Mortality didn’t worry him. He theorised that every year after the age of 75 or 80 is a bonus. Occasionally, hyperacidity attacks enforced a check-in to his favourite sea-facing room in Mumbai’s Breach Candy hospital.
He would paint there through the afternoon, the floor a manic splash of oil and acrylic colours. And then he would sneak out at midnight for a cup of street chai, shuffle back in, tipping the security guard with a crushed bunch of tenners.
“The day I stop painting I will stop existing,” was the artaholic’s refrain. “In any case, I have still not completed as many paintings as Picasso.”
A year ago, suffering from acute back pain in London, he was rushed to an acupuncturist. A month’s rest was advised. He mumbled, “Yes, yes,” to the specialist, but zipped off to attend an art gallery party, carrying his security prop — a long, black paintbrush. If he approved of a soiree, he’d gift the brush to the host.
If he didn't, he would complain, “I should have tickled the double chins of those society ladies with the brush. Phir, kuch to mazaa aata.”
Maqbool Fida Husain was amused by the grandeur of his name, often elocuting it with a sing-song lilt, and he’d admit that he had dropped an ‘s’ from the Husain. The second ‘s’ looked cluttered visually.
That classic artist’s struggle against abject poverty had made him a man. A khichdi vendor would give him a discounted dinner. And the stone footpaths of Mumbai's red-light district, Falkland Road, would serve as his bed.
At a furlong’s distance, Badar Bagh, a colony of matchbox-like rooms, he would paint film posters, and nervously romanced Fazila bi who became his wife. She would leave a bright red soap dish on a window sill to signal that she was at home alone.
He would remember, “On my wedding night before I removed my bride’s dupatta, I fell on my knees to ask the lord for kindness and mercy. My prayers were answered. I went on to become the father of four sons and two daughters.”
On achieving iconhood, Husain would make it a point to visit the bagh, celebrate every Ramzan Eid there with a brunch where celebrities and the Baadrites co-mingled. The Eid namaaz was followed by biryani, kababs and sheer khorma, shy women in burqas chatted with movie heroines in chiffons, but he never sketched or painted that neighbourhood.
Certain areas of his life were sacrosanct.
Overwhelmingly, though, Husain did share the lasting pain of losing his mother when he was just an infant. In every woman he painted, he saw the mother figure, draped in a nine-yard-sari, her face never disclosing any emotion. Perhaps that’s why women are rarely endowed with eyes, clearly, in his oeuvre.
He may have shocked purists by going fida over Madhuri Dixit, it was felt that he was encashing on the Bollywood ticket. He wasn’t. No one knew that in his crumpled leather wallet, he kept a folded pencil drawing of Ms Dixit, feeding her first-born child. For him a woman was a mother, a goddess.
Perhaps that’s why he was startled when his paintings of goddesses became the subject of controversy ignited by fundamentalist religious groups. In the 1970s, he came out of the storm, not without being rattled.
When a similar furore erupted in 2006, because of his ‘offensive’ paintings posted on internet sites, Husain had no option but to quit his home in Mumbai overnight.Fortuitously, he always carried a bunch of airtickets to various global destinations in his achkan pocket.
At the outset, it seemed to be just like another trip. Odds were that the scores of court cases filed against him would peter off. Snag: even if legal decisions went in his favour, the artist, a Padma Bhushan awardee, couldn't bear the thought of being incarcerated in jail for a single hour.
“That would just break my spirit,” he reasoned. He also felt that he was a pawn on a political chessboard. “It’s convenient to keep me away from my homeland. Anyone who supports me will antagonise the vote bank. So no politician or minister has spoken out on my behalf,” remained the regret.
Art connoisseurs, unanimously believe that Husain’s early art from the late 1940s and 1950s, earned him the identity of a supreme artist. Between the Spider and the Lamp is considered to be his finest work although he didn’t concur with that. An art critic had praised it fulsomely, the appreciation had stuck.
He rated, Zameen, his salute to rural India, as a more satisfying accomplishment.
His wild-maned stallions were inspired by an ironsmith’s shop in Indore where they would be fitted with horseshoes. His Ganpati images are said to be auspicious ever since they reversed the dwindling fortunes of a Delhi business family. Abstracts, portraiture, women in dance and repose, moments from cinema and history, the world was his canvas.
At Doha,where he had accepted Qatari citizenship, a wall in his small villa was displayed with a blue-black-white canvas depicting a group of embattled Palestinian women mourning a child’s killing.
Politically, the artist was more intuitive than ideoligically committed. He had painted iron-strong portraits of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency but would brush that phase aside swiftly. He wouldn’t agree that the portraits were an aberration, neither was he self-defensive about them.
He remembered being part of the rebellious Progressive Artists’ Group with mixed feelings. When some of his peers downgraded his work, he was hurt to the core. Bal Chhabra and the late Tyeb Mehta, he cherished, as his only loyal friends.
Indeed, he could flash back to so many episodes and anecdotes that he appeared to have led a hundred lives, defying that old chestnut of a saying, you only live once.He would not state this on record but he ached to return home.
In his own words, “I miss the touch of Indian soil. I hope to come to Mumbai. From the airport, I will go straight to an Irani restaurant for a cup of hot chai and bun maska.”
Would M F Husain have embraced those who came to receive him at the airport? Doubtful. He was shy of embraces but once in a while, when he did hug you, he would not let you go. Today, he has.
(Khalid Mohamed is a film critic, filmmaker and is currently working on the authorised biography of MF Husain.)
‘What he lacked was a sense of appointment’
I used to call him Maqbool, he called me Raza — as I prefer being called. We used to meet often at that time [in the late 1940s in Bombay, when Raza and Husain were part of the Bombay Progressive group along with FN Souza]. We didn’t always have serious discussions. It was at times about life and paintings…
When we were discussing painting, Husain never used to talk much. But was very sure [of his works]. I, too, spoke little and Souza used to ask me why I was so quiet. His family and children kept him here [in the 1950s, when the other members of the Progressive group went to Europe].
It’s unfortunate that this incident about gods and goddesses came up. It’s a very serious matter. He should have apologised. If I had hurt the sentiment of Hindus in such a manner, I would have apologised. I didn’t have much discussion with Husain about Hindu religion, but I knew he did his namaaz regularly.
On one of my trips back to India [in 1959], Bal Chhabra organised a show at the Bhulabhai Desai Institute. All my paintings were sold on the first day. I didn’t know what happened to Husain’s, but he kept muttering, “What is happening?”
In the evening we went to Bal Chhabra’s house. Husain sat in the corner. He didn’t talk, he was writing: “Aj yeh kya ho gaya, paisa khota ho gaya, lota ulta ho gaya.”
The thing I like about him are his paintings. But he lacked a sense of appointment. The last time we met was three years ago in London. We were at the opening of a large show. I told him, “It’s difficult to talk here. Let’s meet tomorrow.” He agreed. We were to meet at 7. I reached the gallery the next day at 6. And I waited… almost two hours. But he never turned up.
Since I do not like the telephone, we never talked again.
(Syed Haider Raza, 89, is an artist and a co-founder of the Bombay Progressive Group with MF Husain and FN Souza. As told to Amitava Sanyal)
‘He could be aloof, but helped needy artists’
In 1951, I had come back from Paris and heard that the principal of the Institute of Foreign Languages in Connaught Place [New Delhi] had organised an exhibition of MF Husain’s works. I didn’t know Husain — I went and met him. We got to know each other better later.
Many people who were critical, but Husain didn’t like being criticised. I knew that and so kept my mouth shut even when I didn’t like something.
Later, as members of the Leftist community organisation All India Peace Council, we were invited to a peace conference in Berlin. Husain and I travelled via Russia and were put up together. In the middle of the night I woke up and saw a tall figure standing up and sitting down again and again.
I got unnerved at first… before realising it was Husain.
He struggled a lot. In Bombay he once used to eat dinner with a family who said he could pay after a month. After 30 days when it was time to pay, he didn’t have the money. So he left for Nagpur. Incidentally, his future wife was from that family.
Sometime after his marriage, when he was back in Bombay, he invited me over for lunch. When I reached he asked me to wait in the veranda because the whole family — he had had five children by then — was staying in one room. He came out half an hour later and said we would have to eat out as he couldn’t organise lunch.
He could be indifferent. He didn’t introduce visitors to [VS] Gaitonde even when he shared a studio with him in Bombay. But he helped artists in need. About 25 years ago, Husain gave me Rs. 30,000 to pass on to Tyeb [Mehta] because was undergoing bypass surgery.
He was always painting. Once some of us went for lunch to his room in Jama Masjid Hotel. Later, the rest of us were chatting while Husain turned and started painting. By the time we ended, Husain had finished his work and had put it up.
(Ram Kumar, 87, is an artist who knew Husain for more than half a century. As told to Amitava Sanyal)