Brush with life

“A child had been born after a difficult Caesarian delivery; it had survived and that’s all that mattered. The child was born stick thin and weak. Chances were that it wouldn’t survive the chill of the oncoming winter. The child’s mother was distraught and according to the village lore, prayed that her life be taken away and her son’s spared. She passed away in a couple of years, leaving a void that has remained like the scar on the child’s upper lip.”

These are the recollections of an early life as recorded in M F Husain: Where Art Thou: An autobiography with Khalid Mohamed (published by M F Husain Foundation with Pundole Art Gallery / December 2002). 

The autobiography was written in Urdu at various points of his life. The narrative is not linear, does not follow any formal structure, and is presented as a series of loosely interconnected vignettes based on the artist’s jotted down notes, observations and candid confessions.

The book, transliterated by journalist, Khalid Mohamed, is richly illustrated and has sketches of the master in virtually every page.

There are many episodes and characters in the book — both real and surreal. Like his birth in Pandharpur, a village in Maharashtra. Husain does not know the exact date and year of his birth. “His passport fixes the birth date as September 17, 1915, and that could be give or take a year or two. It seems it was faintly chilly on the day he was born and of course, the midwife didn’t feel that recording the moment was important enough.” Later in his life, the artist dropped an ‘s’ from ‘Hussain’ so that ‘that the surname looked more compact with the excision!’

In the book, Husain recalls his days in Indore as a young boy where his closest buddy was Mankeshwar, a painter who was also deeply involved in the study of theThat the two friends belonged to different religions never came in the way of a lasting friendship. In a way, Husain — who at the age of six had memorised lessons from the Koran — acknowledges his friend’s closeness to his abiding interest in the great Hindu epics; and in depicting those mythical characters and stories in his work.
Husain explains how ‘slowly but surely Mankeshwar renounced worldly ways to take off on a spiritual quest,’ and while Husain painted film posters and backdrops for stage plays, his friend proceeded to become a sadhu in the Himalayas.

Husain’s meeting with Dr Ram Manohar Lohia is equally insightful. “Don’t confine yourself to paintings which are hung in the drawing rooms of the Tatas and Birlas,” Lohia is said to have advised the artist during the meeting. “There’s another big, wide world out there. Paint scenes from the Ramayan. This country has an amazing, ageless history. Folk songs resound here from village to village. There is magnificent music, a magnificent heritage. Take your paintings to the villages. Behind the closed doors of the cities… in the so-called art galleries… you will find only westernised people. Their pockets may be deep but their hearts and minds are empty. You will find true appreciation in the villages; everywhere else you will find hypocrisy.”

Inspired by ‘Ramayan’

Lohia’s words had a deep impact on the young artist. Husain records that ‘on Lohiaji’s death, he went into frenzy for close to 10 years with pens and colours, stacking every corner of the Moti Bhavan with paintings inspired by Ramayan.’

It is well known that in his younger days, Husain made a living in Bombay as a hoarding painter. He painted huge cinema banners in the compound of Badar Bagh 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.’

The returns were meager — four annas per square foot! — out of which he had to pay for the colours, oil, cloth and wood for frames. Husain fondly recalls the affection showered upon him by the residents of Badar Bagh during those days. “Perched on their balconies and balustrades, they were thrilled to see the familiar faces of film stars come alive with colours.  Now, that was entertainment.”

It was in Badar Bagh that Husain came under the maternal love and care of Mehmoodabibi. As his surrogate mother, she would feed him with rotis at lunch and dinner and ‘if he was delayed, in a thin old cloth she would wrap rotis and jaggery so that he could dip them in tea’. Above all, she was fascinated by his colours, had an abiding faith in his talents, and never tired of praising him in Badar Bagh. The mother and daughter (Fazila, who later became Husain’s wife) ensured the artist did not go hungry.  

Through the eyes

“When Mehmoodabibi died at the age of 90, the tin case of her private belongings, was wrenched opened. It contained nothing — no jewellery, no cash, no clothes — except a mound of newspaper cuttings on M F Husain and stray beads of a rosary, a vial of kohl and the amulet wrapped in a thick thread.” 

In the book, Husain provides clues to his own personality and associations through many episodes. He narrates for instance, how his short film Through the Eyes of a Painter was cold-shouldered by the officials of Films Division. It was only after the curator of Museum of Modern Art, New York, showed interest in collecting it for the archives that it was sent to Berlin Film Festival. The 20-minute film made history by winning the highest award, The Golden Bear. 

He also remembers fondly about his dalliance with Calcutta. And his incurable habit of sipping his morning tea from a mud cup in the tea shop in an alley behind the Tata Centre there. In one instance, sitting at a corner table of the shop he was surprised by two Bengali women who emerged from a taxi, and handed over three flowers to him. “We are very impatient to see you painting at the Tata Centre on the 21st,”, they said. Not a word more, not a word less, and poof, they vanished into thin air. Husain says, “This can happen only in Calcutta.”

In another instance, he recalls his visit to Satyajit Ray’s home. For a while, the two studied each other in silence.  “Manikda (Ray) tore a sheet of paper into two and gave one of them Husain. Husain waited, then with pencil-thin lines attempted to reflect the genius of Ray. On the other half of the paper, Ray caught the lines and waves in Husain’s flowing beard.”

It would be appropriate to end this piece with a quote from the artist who has seen many ups and downs in his life. In a way, it also sums up his personality. “I don’t have to prove to anyone what I’m capable of anymore. It is like that ancient Chinese story of a man who stopped taking out arrows from a quiver though he was an expert at archery. To fire the arrow is a sign of defeat, to preserve your mastery is a sign of victory. That’s why I have stopped firing arrows, I don’t have a point to prove any more.”


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