"I have become an international gypsy," says a deceptively amused MF Husain, India’s premier artist currently in "exile" from his homeland.
Completing a life-sized self-portrait showcasing him in the role of James Bond, he points at the panoramic view of classy Mayfair. "I may be living in London but I am extremely homesick,” he says. “I long to walk through the streets of Grant Road and Byculla where I have spent some of the best years of my life."
The 91-year-old artist, who has been air-hopping between London, Dubai, Melbourne and New York for over a year, says he has lost count of the cases registered against him in the law courts of India for his allegedly objectionable artworks on gods and deities.
“As far as I know, there are at least 900 cases registered against me. Matters are so legally complicated that I have been advised not to return home at this point of my life,” he narrates in a voice that is barely audible.
Recuperating from a bout of flu brought upon by London’s infamous winter chill, Husain pops a couple of pills, looks at the ‘MF Bond’ canvas with child-like glee, and sets off to catch a show of paintings by Velasquez at London’s National Art Museum. On the museum’s steps he teeters but refuses to accept help, huffing, “I can look after myself, thank you very much.” Not surprisingly, he is soon surrounded by a saucer-eyed group of Asian tourists for whom he signs autographs with insignias of Lord Ganesha.
When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in London last month, Husain’s photos with him had been splashed all over the Indian newspapers. Did he talk to the prime minister about his “under exile” dilemma? To that the artist’s rebuttal is, “Why should I ask anyone for favours? It is no secret that I am wandering around the world, with only my art for company. That picture showing me with the prime minister conveyed the wrong impression that we were chatting. He merely shook my hand and went on his way without exchanging a single word.”
Over the cellphone, Husain books himself on a flight to Dubai, lowering his voice as he asks for wheelchair support at Heathrow airport. Meanwhile, hundreds of artists, filmmakers, writers and social activists have petitioned the president to confer the Bharat Ratna title on the self-described “international gypsy”.