“Kitnaa hai badnaseeb Zafar dafan ke liye Do gaz zamiin bhii naa milii kue-yaar mein…”
(How unfortunate is Zafar… he was not granted even two yards for his burial in the land of his beloved)
During the last years of his life, legendary painter Maqbool Fida Husain may have identified with the pathos of these lines, written by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor to rule India. After the revolt of 1857, the poet king wrote this verse, while exiled in Burma. In 2005, India’s most celebrated artist chose self-exile, when court cases and protests against him from extremist groups questioned the manner in which he painted Hindu goddesses.
He chose to live in Dubai and finally died in frosty London away from the warmth of his beloved country. For Husain, who once wrote about his feet, “Yeh bahut chalein hai, bahut daude hain, magar kabhi bhaage nahin (they walked a lot, ran as much, but never fled),” there couldn’t have been a greater irony. And it was this ‘feeling of grave injustice’ meted out to her mentor and close friend by her countrymen, which inspired well-known painter/writer Ila Pal to pen Husain: Portrait Of An Artist.
Having shared a relationship with Husain that spanned five decades, Ila deeply understood his sense and sensibilities. “The nudity in his paintings of goddesses was not about nakedness; it was about innocence and purity. We didn’t do justice to an artist of his calibre,” she laments. Ila insists that Husain was a Sufi soul. “He was as much a Hindu as a Muslim. He never differentiated between faiths. Before beginning a painting, he’d draw a Ganesh,” she says adding, “Painting was like ibadat (prayer) for him!” She reveals in the book that Husain’s reverence for the Ramayana could be traced back to his childhood. “He had a Hindu friend. He’d sit with him in temples and listen to the Ramayana. Even as an adult, he listened to the Ramayana of both Tulsidas and Valmiki,” she says. Ila recalls an incident where Puri Shankaracharya visited Husain’s exhibition in Hyderabad, inspired by the Ramayana in the ’70s. “Puriji remarked, ‘Husain, all your samskaras (rites) are Hindu!’” says Ila. “Husain saab listened to the Ramayana before painting it. Who has cared to do this? You accuse such a person of painting nudes for commercial purposes?” she asks.
My guru, My friend
A young Ila, first saw Husain in the doorway of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in 1955. While the rain lashed its wrath outside, Husain vented his creative fury onto the canvas. “Oblivious of me, he continued painting for an hour,” she recalls. Six years later, in 1961, she met the celebrity painter at his studio at Bhulabhai Desai Institute. She recalls him as ‘the tall wiry man, with a salt-and-pepper-beard’. It was the beginning of a journey together, between a student and a master, which evolved to a close friendship. Ila has written five books out of which two are on the iconic painter. The two books that Pal wrote on Husain are separated by 23 years. When he was almost 80, Ila wrote the first book Beyond The Canvas: An Unfinished Portrait of M.F. Husain. The second book has her observations of him and also the conversations they shared. “He was my muse. He shaped my life, my attitude. I’ve not seen anyone paint like him, live like him,” she says. “I’d try to get close to his mastery. If I saw him getting up at 5am and beginning to paint, I’d want to match that. Only to find him getting up at 3am the next day. He considered himself a student all through his life,” she says.
She recalls the time when as a 23-year-old, she accompanied a 46-year-old Husain on a month-long sketching trip to Rajasthan. “We hired a car and would go sketching together. Suddenly, one day, he threw his sketch book in the car and walked away. I feared that disappointed with my drawing, he had walked away in disgust. He returned after a long time. I asked him, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘Look at your sketch! So much freshness. Look at mine, fatichar!’ Which artist of his stature would talk like that? Imagine the humility and graciousness!” she remarks. Moreover, Husain dismissed the term ‘guru’. “Every new painting is an assertion of one’s individuality, of one’s breaking away from the past and from the masters,” he once told Ila. “The boldness, the radical thought that you see in my paintings is from Husain saab,” she maintains.
She credits her late husband, Devain Pal, for allowing her to bloom under Husain’s influence. “I travelled with Husain saab for months. It’s not that my husband and I didn’t have fights over this. But it never reached a point where it got out of hand. Also, Devain realised that Husain saab was fascinated with me as an artist, not as a person. Even my children – Anuradha (Pal) and Ashish (Pal) loved him,” she says. She confides that anyone would want to be considered as his close friend. “But to assume that I was his only friend would be a folly,” she says. “Yet, I could criticise him openly. He shared his life, his loves, his thoughts with me. I missed him and would be angry when he ran off as he often did. And I showed it. But he dismissed such things,” she smiles.
FIDA OVER FILMS
Another thing Husain was crazy about, apart from painting, was cinema. In fact, he began his career by painting film hoardings. Early in his career he made the 15-minute film Through The Eyes Of A Painter (fetched the 1st prize, in The Golden Bear Film Festival in Berlin, 1967). And like most of his generation he was fascinated by Meena Kumari. “Once we went to watch Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). So mesmerised were we by Meena Kumari that we bought the tickets for the next show and then the next… deewanon ki tarah!” recalls Ila. She recollects an incident when Husain happened to meet Meena Kumari, while she was recuperating in hospital. As also mentioned in her book, Ila says, “Her eyes subtly shaded with kohl, her long hair loose… she (Meena Kumari) looked beautiful. She offered him paan from her silver paandaan. Husain saab was left speechless.” Later, when Ila asked him why he seemed flabbergasted, he replied, “Kambakht ne is andaz se meri taraf dekha, meri toh zaban hi kat gayi.”
Through the years Husain had many favourites from Mumtaz, Smita Patil, Sridevi… “Being an artist, the body beautiful mattered to him. He liked well-endowed and curvaceous women. That was his idea of beauty. Like all men, he liked sexy women. Yet, he was understated about everything, which was beautiful. Even in his poetry, nothing is obvious,” says Ila. On a lighter note she adds, “He was someone who always wanted to be in love. Once he came home looking off colour. I remarked, ‘Ukhde ukhde lag rahe ho!’ He replied, ‘Mazaa hi nahin aaraha hai.” I said, “Bardasht karlo! You will find someone’,” she laughs.
However, she insists that nothing could supersede his obsession for Madhuri Dixit. “The first time he had walked out of Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994) within 20 minutes. But when he watched it for the second time, he was entranced by Madhuri’s movements in Didi tera devar deewana – when she takes a few steps with her back to the camera. In her he found the tribhangi (the three bends in the female form), which Indian sculptures glorify,” says Ila.
Soon after, one morning Husain came to Ila’s house with the script of Gaja Gamini (2000). “I didn’t like it. His nostrils began to flare. He was sarcastic and said, ‘You only like sentimental stuff!’” narrates Ila. The next morning, he came with
a revised version. “I said, ‘It’s beautiful!’ He was embarrassed and changed the topic saying, ‘What are you giving me for breakfast?’ And went on to have his usual fried eggs,” smiles Ila.
She maintains that the actress tackled his obsession with dignity. “Everyone enjoys the attention of a famous person. There are no two ways about it. It was flattering all the way for her. And being a showman, he understood the value of being in the spotlight with her. But his nonsensical exposure lowered him in eyes of people. Somehow, it was annoying. I told him so. But he didn’t care,” she remarks. As an afterthought she adds, “Thankfully, his obsession, ended after her marriage.”
After Gaja Gamini, a cinematic essay on Indian womanhood, Husain went on to make Meenaxi:
A Tale of Three Cities in 2004, starring Tabu and Kunal Kapoor. It centred on an unconventional muse and was shot in Hyderabad, Jaisalmer and Prague. “I thought well of his films. People didn’t understand them though. They were like a series of beautiful paintings,” says Ila.
Courting controversiesFrom the ’90s onwards, Husain put Indian art on the global platform – brandishing his brush and brand with flamboyance. But, someone who was known to enjoy the sunrise in one continent and sunset in the other, he was grounded by controversies and court cases. Dejected, he left India in 2005. He lived in Dubai for most of the time. Ila’s last meeting with him was in 2010. Husain passed away on June 9, 2011 at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. “I couldn’t believe he had passed away. I was shocked. He always gave you the feeling that he would live forever,” she says. Husain had once mentioned to Ila that when in London, he’d mingle with the Indian taxi drivers there. “He missed India terribly. He’d say, ‘I talk to them to get a feel of India. No one can take India away from me!’ He may have said that in jest. But what does that mean? The poignancy can’t be missed,” she points out. “He felt sad when his artist friends didn’t understand his work. Rivalry never bothered him. Lack of understanding did. This book is a tribute to him but with a lot of angst. We took away from ourselves an artist of such stature. His death has left me with a lot of anger for the way Indians treated him. They just let him die… It was horrible,” she sighs.
But someone whose paintings leap back and forth in time to convey eternal truths, Husain will live on in the colours and contours he has left behind. Let History Cut Across Me Without Me, a book he created of his paintings, could well be his challenge to the world that abandoned him.
ABOUT M F HUSAIN
· Maqbool Fida Husain was born on September 17, 1915 in Pandharpur, Maharashtra to Zunaib and Fida Husain, who hailed from a Bohra family. He lost his mother when he was a very young child.
· He moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1935 with the dream of becoming an artist. His initial years were difficult. He managed to get a job of painting billboards and posters for Bollywood movies. During this time, he also worked for a toy company designing and building toys.
· He held his first serious exhibition in 1947 at the Bombay Art Society. India gained independence in August the same year, and the partition of India and Pakistan had a profound impact on his career.
· During that time, a group of young artists, including Husain, wanted to encourage the development of Indian avant-garde art and popularise Indian art on the international scenario. The political chaos and violence following the independence of India proved to the catalyst that led to the forming The Progressive Artist’s Group in Bombay in December, 1947.
· Some of the major themes he painted on were related to prominent personalities like mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. He drew inspiration from Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Paintings of Indian urban and rural life were also recurring motifs.
· During the early 1950s he went to Europe for the first time and did a barefoot grand tour. He also held his first solo exhibition in Zurich. While in Europe he met other famous painters such as Picasso, Matisse and Paul Klee. He ventured into filmmaking and made his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter, in 1967, which was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival.
· Some of the major works he painted are Vishwamitra (1973) and Passage Through Human Space, a series of 45 watercolors, which he completed in the mid-1970s.
· In 2006, he was charged with ‘hurting sentiments of people’ because of his nude portraits of Hindu deities. He left India and went on a self-imposed exile.
· After leaving India, he spent his later years mainly in London and in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He had a strong desire to return to India but could not do so. He was offered citizenship by Qatar in 2010 which he accepted.
· He died on 9 June 2011, in London, England. He was 95.