Maqbool Fida Husain. And me.

He spelled my name correctly

He spelled my name correctly

I was always fascinated by Genius. Growing up, I had tons of books. But my most favourite books remained the ones on the great minds and artists of the past. I could spend hours reading about Leonardo, Galileo, Michelangelo, Marie Curie and even people as recent as Einstein and Vikram Sarabhai. I was not really fascinated by what they had achieved, I was more interested in their character traits. What made Genius?

As a young boy, I secretly wished I would grow up to be one. If anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wanted to say ‘Genius’ but fearing ridicule, I’d end up saying that I wanted to be a scientist and invent things. If asked what things, I’d just say ‘things’ with a little more emphasis.

I must have been all of 5 or 6 when I first heard about M. F. Husain. He was the Indian answer to the international art community, hailed as the Picasso of India. I was mesmerized by the fact that people were willing to pay lakhs of rupees (a lot at that time) for his art. I would draw often as a kid and when I’d sketch something, I’d look at it and wonder why someone would bother paying me for my scribble. It was my introduction to the world of purchased culture.

When I was 7, we were returning home from a trip to the Rishivalley school. We were scouting boarding schools for my brother and me (we eventually went to Scindia) and had a small stopover at Hyderabad airport. In the waiting lounge, I spotted a lean man, dressed in a kurta pyjama, with a massive paintbrush in his hand. His hair and beard were silvery gray and he was surrounded by some very rich looking aunties. I couldn’t believe it was M. F. Husain.

I was never a shy kid. I borrowed a visiting card from my Dad and headed toward MF for his autograph. Without a hint of decency (forgive me, I was 7), I barged into their conversation and asked MF for his autograph. A little startled at a 7 year old asking for his autograph, he asked me if I knew who he was and what he did. Perhaps he thought I was sent over by my parents to get his autograph (truth be told, my parents didn’t really give a damn about celebrity autographs). I told him – “You’re MF Husain. And you paint horses very well”. His face broke into a big smile and instead of an autograph, he drew two horses on the back of the visiting card and signed it with the date. My parents couldn’t believe it, they asked me to keep it very carefully.
I think I may have left that visiting card on the flight.

MF was known to gift away his art, much to the chagrin of his paying collectors. I had a friend in school who was the son a very big industrialist. He boasted often that walls of his house were painted by MF. Apparently they owned many art galleries and MF was a personal friend.

I always kept abreast with what MF was doing. If there was an article in the papers about him, I’d try and read it, even if it was a silly page 3 mention. I even forgave him his silly Madhuri Dixit obsession and the subsequent Gaja Gamini. After all, all great artists were eccentric, and MF had cultivated his eccentricity very well. He was frequently in well-tailored Hermes suits with no footwear and a large paintbrush in his hand (a baton). If MF wanted to make a movie, how was it different from Karl Lagerfeld designing a cellphone? Art transcends canvas.

The next time I met MF was more than a decade later, when I was 19. I was returning home from med school and it was late. As I drove into my lane, I saw MF exiting the building next to mine, again with another rich looking aunty. He looked the same as he did more than 10 years ago. This time I wanted his autograph for keeps. I parked my car in a hurry, ran in to get a piece of paper and a marker. I had sketched a few days back, some silly collage about studying long nights, with a mug of coffee, thick textbooks, the clock, the phone and my desk lamp. It wasn’t anything special. It was laying on my table with a permanent marker, so I grabbed it and ran down. Luckily, he was still there. I told him that I’d been a fan for many years and would be honoured if he’d sign my work. He gladly agreed and was mildly surprised when I asked him to sign on the back (stupid of me, as I can never get it framed now). He even bothered to spell my name correctly.

Then came the crazy years. Some of his paintings were unearthed where he had drawn the Hindu Goddesses, Durga and Saraswati, naked. Clad only by sky, according to him. To be honest, I didn’t really see it as a sexual thing or as a particularly offensive event. Plus, they were drawn in the ’70s. As I draw occasionally as well, I tend to be more forgiving to artists who push boundaries, I tend to offer a greater license in my mind for their freedom of expression. I’ve seen much worse. I’ve been to Khajuraho and it’s practically a porn film carved into stone.

But I can also understand why it offended people. We were living in particularly flammable times. Religious tolerance was at an all time low, all over the world. MF being a Muslim, Hindus did not take kindly to him drawing our Goddesses this way, artistic license be damned. People said, if Islam could be so intolerant, he did not deserve any cultural flexibility from our end. Vandalism followed. His house, workshops, galleries were destroyed, death threats were issued. Something I didn’t condone. One may disagree with what he painted but this was India. I feared that we were becoming a Hindu Pakistan.

People often argue with me “Do you think he had the courage to draw the prophet nude? He’d have been massacred long ago”. I could never conjure up an answer. Partly because I think it’s true. Look what happened to that dutch cartoonist, he lives each day looking over his shoulder.

What I really disagreed with was how he jumped his bail and ran away to Qatar. He should’ve stayed in India, appeared in court and defended his right to draw. He could’ve explained that he didn’t mean to cheapen the Goddesses’ image, he may have tried to show them as starkly beautiful women, but somewhere, the message got muddied. And maybe he could have even apologized for hurting people’s sentiments.

He accepted Qatari citizenship, lived in self-imposed exile and died recently in London.

Inspite of all of this, I do not believe that he was unpatriotic. I do not believe that he was ‘intentionally’ disrespectful toward Hinduism. He took great liberty with his art and was careless (not arrogant, he was never arrogant) to not anticipate the emotional damage his art could have caused. I’m sure he didn’t do it for publicity, he had enough of that.

I know many are delighted by his death but there is still that pesky 7 year old who yet remembers the dignity with which he was treated, he may have lost that visiting card but he still remembers the horses.

Maqbool Fida Husain, may you rest in peace.

Stupid of me not to let him sign the front.

Stupid of me not to let him sign the front.

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

3 thoughts on “Maqbool Fida Husain. And me.”

  1. Very nice ode to a man who deserved better from all of us. It is indeed ironical that a nation that has prided itself on its ability to embrace outsiders and outside culture could turn so intolerant over such a trivial matter. There is a temple in Kerala where the Goddess is top-less. Wonder what the zealots would do if someone painted her image though the printed pictures continue to depict her half-naked. Googlefor “chottanikkara” and check out the results. Anyway, nice piece on a man whose art I never understood but whom the so-called civilized society wronged for flimsy reasons.

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