As a TV journalist, I’ve covered art for little more than a decade. That certainly doesn’t make me a veteran. But it has made me a lucky person in getting to meet a legend like MF Husain plenty of times.
In fact, the first time I ever interviewed him, I ended up asking him a factually incorrect question, much to my embarrassment. But he had the reaction of a grand old sage, “You are so young. You just don’t know enough about me!”
How much is ‘enough’, really?
Here’s a man who has seen success from the time he got his Padma Shri award in 1950, the Padma Bhushan in 1973 and finally, the Padma Vibhushan in 1991. He had been nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1986, and already had an auction record to his credit in 1987, where his portrait of Mother Teresa was hammered at Rs 5 lakh by Christie’s. In 1967, he won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his documentary Through the Eyes of a Painter.
Quite a lesson in history.
But that’s not how Husain made you feel. He was never intimidating. Instead, he was always approachable and childlike in his curiosity; eager to know more about you than talk about himself.
There was a funny moment in one of the special shoots I did with Husain in Dubai. Husain started talking about his ‘young’ days that had us fervently looking for his pictures of youth so that we could match the visuals with his comments.
Google didn’t help. Art books didn’t help. Why? Well, whoever remembers seeing a young Husain? The hunt finally ended at his son Shamshad’s personal album.
What struck me most about his personality was his zest for life. For someone who reached the zenith of his career decades ago, Husain never cared about resting on his laurels. He was always busy with his next big project. Even as we mourn his tragic death, we must remember that a number of projects taken up by the master remain unfinished.
The most ambitious among them was the one on Arab civilisation, which was the main reason Husain had decided to shift base to Qatar, take up citizenship and work in peace with a target of two years to finish it. It is sad that he will go on record as a Qatari national of Indian origin. But I can assure you that he has remained a source of inspiration for almost every artist that this country has produced.
A layman on the street who knows nothing about art will still be aware of Husain’s name. His name will remain a symbol of Indian art.
As his brush made brilliant strokes on canvas, his mind worked as brilliantly on establishing Indian art as a valid entity. A work by Husain is a prized possession, even if it’s just a doodle on a napkin or a page off his diary.
In 2004, he sealed a deal with a leading businessman to paint a 100 canvases for R1 billion. In 2005, Husain’s ‘The Last Supper’ sold privately for $2 million, while his painting on the Mahabharata fetched a whopping $1.6 million.
For me, Husain will best be remembered as a true karma yogi, who worked till the end of his life and took life as it came. I fondly remember him telling me, “My life is like my red Ferrari!” The best possible epitaph.
(Sahar Zaman is a Delhi-based independent arts journalist and art curator. The views expressed by the author are personal)