I met MF Husain for the first time less than a year before he died and a few times subsequently. A play I had written was to be staged in the Edinburgh Festival in August and was being rehearsed but, as is not unusual in the world of theatre, had not till that time found the funds that would pay the cast a wage and accommodate and feed them for the month in Scotland. The box-office returns would come later. Through an appeal by a friend, young Bhanu Choudhrie of the C&C Alpha group stepped in and offered us sponsorship money to stage the play with absolute generosity and no strings attached. Before he signed the cheque, I insisted that he should see what he was sponsoring and, since he wasn’t able to attend the previews to be staged in London, I invited him to watch a rehearsal.
We were rehearsing in a barn of a space in London’s Roehampton University, a building that would be difficult to locate in the higgledy-piggledy complex of structures in the compound. I appointed to meet Bhanu at the gate at 4 pm and waited there on the hour. At precisely 4 pm, a chauffeur-driven Bentley came through the gates. I recognised Bhanu who lowered the window to acknowledge me and as I peered in to give the driver directions, I saw Husain with a walking stick between his legs and shaded glasses sitting next to him. There was no mistaking who it was. I was aware that Bhanu and MF were friends, but had no indication that he was bringing him to watch our play.
The cast were duly surprised and delighted. So with him in the front row and several of my friends and my youngest daughter in the audience, the nearly-dress-rehearsal commenced. I was watching MF as it progressed and saw him shut his eyes for several minutes — no doubt to concentrate fully on my prose as it escaped the actor’s lips. When it was over he congratulated us on the play and Swagat, our nimble tabla-nawaz, went over and asked for his autograph, presenting him with a large sheet of paper on which Husain Saheb quickly drew a sketch that he signed. Swagat was beaming all over as he tucked this latest ‘Husain’ into his shirt.
I met the maestro in his studio in London soon after that and asked if he would be interviewed about the incidents that had driven him away from India into self-imposed exile in London and West Asia. He said he’d speak to me about it and on my first visit he did. He gave me his version of what he saw as a bigoted restriction of his artistic freedom. I took notes. He subsequently called me on the phone and asked me if I had done anything with the information he had given to me. I said I hadn’t yet, as I wanted some points clarified.
He sounded relieved and invited me to see him again. I went and he hinted that he was in talks to secure his return to India and said I should refrain from reporting anything he had said. I promised and am keeping that promise now.
In the public domain is the fact that in a bizarre episode, MF was hounded for heresy by people who were characterised as ‘Hindu fundamentalists’. This is a confusing phrase as ‘fundamentalists’ are people who revert to the authority of some fundamental book or rule. A Jew who agrees with Leviticus that adulteresses should be stoned to death can be called a fundo. Muslims who object to depictions of the human form in painting because Moses’ prescriptions can be interpreted as having proscribed such expression, can be called fundos. A Christian fundamentalist — of whom there are legions in the United States — will justify an attack on gay people by quoting St Paul. The Hindus don’t have a single book and certainly not one that sanctions attacks on painters for depicting one or the other goddess and using an imaginary or live model’s form and features to do it. Those who hounded MF were barking up the wrong walking stick.
It has happened before. Raja Ravi Verma was castigated, mobbed and prosecuted for using his mistress as a model for paintings of Hindu goddesses and heroines from the epics. (Colours of Passion, Ketan Mehta’s film about the episode, will be released soon and may shed some light on how and why a notion of heresy has invaded the beliefs of Hinduism.) Theology is by definition not a science, but a primitive branch of metaphysics and it can tell us why monotheistic religions that have embodied laws, prescriptions of sin and judgement can be subject to contradiction which is then castigated and punished as heresy. The doctrines of karma and dharma, the intervention of avatars of God, the philosophical idea of the Atman, Brahman and maya as the shackle of consciousness, do not admit to the simplicity of the notion of heresy. Hinduism, or at any rate Advait Vedanta, should be free from such an idea.
The demolition of the temple of Somnath or the sacking of a temple to Aphrodite may be seen as insults and affronts to the communities that built them and worshipped there but not in any sense is it heresy. Breaking icons is certainly insulting. But surely MF Husain was making them?
( Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London )
The views expressed by the author are personal