Remembering the Artist MF Husain, On His 100th Birth Anniversary
(This article was published on the eve of MF Husain’s fourth death anniversary)
It was a calm summer morning and I was sitting at home, gorging on a humongous breakfast.
I was on maternity break from work and was five months pregnant. At around 8 am I received a message from an artist friend that Husain saheb was no more. I quickly called up the television news network I used to work for, to ‘break’ the news ‘first’. What followed was a very busy day. I was especially called back to work to line up the ‘lives’, phone chats and studio guests. It was only after the day was over, away from the madness of the newsroom, I had the chance to mourn Husain’s death at the age of 96.
I can’t call him a friend but he was a lovely acquaintance to have. We had a few long chats. Some during my shoots, some were just about catching up with him. For a man almost 65 years my senior, it was fascinating to just keep up with what was his latest work.
He was unstoppable and in his mind, perhaps, he was Puer Aerternus. He called me up once to talk about his latest series on the Islamic Civilization to be part of the launch of the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. He was 93 then but it was adorable how he described the architect of this museum, the legendary IM Pei, as a very old and brilliant man, who was incidentally, also a nonagenarian, two years younger to Husain.
I first met Husain for a college interview when I was a journalism student. It was an evening where he painted a work inspired by Rembrandt’s Night Watch, a ‘live’ painting event for the privileged few who were at the art gallery. He kept his promise to give me the interview first, despite all the established news channels waiting for their turn. When I asked him a silly ill-informed question, he wasn’t offended. He hardly retorted, “Your problem is that you are too young, you can’t know enough about my art.”
Today, after 14 years in art journalism, I’m still learning about his art. Each artist has one or two subjects they are inspired by. But there’s nothing that Husain has not painted about. Be it our civilization, politics, mythology, contemporary icons like Mother Teresa and Madhuri Dixit and much more. The last he was working on was ‘From Mohenjedaro to Manmohan Singh’.
It’s funny how my arts journalism career is peppered with Husain highlights. First, the college interview. Then the special report on him turning 88 years, when he gifted me a personally signed poster. Years later, the most daring sting operation on art – an art racket that I unearthed in which I was offered a fake Husain for almost one crore rupees.
The most memorable remains the day-long shoot I had with Husain in Dubai in 2008. It was the first time the country got to see what Husain’s life in exile was all about. He was working on multiple projects – a series marking 100 years of Indian Cinema, trying to learn the Arabic language, creating his signature horses in Murano glass sculptures. While the scene in India was dominated by anti-Husain protests, he was making art at break-neck pace.
Everyone remembers my red Ferrari drive with Husain but what I remember most from that day is the long chat we had on why Husain decided to be an artist. Talking to him was like revisiting a history book in a much charming way. On the night of India’s independence, the streets broke into celebrations. Husain remembered walking on the streets and feeling liberated. That’s when he decided to chuck his job and become a free man. A man of free thought, free ideas and free expression in art.
A year before his death, he shocked us all by taking up Qatari citizenship. It pained me to tears to see his works at international fairs with the country below his name tag, labeled ‘Qatar’. But that’s when all his 90 years of pragmatism made sense. While India remained in his heart and predominantly in his work, Qatar was just a convenient geographical location that offered him the sponsorship and the peace to keep creating his art.
(Sahar Zaman is an independent arts journalist, newscaster and curator. She founded Asia’s first web channel on the Arts, Hunar TV )