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Enigma of MF Hussain

The Indian painter's near iconic stature has not diminished his human traits, writes Pavan K Varma.
PTI | By HYDE PARK CORNER|Pavan K Varma
PUBLISHED ON JAN 08, 2005 08:55 PM IST

When a painter uses the camera as a brush he creates a film. That was my reaction when I saw Meenaxi - A Tale of Three Cities last week. The experience was special because its maker, India’s most well known artist, MF Hussain was sitting next to me.

Husssain saheb  gave a private but unobtrusive commentary for me throughout the film. Just before a particularly interesting dialogue, he would gently nudge me to listen with attention. For a visually arresting sequence he would whisper how exciting it was to actually film it. His hands would move to show the trolley shot that alone could make it possible. When one of the protagonists narrated a good couplet, he would look towards me, his eyes twinkling in the dark, to see my reaction. And every time Tabu would look really stunning - and she looks quite riveting throughout the film - he would nod with me in an unspoken salute to the unlimited possibilities of one of the most bewitching creations of the Almighty - woman.

I have known Hussain saheb  for some years. He will be 90 next September. That makes him roughly 40 years older than me. But age has never been a barrier - or a constraint - in his reaching out to people. Of course, he looks much younger than he is. He is uncommonly tall and still stands ram rod straight. He gets up to paint at four in the morning, and often works through the day. His hearing is perfect. And his eyes have not lost either their twinkle or their sharpness. With a long painting brush in his hand, both a mascot of his trade and a statement of style, he cuts a dashing and charismatic figure in an all black dress and white beard. Those who know him often complain that his pace leaves them exhausted.

The near iconic stature that he has acquired has not diminished his human traits. Not particularly accessible to people he does not know or does not like, he can be exceptionally human with those he is comfortable with. At a recent dinner at my home in London, he laughed heartily at journalist Saeed Naqvi’s risqué Urdu couplets, and then surprised both of us by reciting a couple of his own! He eats little but is not averse to a glass or two of wine, but only if it is of good quality and the ambience is right.

MF Hussain is notorious for his unpredictable ways. He can tell you that he will see you for dinner tomorrow and then not turn up and disappear without a trace for months! Many years ago he asked me to translate his autobiography into English. I agreed and we used to meet almost every day at my home in Delhi. The meetings followed a set pattern. Hussain saheb  would arrive fairly late in the evening. He would ring the bell and immediately get back into his car. That was a safety precaution because we had dogs and he was afraid of them. Once the animals were safely locked up he would come up to my study, bare foot and holding a sheaf of papers on which he had written the next pages. I would go through them, and we would chat till quite late. He wrote unexpectedly well, very visually, and with great colour and flair, and his descriptions of his adolescence and youth had many episodes of great sensuality.

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