MF Husain: Revisit the Unfinished Projects of a Painter in Exile
(This piece has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of MF Husain.)
On his death anniversary on 9 June, the grave of Maqbool Fida Husain at the largest cemetery in the UK, Brookside in Surrey, is visited by a clutch of his admirers and family.
To his last breath at the age of 95, the eminent artist in self-imposed exile for over five years, had expressed his wish to return home to his modestly-appointed apartment in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai.
“But no one in the government seems to care though I am a Padma Vibhushan and a former Rajya Sabha MP,” he would lament. “If I don’t dare to catch a flight back, it’s because of the fear that I will be arrested at the Mumbai airport and locked up in a cell. At my age, that would be worse than death itself. I wouldn’t be able to take the humiliation.”
Following a sudden spurt of scores of lawsuits alleging “obscenity” in the portrayal of Hindu deities, he had fled from India circa 2006. At any given time, he would carry a wad of first-class ‘open’ airflight tickets and his passport. Subsequently, MF Husain made a small villa in Doha his home, besides adopting Qatari citizenship, a step he wasn’t elated about.
“I was hoping that those in power in Delhi can work out a solution, but there hasn’t been so much as a word of concern about my plight,” he had said, sounding defeated. His hopes were pinned, especially on Sushma Swaraj, then the Union Information and Broadcasting minister.
Jetting between Doha, London, New York and Qatar, the restless artist – who would paint at least a canvas a day – continued to hope that the politicians and high societycrats who had once sought his company and canvases would at least answer his phone calls.
So how come I’m quoting him today? Because I was tracking Husain, which included a trip to Doha, to complete his authorised biography. Several books have been written about the controversial barefoot artist, including one called Where Art Thou authored by himself but he wished to tell all once again. Incidentally, although he didn’t wear footwear he possessed over a hundred designer knee-length boots, shoes and sandals.
These he would be forced to wear while walking on the wintry streets of Europe and the US. On the sun-baked Indian roads and even on the Rajasthan deserts, he would go barefoot. “The sun is therapeutic for soles of my feet at least,” he would claim, adding, “Maybe that’s why I’ve lived so long.”
The text was designed to be a no-holds-barred confession about his myriad romances and his bond with the Progressive Artistes’ Association, of which he was one of the co-founders in 1947. Invariably, he would pooh-pooh the revised chapter of the biography,“Tchah this is too tame, tear it up.” Result: the book was never written.
Eight years, after his passing away Husain continues to be a “best-seller” as he would describe himself with a dollop of bemusement. In fact, if a peer’s painting fetched a higher price – as a triptych by Tyeb Mehta’s had, then he wouldn’t be content with the $ 1.6 million record he had toted at auctions, here and abroad.
The multi-tasking artist, filmmaker, furniture designer, toy maker and still camera photographer, remained creatively insatiable. And there are at least five long-dream projects which he couldn’t complete, partly because of his ‘exile’.
- A series of portraits of Indian politicians from the days of the freedom struggle onwards. This would have been an extension on his tongue-in-cheek drawings sketched during his tenure as a Rajya Sabha M.P (1986-’92). Titled Sansad Upanishad, the catalogue of drawings was published in 1994 and isn’t available for love or money today.
- A series of paintings on global music superstars. In London, he had completed a large canvas on the Beatles, showing them as they were on the album cover of the ground-breaking Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Madonna were also on his radar. The wall-sized canvas on the Beatles remains unseen.
- After Gaja Gamini (2000) and Meenaxi: A Tale of 3 Cities (2004), he was working on his next feature film – Do Qadam Aur – an operatic musical revolving around a women’s hostel and its tyrannical warden. AR Rahman was pencilled in to compose the music. Urmila Matondkar, Sonali Kulkarni and Shilpa Shirodkar had been approached to play the main parts. This feature, he wished to photograph himself on a digital format.
- A MF Husain biopic to be directed by his son Owais Husain. Shreyas Talpade had been finalised to portray the artist.
- And an installation to beat all installations. Known to walk into car showrooms in Europe and buy himself a car impulsively, he wanted to collect a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, a Ferrari, a Mercedes-Benz and more, then smash them with an axe and re-assemble the wreckage before a live audience.
Above all, Husain’s abiding wish was to catch a kaali peeli cab from Mumbai’s international airport, drive straight to the Kayani Irani restaurant at Dhobhi Talao, call for its signature bun-maska and chai, and then walk through the Azad Maidan “slowly…because ghar ki mitti ka mazaa kuchh aur hi hota hai” (“There’s nothing like walking on the soil of one’s homeland”).
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)
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