Why Silence Marks the 100th Birth Anniversary of MF Husain

Following charges of religious disrespect in some of his paintings, he was forced to flee from Mumbai in 2006.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Husain was born on September 17, 1915 in Maharashtra’s temple town of Pandharpur (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

He would have scored a century today. Born on September 17, 1915 in Maharashtra’s temple town, Pandharpur, doubtlessly the iconic artist would have celebrated his 100th birthday with his customary showmanship.

An Egyptian belly dancer performed at one such event, hosted by his closest buddies at a commodious apartment in Mumbai’s upscale Malabar Hill. Yesteryear’s heroine Mumtaz was among the guests, amused to learn that the artist was quite ‘fida’ over her during her heyday.

The 100th birth anniversary of Maqbool Fida Husain today, however, will pass by sedately if not silently. A retrospective of his work would have been in order, but if there is any such event on in Mumbai — the city where he spent the best years of his life — it’s been a closely guarded secret.

Tormented by Exile

(Photo: From a book published by the author, <i>MF Husain: Where Art Thou</i>)
(Photo: From a book published by the author, MF Husain: Where Art Thou)

Husain passed away in London on June 11, 2011 and was buried there. Till his last days, the artist was subsumed by a feeling of torment. Following the intensifying charges of religious disrespect in some of his paintings, he was forced to flee from his home in Mumbai in 2006, never to return again.

Subsequently, he was criticised for accepting Qatar citizenship. To that, his riposte was,

What else can I do? I cannot return to India. There are far too many legal cases pending against me. I would be arrested as soon as I stepped out of the airplane. I cannot think of spending even one night in jail. That would destroy me.

Dividing his time between Qatar, Dubai, New York and London, MF Husain came to a semblance of terms with his exile. He painted constantly, including canvases celebrating the music of the Beatles, a series on the classic film Mughal-e-Azam, and of course his favourite subject, Horses, which NRI tycoons continue to covet since they are believed to be “lucky for business.”

And if he wasn’t travelling, nothing could prevent the artist from putting brush to canvas. He would carry a long, unused brush, a sketchpad, pencils and pens wherever he went, just in case inspiration seized him.

Penchant for Cinema

Husain and Tabu on the sets of <i>Meenakshi: A Tale of 3 Cities.&nbsp;</i>
Husain and Tabu on the sets of Meenakshi: A Tale of 3 Cities. 

Few know that MF Husain longed to launch his next film after his features Gaja Gamini (sparked by his undiminished regard for Madhuri Dixit) and Meenaxi: A Tale of 3 Cities (with Tabu portraying an elusive muse).

Quite unusually, the artist felt that cinema was the most ‘complete’ form of art.

In the course of interviewing him for his official biography in English, he would be disturbed if I didn’t quiz him about his half-requited love for cinema. “Do you think I can’t make films?” he would huff, whenever I wanted to know more about his artwork than his feature films or his Berlin Festival’s Golden Bear award-winning documentary Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967). He’d mumble, “Am I not good enough for the critics? Will I have to return to Berlin to be appreciated?”

Husain with his friends and Khalid Mohamed&nbsp;(centre) in Royal China, London.&nbsp;
Husain with his friends and Khalid Mohamed (centre) in Royal China, London. 

Lucklessly for me, the biography remains incomplete, a teetering pile of recorded interviews and pads with hieroglyphic-like notes. What also remains unfulfilled is Husain’s wish to kick off his next film, revolving around a working women’s hostel supervised by a Fuhrer-like warden. He contemplated casting Urmila Matondkar in the lead, and stage actress Nadira Zaheer Babbar as the hostel’s dictator.

While Madhuri Dixit remained his abiding muse, he would be suddenly impressed by a performance by Amrita Rao, Vidya Balan and Anushka Sharma. Amrita Rao, who enacted the demure heroine of Vivaah, dropped by to visit Husain in Dubai. Despite his invitations for portrait sittings to Vidya Balan and Anushka Sharma – air tickets and hotel stay paid for – they couldn’t make it. Perhaps that would have been politically incorrect.

Film-Centric Projects

Husain with Gulzar (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)
Husain with Gulzar (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

Unbeknownst to many, MF Husain had, at one point, initiated a plan to photograph film personalities of Bollywood, starting off with a portrait of Gulzar. Dissatisfied with the SLR camera clicks after an evening with Gulzar, he abandoned the project. His photographs of the posters and hoardings of Tamil films in Chennai, however, can be seen in a rare catalogue.

Another film-centric project, a history of Indian cinema from Dadasaheb Phalke to the Khans, which he commenced for Yash Chopra, almost reached the point of completion.

His oeuvre also contains short films of the sights and sounds which struck him during his wanderings through the towns and hamlets of India. At his own cost, he produced a DVD titled Jugalbandi, an account of him painting to the tune of Bhimsen Joshi’s music.

An indefatigable filmgoer, Husain would whip up sketches and drawings on any film which impressed him, like Slumdog Millionaire.

Artwork of <i>Slumdog Millionaire</i> done by Husain.
Artwork of Slumdog Millionaire done by Husain.

A Story Untold

The artist who started off as a painter of film hoardings would describe Miss Gulab from the silent era, Sulochana Ruby Myers and Naseem Bano as his dream girls.

During his years of struggle, attempts to find employment as a film-set designer were in vain. He was shown the door by Naseem Bano’s husband, producer Ahsan Miyan, as well as the movie mogul AR Kardar.

Throughout his life, MF Husain’s refrain was that he loved the movies. Infallibly, he gifted sketches and artworks to Bollywoodians, as he did to the cafes and restaurants he frequented in Mumbai, Hyderabad or Delhi.

Perhaps, his complete story can never be told. For sure though, his 100th birthday was reason enough for the art community as well as moviewallas to remember MF Husain with flashbacks, which he deserves. Silence is not enough.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)

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