern and bicycle began to appear as recurring motifs in his paintings of that period. Not one to get bogged down in a formula, Husain, restless as ever, moved on. He had by then painted one of his most famous paintings, Between The Spider And The Lamp.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, he painted horses bursting with energy, depicted in a completely integrated version of cubism. The horses stayed with him as a part of his artistic psyche. He had a way of using recurring motifs and placing them in a fresh, different context each time. Between The Spider And The Lamp was painted in 1956 after he had made a pen-and-ink drawing of it. The lantern featuring in the painting turned up as a real one in the film Through The Eyes Of A Painter 11 years later. The horse as a subject had first made its appearance in Husain's work in, significantly, 1952. His physical and psychical being appeared to be charged with and inspired by equine energy. In life and in his work Husain gave the impression of a galloping steed.

Contrary to what his detractors thought, he had read both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the original and had become a fan of these epics for life. Their elemental qualities made a lasting impression on his mind. The late Shanti Choudhury, a well-known documentary film-maker of the 1960s and 1970s, made a documentary on Husain for Films Division. There is a scene in the film of Husain, wearing his reading glasses, reading from the Mahabharata and discussing a narrative detail with a local pandit (pujari). Husain did major paintings based on the Mahabharata and other themes from Hindu mythology. His approach to religion, in essence, was cultural. He was fascinated by the impact of religion on the minds of ordinary people and how it made them better people.

An artist, in order to be true to his art, has to be true to himself. Husain was true to both. Much has been made of his romantic liaisons with young and middle-aged women. This aspect of his character irked the prudes. Their small-town mentality prevented them from understanding a basic fact of life that it is a woman who chooses a man although she makes him feel that it is he who has chosen her. Women always chose Husain possibly because they found no dichotomy between him and his work. There is hardly any dispute over the fact that women, throughout his career, had greatly enriched his work by being there.

He was, for all his straying', a loving patriarch. His children were well loved, and he always acknowledged his wife's contribution in creating a stable and warm home for the family. The late Gauri Pant, a writer and painter of rare sensitivity, told this writer about the young Husain and his little family in the years of struggle in Bombay in the early 1950s: They lived in a single room in a chawl. His wife kept it spotlessly clean. The space was divided in two, double-decker. Husain Sahab used to work on top and the family lived below. Shamshad [his son, now a well-known painter] was there and probably Raeesa [Shamshad's younger sister]. I was very warmly received. They were a loving family.

In 2000, when he was a young man of 85, Gaja Gamini, a feature film directed by him and starring Madhuri Dixit was released. It was a lovely, intriguing film about the myriad hues that constitute the feminine psyche. Madhuri Dixit, under Husain's guidance, did full justice in multiple roles and proved what a talented and versatile actress she is. This was a truly experimental film accessible to a large audience. An ardent film-lover all his life, he knew that communicating with an audience was imperative. Gaja Gamini did just that, effortlessly.

In 2004, Husain returned with another pleasant cinematic surprise, Meenaxi, featuring Tabu, a very sensitive actress. This time Husain examined, as he would a rare and precious jewel, the idea of woman as Muse. Again, he scored with his characteristic wit, humour and perception to make Meenaxi a memorable experience. The story of a blocked writer, played with verve by Raghuvir Yadav, being rescued by a muse called Meenaxi, who is also seen in other avatars' in the film, it is ultimately as touching as it is amusing. Tabu, as touch-me-touch-me-not Meenaxi, is as memorable as Madhuri Dixit was as Gaja Gamini. It is strange that both Gaja Gamini and Meenaxi, despite their charm, depth and clarity, were not widely seen. Unimaginative distribution and exhibition can be cited as reasons.

All his life Husain remained a man of simple tastes. He would enjoy a cup of tea at a wayside dhaba as much as he would a sumptuous meal in opulent surroundings. Neither luxury nor austerity affected him. He knew nothing was forever. His apparent detachment completely flummoxed his detractors, more so because they did not know what to do with him. When they finally drove him into exile, the retrogrades thought that Husain would be finished. But that did not happen. Husain flourished as never before. His paintings sold at consistently high prices and he worked at his art as regularly as always.

As a nonagenarian of enormous courage, he went from artistic adventure to artistic adventure. He was planning to make an autobiographical film and had decided upon Shreyas Talpade, an interesting young actor, to play him as a young man. He had received a hugely lucrative commission to do very large sculptures in glass and had flown to Italy to consult with experts before formally embarking on the project. He bought expensive cars, the latest being a Bugatti, to amuse himself.

When he finally realised that the Congress party was going to do nothing to bring him back to India with dignity, his place of birth and homeland, he surrendered his passport to the Indian Consulate in Doha. He became an international refugee. His admirers and patrons, the Sheikh and Sheikha of Qatar, came forward to offer him citizenship of their country, which he accepted. The Sheikh and his gracious wife, both connoisseurs of art, have a marvellous large art museum. It was only natural that they offered sanctuary to a true artist.

Husain, the great lover of life and art, had been suffering from a respiratory disorder for the past four years but had fought on gallantly, full of plans for various projects. He had been admitted to the Royal Brompton Hospital six weeks earlier. He was buried at Brookwood cemetery in Surrey, England, thousands of miles away from Pandharpur. The Hindu Right, who had driven him away, promptly went into top gear and wanted to see him buried in India. He was a famous Indian artist, after all! But good sense prevailed, and his six children, sons Shamshad, Shafad, Mustafa and Owais and daughters Raisa (Raeesa) and Aqeela, decided very sensibly that Surrey was the apt final resting place for their father, who had been so restless and creative in life.

It is important now to remember Berthold Brecht's immortal play, Galileo, on the famous astronomer of medieval Europe, and the following dialogue between Galileo and his student Andrea towards the end of the play, when Galileo returns home after repudiating before the all powerful clergy all his scientific ideas so that he can live to fight another day.

Andrea: Unfortunate is the country that has no heroes.

Galileo: Unfortunate is the country that needs heroes.

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