The king of canvas

Requiem for an artist
Last Updated : 18 June 2011, 15:36 IST
Last Updated : 18 June 2011, 15:36 IST

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“...one cannot be happy in exile or in oblivion. One cannot always be a stranger. I want to return to my homeland, make all my loved ones happy. I see no further than this.” - Albert Camus

It was in a sense both coincidental and ironic that on the very same day of Maqbool Fida Husain’s passing away, one of his paintings, Untitled (Sita with the Golden Deer), came under the hammer at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art auction in London.

The 30 inch x 40 inch acrylic on canvas, painted in 1991, showed the chaste mythological character reclining against the bark of a tree and running her fingers on free flowing hair.

She is holding an earthen pot and a couple of white doves are playing on her lap. The context of the scene is obvious. She, along with Rama and Lakshmana, is in exile in the forest. Presently, her sight is set longingly upon an attractive Golden Deer (demon Maricha in disguise). The scene is poignant; there is calm before the storm. There is also a hidden tension, and it is clear that something dreadful is waiting to happen. 

That the painting which came with an estimate of £50,000 - £70,000 found a buyer who was prepared to shell out £70,850 (including buyer’s premium) at the Christie’s auction is beside the point. What is striking is the fact that the 95-year-old artist, like Sita, was forced into exile and longed to return to the country of his birth. Hours before the auction, he was lying at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, taking his last breaths.

Husain, incidentally, seldom painted the eye of men and women in his paintings. This painting was among the exceptions. Sita’s eye is clearly delineated. 

Public outrage

The news of Husain’s death understandably evoked huge public reaction in the country. Artists, scholars and intellectuals expressed shock and outrage. For them, it was a national shame that the foremost proponent of Indian modern art had died in exile.

The political class of different hues — right from the very top — hastened to condole his death, terming it as a “national loss”. Even Maharashtra Navnirman Sena hailed Husain as a “national asset” and wanted his body to be flown back to India for the last rites.

“Whenever you talk of art, two names come to mind — Picasso and Husain. And I would always prefer Husain,” declared Raj Thackeray.

Anyone and everyone seemed to know (at least a bit of) Husain. Almost everyone seemed to own a Husain — if not a painting, at least a story, a gossip, an opinion. Celebrities and socialites crooned how they had met him in London or Dubai ‘recently’ and how he had always been sweet, humble, generous, entertaining, loving, caring... and so on. Media, expectedly, went on overdrive. Television channels showed anyone and everyone narrating their stories about the man. Interviews recorded in the past with the artist were hastily retrieved and replayed over and over again.

But why had everyone remained silent when the artist was still alive? Why did the art community not forcefully rise in protest against the senior fellow-traveller’s exile? Why did the government remain generally cool and indifferent about his security concerns? Why didn’t the likes of Raj Thackeray welcome Husain back to Mumbai, and offer him a safe and congenial atmosphere to work?

When the controversial French novelist and playwright, Jean Genet (1910-1986), was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions in 1949, Jean Cocteau and other prominent figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Picasso successfully petitioned the French president to have the sentence set aside. Genet never returned to prison again, lived to write many more novels and plays, and died 37 years later.

Husain was not as lucky. Even though cases against him were thrown out by the courts, he felt insecure and probably, unwanted. He had to die with his dream of returning to India unfulfilled.

Colourful life­­­

By all accounts, the barefoot Badshah lived a long and eventful life. His was a classic ‘rags to super-rich/super-star’ story. In his lifetime, he experienced the extremes of poverty and deprivation as well as unbridled fame and luxury. He embraced life for all its glorious heights and lower depths.

As a fellow artist put it, he was a ‘karma yogi’ — living for his art and art alone. He could paint at will, regardless of place or condition. He possessed a hyperactive persona and wanted to do many things, wanted to say many things, and as importantly, wanted to be always seen and heard by others.

He painted countless canvases and proudly announced that he never had a studio anywhere in the world; he didn’t need one because he could paint in living areas, hotel rooms and even on pavements. As pompously, he declared that he never hired an assistant (an allusion to the present day trend where even young artists are employing skilled subordinates). He also said that once the work was done, it did not concern him anymore. “I don’t insure my paintings. Why, even I am not personally insured!”

He was extremely prolific. He painted his trademark horses, goddesses and themes drawn from the epics with sturdy lines and bright colours. He had other favourites — like Mother Teresa. He was also quick to respond to recent events — through his paintings.

For instance, applauding Sachin Tendulkar’s batting prowess, he created a specially autographed painting for him. Responding to 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, he painted a large diptych and titled it ‘Rape of India’. More recently, he drew a cartoon and extended his support to the anti-corruption crusader, Anna Hazare. 

“The day I stop painting,” he once said, “I will stop existing.” In 2008 — already two years into his self-imposed exile — he told The New York Times: “They can put me in a jungle. Still, I can create.”

Enigmatic persona

Husain had an uncanny ability to come out with something special every now and then. He remained in public glare because of his innovative projects and thanks to a willing media. Such was his persona that he remained an enigma throughout his life. There was always something strange, special, ‘aura’-matic, contradictory, imprecise, and controversial about him that drew attention.

It is common knowledge that Husain had humble beginnings. Born Hussain Pandharpurkar— he became Maqbool Fida Husain much later — he painted film hoardings in Bombay for a living. Painting huge cinema banners, often in sweltering heat, ‘standing on a tall ladder, a can of paint in one hand and a still photo of a film in the other, two brushes clenched between his teeth’, he toiled to earn a princely sum — at four annas per square foot!

He became part of the Progressive Artists’ Group formed in 1947 by Francis Newton Souza with S H Raza, K H Ara, H A Gade and S K Bakre. His first painting was bought by Emmanuel Schlesinger, a European émigré and an ardent supporter of the Group. “My eldest son was hardly five years old,” recalled Husain. “I am talking of 1948–49.

Schlesinger used to buy my work for Rs 150 to 200 and that was sufficient for running the house for one month… Schlesinger made a good collection. He advised me; he was a very sensitive buyer.”

That this hungry-looking but highly energetic young man who spent years in scarcity and whose childhood canvases were burnt to ashes by his uncle because he thought that the young boy was wasting his time, rose to such dizzy heights of artistic brilliance and commercial success is an amazing story in itself.

If a Husain canvas was available for a few hundred rupees in the late 1940s, it commanded astronomical sums decades later as he became the face of the modern art of India.

In February 2008, his “Tribute to Hashmi”  was auctioned off in Kolkata for $1.03 million (about Rs 4.4 crore). In March 2008, his “Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12” (1971-72) came up with an estimate of $600,000 - $800,000 and  went for a whopping $1.6 million (Rs 6.5 crore) at Christie’s in New York.

In September 2010, “Cinq Sens” (Five Senses), painted by him in 1958 (while staying with Italian film director Roberto Rossellini) got 7,82,500 USD (Rs 3.6 crore) at Sotheby’s New York. Two other paintings — “That Obscure Object of Desire” and Untitled (Benaras) — were auctioned for $4,82,500 (Rs 2.15 crore) and $ 362,500 (Rs 1.62 crore) respectively at the same auction.

Writing for Forbes Magazine in December 2005 (The 2006 Collectors’ Guide), Susan Adams described Husain as a flamboyant, prolific 90-year-old who favoured bare feet and Hermès suits. She also mentioned that as an audacious dealmaker, Husain refused to commit to any one gallery, instead, set his own prices. “In 1997, he declared his work would cost $1,00,000, even though no prior piece had ever sold for more than $50,000. ‘I said, just let me gamble,’ said Husain. He got his price.”

The New York Times too mentioned how Husain was enormously prolific; how he once claimed to have produced some 60,000 paintings; how he was a gifted self-promoter and hard bargainer; and how he amassed a fortune but insisted that his bank balance was zero.

On his part, Husain said that art was not in the painting, art was in the artist. “The artist relives life through his painting. The eye should travel on a canvas, stop and interpret what it sees, the clarity and the meaning, depend on every individual vision.”

Religious & India-centric

A striking feature of Husain’s art was that his themes were always fiercely India-centric. “I hadn’t had a Western-oriented education,” he once confessed. “All that I knew was the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Kalidasa.”

He would recall how in the 1950s, he had visited Varanasi with his painter friend Ram Kumar. “If I were to paint something about India, it was the ideal location for inspiration. The filth on the streets and on some stretches of the water did not matter at all.

Varanasi transcends that. There, I just closed my eyes, listening to the age-old sound which vibrated musically through the air and ear.”

 He also admitted to have always been interested in religious themes. “In 1958, I painted the Ramayana. Then there was the Mahabharata, which was exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennial along with Picasso. There is a lot of intensity in our religions. Ravana has 10 heads, Shiva also has 10 heads. I have been fascinated by these since childhood.”

It is this fascination for religious themes, and more particularly goddesses, whom he sometimes painted in the nude that provoked the ire of Hindu fundamentalists. They attacked his home, vandalised his works, and filed numerous cases against him in courts claiming that he had hurt their religious sentiments.

In February 2006, a local leader in Gujarat offered a ‘reward’ of 1 kg of gold to anyone who would ‘gouge’ out the eyes of the painter and cut out the thumb of his right hand “so that he cannot draw ‘perverted’ paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses and of Bharatmata.”

Faced with such hostility, Husain left the country, gave up his citizenship, and chose to live in exile. Although the courts gave him favourable rulings and dismissed cases against him, he perceived that threats remained as fiercely as ever.

In exile, Husain, despite his advanced age, continued to be hyper in his activities and worked on massive projects. He apparently lived in luxury and moved from country to country at will.

Despite all the riches, swanky residences and racing cars, and even as his friends and admirers were petitioning the government for a Bharat Ratna for him, all he seemed to yearn for was his return to India. To be among his friends and admirers.

To work in peace and freely travel across the country. To sip chai from the saucer, to eat his favourite badshah faloodas from Mumbai’s Crawford Market, and to gorge on paratha and kebabs at roadside dhabas in Delhi and Kolkata. And to paint and paint and paint...

Tryst with celluloid

Husain’s connection with cinema did not end with painting billboards in his youth. He maintained an unrelenting passion for films throughout his life. “I was born to make films,” he would say, half in jest, “not just to paint these stupid horses!”

Way back in 1957, he accompanied the legendary Italian film-maker Roberto Rossellini and his fabled cameraman Tonti (of ‘War and Peace’ fame) to the ghats at Varanasi. A decade later, his first film, Through the Eyes of the Painter, won Husain the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. He made several short films including Folk Dance, Of Gods and Men, and Calcutta Unlimited. “My concern in films, as in paintings, is to relate to a specific Indianness,” he declared. 

He maintained a love-hate relationship with Bollywood. While he allowed himself to be charmed by its glamourous heroines, he despised its filmmakers for their ‘visual illiteracy and artistic bankruptcy’. He showed utmost respect and admiration for directors like Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa and Luis Buñuel.

When he made his first feature film, Gaja Gamini (2000), with the then reigning queen of Bollywood, Madhuri Dixit, he declared famously: “It took me 60 years to realise this dream, of which 30 were spent in allowing Madhuri to arrive.” The film, when released, evoked mixed response. “I shall not call it a film,” wrote noted filmmaker Mrinal Sen. “I prefer to call it an audio-visual wonder... I shall ask the viewers to save their visual virginity for Gaja Gamini which, from the beginning to the end, has defied all accepted norms to lend M F Husain’s own signature.”

His next film, Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities (2004), was fairly well received by the critics, and even won some awards. One reviewer wrote: “Masterly. Magical. Stunning. Sublime. Meenaxi is all these and much more, giving cinema a new idiom of its own... Husain, cinema’s new conjurer, whips up a champagne movie-mural.”

An interesting aside is that in November 2007, Husain booked an entire cinema hall in Dubai which screened Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film, Aaja Nachle; he distributed tickets as invitations for his special guests; and the tickets had Husain’s autograph and a sketch of Madhuri.

His favourite artists

When asked in a recent television interview whom he considered to be the best Indian artist, Husain named (Vasudeo) Gaitonde. He knew him well and was even instrumental in Gaitonde’s inclusion into the Progressive Artists’ Group.

Way back in the 1990s, Husain had named Kolkata-based Ganesh Pyne as the greatest living artist in the country. Both the artists maintained mutual admiration and respect.

Many controversies

Wittingly or otherwise, Husain courted controversies, particularly in the latter period of his life. Apart from the paintings which were construed as demeaning and hurtful to religious sentiments, there were other instances when his actions created a storm. Some examples:

In 1975, during the Emergency, he portrayed the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, as Durga, and got heavily criticised for that by many.  Later he insisted that it was misconstrued. “I didn’t portray Indira as Durga,” he tried to argue. “I just showed a woman on a tiger and called it Mother India. It was the press that decided that it was Indira and they went on and on about it.”

In 1986, as a nominated member of Rajya Sabha, Husain attended sessions for six years (1986-92) but raised not a single issue; he didn’t even utter a single word. Instead, he made drawings of the proceedings and published a satirical book titled “Sansad Upanishad: The Scriptures of Parliament.” (Curiously, in her condolence message, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar said that Husain “did distinguished work” as a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha.)

On February 6, 2006, a national magazine’s advertisement on “Art For Mission Kashmir” carried Husain’s painting of Bharatmata (Mother India) portrayed as a nude woman whose body was spread across the map of India. Expectedly, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other organisations pounced on it.

Husain came under the scanner of Muslim organisations too. When his film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004) was released, the All-India Ulema Council, supported by other Muslim organisations, cried fowl over one of its songs which they found to be blasphemous. Husain promptly pulled out the film from the theatres.

In 2007, when the Government of Kerala announced the prestigious Raja Ravi Varma award for Husain, (based on the recommendation of a jury headed by artist Vivan Sundaram) there were widespread protests and legal suits questioning the decision.
In February 2010, Husain (who had been in self-imposed exile since 2006) accepted the offer of Qatar citizenship (which implied giving up the Indian citizenship). Many people criticised his action while some others felt let down by his decision.

Fond memories

One fine morning in 1992, when the Bangalore Turf Club chairman, P G Belliappa, received a call saying that M F Husain wished to visit the race course to see the horses, he just couldn’t believe his ears. However, it didn’t come as a surprise too as M F Husain’s passion for horses was well-known. So Belliappa extended his invitation to M F Husain through the caller, a common friend. Within half-an-hour of the first call came another call wanting to know if M F Husain could lunch with the stewards. When a famous painter like M F Husain expresses his desire to lunch with the stewards, how can Belliappa not allow it? He immediately said, “Yes, but the guest will have to wear a suit, as is the rule.”  Wearing a suit is fine, but shoes are an absolute no-no as Husain never wears them, said the common friend. Belliappa had no problems with it as the rule book only said the guest had to wear a suit but didn’t say anything about shoes. That afternoon, the suit-clad, barefoot M F Husain came to the Bangalore Turf Club for lunch and proceeded to see the horses thereafter.

The sight of the galloping horses enchanted him no end. Looking at his child-like excitement, Belliappa offered to take him around the race track, in line with the racing horses, in the stipendary stewards’ jeep. Husain’s joy knew no bounds. He enjoyed every moment of the experience. When Belliappa noticed Husain walking barefoot on the thick carpet of grass in the race course, he asked him why he never wore shoes. Pat came the reply, “As I want to be constantly in touch with earth.”

Enthralled by the whole experience of his tryst with horses, Husain tore a piece of old newsprint, and with a few haphazard strokes, drew horses on it, labelled it BTC, and gave it to Belliappa as a souvenir. He even invited Belliappa to join him for dinner that evening, and Belliappa gladly dined with the painter who, he says, was very friendly by nature.

“To this day, Husain’s drawing enjoys the pride of place in my drawing room,” admits Belliappa with considerable pride.

Published 18 June 2011, 15:36 IST

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