The Master In His Absurd Exile

Over a week spent together in Dubai, MF Husain speaks with unguarded candour about his life, his women, his exile. And his deep love for Hinduism

February 2, 2008 in People
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HUSAIN

ON 19 JANUARY, 2008, the day twenty men with hockey sticks smashed NDTV’s office in Ahmedabad, and beat two of the staff, for running an SMS poll on whether MF Husain should be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the master himself sat quietly on the floor of his home in faraway Dubai, rapt in a sketch of two ceremonial horses — a wedding card for Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s son. A meditative silence enveloped the room, heightened by the rhythmic sound of his sketching pen. Nothing could touch him, immune in his concentration. The sun set outside on a brilliant skyline. The beautiful room acquired a sense of prayer. Husain had just spent hours outlining his love for Hindu philosophy and culture, a life lived in its worship. Eight years spent painting the Ramayana, as many painting the Mahabharata. Hundreds of canvases of Ganesha and Shiva and Parvati and Hanuman, the ragas, the natyas and Benaras. Seventy years spent as “Chobi Das”, a devotee of the image. Seventy years spent roaming the earth, seeking to enrich its understanding of India. And now, they were smashing offices in his name. Declaring him an apostate.

“It is just a moment in history,” says Husain. “Kya kar sakte hain (what can one do)?”

Exile, however, is not a dark experience for the 93-year-old. Not for him the stereotype of the bitter and the hunted. That would be a terrible defeat. His statement is to live in celebration. In Dubai, plush, ordered, but as he says with a laugh, “like a Hollywood set, a façade with nothing behind”, he has bought apartments for each of his children, and two giant 21st century apartments facing a quay for himself. In one, he lives in an affectionate nucleus with his nephew, Fida and his family, and two valets, Hasan and Imraan. The other, he has converted into a “Red Light Museum” — a name designed, he chuckles, “to make people sit up”. Here, exquisite red carpets drape the floor, exquisite red fabrics drape the walls — “a painting in cloth”, someone says appreciatively. Three rooms are dedicated to his art: one room houses 88 canvases from the late 1950s, his Maria Collection — a story in itself; another houses a series of paintings he calls Husain Decoded; the third has a series on Mughal-e-Azam. In between these two apartments, Husain lives his life, in an ever-widening flurry of excitement and action that people a third his age cannot keep up with. Wake at six, sleep at two. Hop into any of his many waiting cars: a Ferrari, a Bentley, a Jaguar, and in September this year, a Bugatti, worth Rs 7 crore. (“People buy sculpture, I buy cars,” Husain laughs. Mischief runs in his blood. “I plan to turn them into an installation.”) “When chacha is at home, there is no time to breathe,” laughs niece Sabiha, Fida’s wife. He has transformed their lives. Movies, caramel popcorn, concerts, guests, projects, lunch everyday at upmarket Noodle Bar, dinner at downmarket Ravi dhaba, tea at a Malabari takeaway — except when he is painting, Husain is in constant, infectious, prodigious motion, his fingers drumming restlessly to an imaginary tabla. One day in Abu Dhabi, the next in Qatar. Each summer in London. He is currently learning Arabic and working on four simultaneous projects: a series of 99 canvases on the Arab Civilisation, commissioned by the Queen of Qatar; a series of similar scale on Indian Civilisation, commissioned by Lakshmi Mittal; a series on the history of Indian cinema; and a series on Mughal-e-Azam. For all this, for all his Kubla Khan-like wealth, he sleeps on a mattress in the drawing room, as he has always done, and everywhere, he travels alone. A man of 93. Fluid, unfaltering, possessed of a mysterious joie de vivre — an embrace of life — that borders almost on the divine.

He is a kind of living history, a national heritage site.

The evening twenty men with hockey sticks smash the NDTV office in Ahmedabad, we go for a concert by Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons. People — Indians — mob Husain as if he is a film star. “Dubai is fortunate to have you,” they reiterate again and again, walking up merely to touch his hand, take a photograph, take an autograph, “You are a legend. We are honoured to have you in our midst.” The sound of the Ustad’s sarod still lingers in the air, his Ganesha vandana a sublime benediction. India’s proud composite culture lives in these men. It is impossible not to feel a lurch thinking of what is happening back in India. Sipping tea later that night in the Malabar restaurant, Husain says reflectively, thinking of events back home, “Ghalib once said in utter frustration, ‘Change the understanding of my listeners, or else, change my voice’.”

 I lost my first child, Shabir, when he was three. I lifted his body out of a gutter. What is loss after that?” 

In Husain’s autobiography, Apni Zubaan Mein there is a fascinating cameo. A little boy is playing with mud, making figures of clay. A young man, Maqbool, comes and paints these in bright colours. No one’s interested. Next MF Husain comes along and signs his name. Suddenly there’s a stampede to buy the figures. “All three are me,” he says. “But ‘brand MF Husain’ was a very deliberate creation on my part. I wanted to raise the price of art. I wanted to raise awareness of it. It was like a mission for me.” This brand — a phenomenon people both love and accuse of gross commercialisation, a phenomenon that did, however, make Indian art world famous — began with Husain arbitrarily raising his price from Rs 40,000 to 1 lakh a canvas at a Christie’s sale in the early 90s. Suicide, everyone muttered. But Husain won. The canvas went for 5 lakh. Next, he priced himself at six. He went for 10. And then, audaciously, at one crore. To pull that off, he plotted hard. He got Citibank to sponsor his show and invite a super select audience. He then went about creating a spectacle: he mounted his canvases at ceiling height, and had them rolled down to live music, supported by dance troupes. Earlier, he similarly “orchestrated” a show with Madhuri Dixit, choosing the Living Media group as partner for “maximum splash”. “I asked Madhuri to partner me in my mission to make Indian art famous,” he says. “We had a painted white horse at the she ow, we came deliberately late in a limousine. People loved the tamasha.” (Husain hasn’t lost his acumen for spectacle, part mischievous, part shrewd. At an opening i Dubai, he recently planned to get out of his luxury car with two young women under his arms, as supports for an old man. A nod to Gandhi from 21st century India. “I’ll make sure they are blonde though,” Husain laughs. “That will make everyone sit up and notice!”)

“I saved myself through all that though ,” Husain laughs, with endearing self-awareness, “I became MF Husain, but I retained both the boy and the artist, Maqbool within me. Without Maqbool, MF Husain would not have lasted.”

Hussain4Perhaps it is this refracted self that preserves Husain. Maqbool might feel the frustration of Ghalib — “change the understanding of my listeners, or else, change my voice” — but brand Husain, the dramatic, flamboyant persona, associated more with the pursuit of wealth than the work, will never admit to a sense of betrayal in finding himself, at 93, hounded out of the country he has loved and promoted for close to a century. Perhaps he feels it is for others to intuit and correct the disgrace of such a situation. “Why is there no anguish, no political statement in Husain’s work?” asks Anwar Siddiqi, a close friend and admirer of Husain. “Why is he not painting his Guernica?” “I really feel no bitterness,” Husain responds. “My life’s work is my statement. I reached my peak as an artist in the late 1950s. All my other work is a manifestation of that. I do not feel called to make any other statement. When my wife, Fazila’s brother went over to Pakistan during Partition, I forbade any correspondence between them for decades. I have always been very nationalistic, but I have no attachment to places. It is a mother’s love that creates a sense of home, ties one down. Since I lost my mother when I was one-and-a-half, I have never known such attachment. I lost my first child, Shabir, when he was three. I lifted his body out of a gutter. What is loss after that?” There is a kind of wisdom in his stance; a courage merely in relocating and reconstructing a life so lavishly at his age. He makes it look easy, so it is easy to mistake it for something shallow. Lesser men would have been far more querulous.

Yet, cast even a cursory eye over the span of Husain’s prodigious life, and the sad absurdity of his exile comes through with unnerving force. Here is a man who has borne witness — enshrined — every facet of Indian life for close to a century. By 1955, he was one of India’s leading artists and had been awarded the Padma Shri. By 1971, he was being invited to Sao Paulo Biennial with Pablo Picasso. He was Rajya Sabha Member in 1986. And these are merely surface things: cast your eye over the work: more than 10,000 paintings in celebration of India, and the absurdities gather greater and greater force. MF Husain is a kind of living history, a national heritage site. And what do we do? We drive him out.

BACK IN INDIA after three days spent with Husain, a phone call to Dr Ram Pratap Singh, an endocrinologist at Apollo Hospital and a petitioner against Husain in the Delhi High Court, jolts like an electric shock. There is no space for discussion here. Dr Singh is an angry man. He takes off like a rocket: “I know the sort of people you are,” he barks at me. “You are pseudo-Hindus! Who do you think you are to question us? You are just abusing us all the time.”

“Which ‘us’ are you talking about, Dr Singh?” I say. “I am also a Hindu. It is fine if you disagree with Husain, but you are an educated man so I just want to ask if you condone breaking offices and burning paintings and galleries. And do you not know of the tradition of Tantric art and sexual love in depictions of Krishna, Radha, Shiva and Parvati, not to mention…” I am not allowed to finish my sentence.

“You are calling me an educated man?! You are always abusing us, eh, who are you to question me? I will not answer you about Tantra or anything. Why can’t you live respectfully with us? You are just one percent of this country, remember that! We will do to you the same thing…”

Raging Dr Singh’s petition is one of seven cases against Husain that his lawyer Akhil Sibal knows of. All of these are now consolidated in the Delhi High Court, and Sibal says,“There are now no coercive orders by any court to my knowledge. But often, we get to know of these only through the media.” Husain had left India for good in 2006, when an increasingly violent right-wing mood had precipitated a non-bailable arrest warrant against him by a Haridwar court, directing the attachment of all his properties in India. Though the Supreme Court stayed the order, the past year alone has seen several incidents of violence against Husain and his work. An exhibition at Asia House, London, was stalled and vandalised by a Hindu right wing group in 2006. Ditto for the Peabody Essex Museum in the US, which was exhibiting his Mahabharata series, Epic India. The same show was broken into at the India International Centre in Delhi, late last year, while the Raja Ravi Varma award from the Kerala government was withdrawn under pressure. ABN Amro Bank too was forced to withdraw his artwork from its platinum credit card in May 2007. In a frightening but farcical twist, a self-styled Hindu Personal Law Board (sic) based in Lucknow put out a bounty of Rs 51 crore for his head, Rs 11 lakh for his eyes and one kilo of gold for his hands. The attack on the NDTV office is only the latest in the line.

If one were to speak in Dr Ram Pratap Singh’s language, these rabid defenders of faith do not comprise even a decimal percent of India’s population, and is by no means a spontaneous overflow of emotion. The Gujarat incident, for instance, was led by Ashok Sharma, an unemployed malcontent expelled from the Bajrang Dal, eager to make himself some name. “Mere riff-raff,” Joint Police Commissioner, Ahmedabad, Satish Sharma, calls him. On the Internet, it is a virulent and well-designed campaign but, despite this, only 20-odd people show up at any street incident. The pity is, this decimal percent — intolerant, disinterested in dialogue, brazen violators of law — has come to dictate our public life. And no arrests have been made in any of these incidents, though as Sibal says, the State, courts and police have not only the power but an obligation to intervene when any violation of law and order is brought to their knowledge. Ask Arun Jaitley of the BJP for views on this and he says he is on a self-imposed embargo on the media. Ask Abhishek Singhvi of the Congress, and you only get the workaday line: There’s no doubting Husain’s eminence, but India is a democratic country and everyone has the right to protest and dissent. He should not be harassed etc. But what about the violence on the street, you ask. If the miscreants can be found, he says, of course they must be arrested, but law and order is a State subject.

In being the most high profile of its kind, Husain’s case, in a sense, has become a litmus test for the country. Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Mridula Garg, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, Deepa Mehta… the list of artists and writers vandalised by intolerant Hindu, and Muslim, fringes runs painfully long. Artists censored not by dialogue but by coercion. TEHELKA itself is facing a criminal case in Bombay for publishing photographs of nude women by reputed photographer Raghu Rai. Every time the hearing comes up, the editor-in-chief has to appear in court to take bail.

Four big civilisational questions underlie all these cases. What is the definition of “obscenity”? What is the threshold of “religious sentiment” — today an easily hurt thing — that should not be crossed? What is the role of the writer and artist in society? And, how will we conduct our dissent in a civilised society?

MF Husain came most vigorously into the line of fire in 2006, when an untitled painting, a depiction of the country as a naked woman — to a reasonable eye an inspired and beautiful work — was auctioned by Sharon Apparao’s Saffronart. Some Hindu groups took great umbrage to this. As Ravi Varma, who stalled Husain’s Kerala award, says grand iosely, “This work is deliberately calculated to hurt the time-honoured religious feelings of more than 800 millions of Hindus, in majority in India, and millions of Hindus abroad…” Pointless to ask him how he can speak for such vast numbers. Pointless also to point out to him that, as Sibal says, “Bharat Mata is not the preserve of any community. It is an anthropomorphic concept of nation. And by the law, Varma’s allegations themselves are divisive and communal.”

HUSAIN’S OTHER work, which gets the conservatives in a twist, is a Saraswati painted way back in ’88, sold privately, and published only in a limited edition of a book produced by Tata Steel. Again, it is a line drawing, well within “timehonoured” (sic) traditions of Hindu iconography, and not even a quarter as sensuous or voluptuous. But even if you were to put that aside for a minute, its publication details are significant because one of the crucial questions in any consideration of obscenity is: how public was the act? In Husain’s case — in the case of any artist — they are not thrusting their work on you, they are not splashing their work on giant hoardings that you must look at every day on your way to work, they are not leaving you in a choiceless universe. Common sense would say, if you don’t like their work, don’t look at it. Don’t go togallery, don’t buy book. Publish scathing counter articles in some sympathetic media. That would be a civilised response. Of their many functions, one of the most crucial roles an artist or writer plays in society is to push the boundaries of perception. If they are to be tied to the lowest mean, the most conservative bone, all artistic enterprise might as well stop. Hearteningly, what is little known is that in the past, the Supreme Court has been fairly nuanced in its considerations of what constitutes“obscenity” in public life. In several seminal cases like the Ranjit D. Udeshi vs State of Maharashtra (1965), Ajay Gosw ami vs Union of India (2005), Samaresh Bose vs Amal Mitra (1985), the court has ruled that sex and nudity in art, per se, cannot be deemed obscene. Nor does the merely vulgar equal the obscene. Only if there is an intention to deprave and corrupt, or arouse the lascivious and prurient instincts of the viewer can something be deemed obscene. Further, the Court has ruled that it will not use the“standard of a hypersensitive person” in defining what is obscene. Intention counts for much. Given this, the cases against Husain can never stand in court.

Barely three paintings, out of a body of over 10,000 canvases, are in dispute. Did he mean to insult? On the contrary, the entire body of his work has been a testimony of devotion. As art historian, Alka Pande says, “Husain is a true master. His draughtsmanship, the scale of his work, his self-learned gift — all of this is incomparable. As for the erotic, it has always been part of our philosophical and aesthetic culture. Husain has lived and breathed in this land. His art is a product of that. The opposition to him is a disgrace.” Such testimonies are piled pyramid-high outside Husain’s door, but they count for little until someone is willing to take on the battle. Arrest law-breakers. File a public interest litigation. Insist on civilised dialogue.
Husain himself will not speak. He lives by a dictum. “Never explain. Never complain.” Disraeli’s advice to Queen Victoria. In the meantime, the empty canvas above his bed beckons.

And the late dinner at Ravi’s.


‘In Hindu culture, nudity is a metaphor for purity’

Maqbool Fida Husain tells Shoma Chaudhury why his faith in India’s secular and tolerant traditions remains undiminished

Husain saheb, what do you feel about the fundamentalist attacks against you?
I’m not really perturbed by all this. India is a democracy, everyone is entitled to their views. I only wish people would air their views through debate rather than violence.The media comes to me looking — almost hoping — for strong statements, but I am actually very optimistic about India. I see this as just a moment in time. For 5,000 years, our work has been going on with such force, this is just a minor hiccough. I am certain the younger generation will get fed up of the fundamentalist, conservative mood in the country and change things. I didn’t want to leave my home. At the same time, it’s not even as if I want the conservative element to be pushed out of society. We are all part of a large family and when a child breaks something at home, you don’t throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai. (This is a family matter.) Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it.

Why don’t you come back to India and take on the fight?
As things stand, I cannot come back. No one has exiled me; I cameaway myself because I am an old man and vulnerable to physical danger. It’s not just the cases. If I came back, given the mood they have created, someone could just push or assault me on the street, and I would not be able to defend myself. The only way I can come back to India, perhaps, is if the BJP comes to power at the Centre. Or maybe, Mayawati. This government has no spine. Their hands are tied. They think if they speak out or take action, they will be accused of appeasement. The irony is, out of power, the BJP uses issues like this to fan its votebank. In power, they would probably control their extreme brigades to look respectable and secular! (laughs) These are the ironies of India. Actually, it is for the courts to sort this out. The allegation that my work is obscene or hurts religious sentiment can never stand merit in a court. Perhaps, if someone filed a counter public interest litigation… It is not my place to do so.

Why did you apologise for your art? You know more about Hindu iconography and the shastras than the goons who deface your work.
Never. I have never apologised for my art. I stand by it totally. What I said was that I have painted my canvases — including those of gods and goddesses— with deep love and conviction, and in celebration. If in doing that, I have hurt anyone’s feelings, I am sorry. That is all. I do not love art less, I love humanity more. India is a completely unique country. Liberal. Diverse. There is nothing like it in the world. This mood in the country is just a historical process. For me, India means a celebration of life. You cannot find that same quality anywhere in the world.

Could you talk about how your exposure and love for Hindu iconography and culture began.
As a child, in Pandharpur, and later, Indore, I was enchanted by the Ram Lila. My friend, Mankeshwar, and I were always acting it out. The Ramayana is such a rich, powerful story, as Dr Rajagopalachari says, its myth has become a reality. But I really began to study spiritual texts when I was 19. Because of what I had been through, because I lost my mother, because I was sent away, I used to have terrible nightmares when I was about 14 or 15. All of this stopped when I was 19. I had a guru called Mohammad Ishaq— I studied the holy texts with him for two years. I also read and discussed the Gita and Upanishads and Puranas with Mankeshwar, who had become an ascetic by then. After he left for the Himalayas, I carried on studying for years afterwards. All this made me completely calm. I have never had dreams or nightmares ever again. Later, in Hyderabad, in 1968, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia suggested I paint the Ramayana. I was completely broke, but I painted 150 canvases over eight years. I read both the Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana (the first is much more sensual) and invited priests from Benaras to clarify and discuss the nuances with me. When I was doing this, some conservative Muslims told me, why don’t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen. I’ve painted hundreds of Ganeshas in my lifetime — it is such a delightful form. I always paint a Ganesha before I begin on any large work. I also love the iconography of Shiva. The Nataraj — one of the most complex forms in the world — has evolved over thousands of years and, almost like an Einstein equation, it is the result of deep philosophical and mathematical calculations about the nature of the cosmos and physical reality. When my daughter, Raeesa wanted to get married, she did not want any ceremonies, so I drew a card announcing her marriage and sent it to relatives across the world. On the card, I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to? I come from the Suleimani community, a sub-sect of the Shias, and we have many affinities with Hindus, including the idea of reincarnation. As cultures, it is Judaism and Christianity that are emotionally more distant. But it is impossible to discuss all this with those who oppose me. Talk to them about Khajuraho, they will tell you its sculpture was built to encourage population growth and has outgrown its utility! (laughs) It is people in the villages who understand the sensual, living, evolving nature of Hindu gods. They just put orange paint on a rock, and it comes to stand for Hanuman.

In what terms would you like your paintings to be spoken of and remembered?
I never wanted to be clever, esoteric, abstract. I wanted to make simple statements. I wanted my canvases to have a story. I wanted my art to talk to people. In 1948, I exhibited my work publicly for the first time in the Bombay Arts Society show. I had already been painting and practising for years. Now in those paintings, I took the classical images of the Gupta bronzes — the tribhanga form; the sensuous and erotic colours of Pahari paintings — its deep maroons, blacks, haldi; and the nine rasas. I wanted my format to be classical, yet retain the innocence of the folk. Souza came and asked me excitedly, from where have you got this? I didn’t tell him, I said, you go search it. This is what lies at the heart of the artistic enterprise.
It is in picking from what has gone before. In India, there have been so many high periods — Tanjore, Chola, Gupta… Centuries of seeing lie behind that. You cannot reinvent the wheel — your individuality, your creative eye lies in what you pick. The other thing is to find one’s own rhythm and calculation: Where exactly do you place a line on an empty canvas? Where exactly do you place the dot? How much yellow should I use, how much red. If I use 1mm of red, should the blue be a half millimeter or more? An artist’s voice lies in this calculation, this maths. To find your style and language takes 60-70 years of continuous work.

Which among your paintings do you consider the most significant, your equivalent of Picasso’s Guernica?
‘Between the Spider and the Lamp’ (1956). I feel happy with the structure of that grouping — there is a kind of mystery about what the five women are talking about. Stories perhaps even unknown to themselves. There is something in the precarious way the woman is holding the spider on a delicate thread. A fear. I rarely draw eyes, I don’t want to use eyes because to give someone eyes is to define and identify the person. I prefer to make the body expressive. To understand hand expression, I had observed Rodin’s sculptures — ‘Men of Calais’. To that I brought a knowledge of classical mudras. So much is made of culture and tradition in India, yet 60 years after Independence, art students are still made to study the body from Greek art. Dr Kumaraswamy does not even find mention. In colleges, you learn about Shakespeare and Keats, Kalidas does not find mention. This is why there is no pehchan (understanding or awareness) in India, no recognition of what is Indian. Things are so farcical that years ago when the Benaras Hindu University honoured Subbulakshmi, JRD Tata, Mother Teresa and me, we were given red caps and cloaks! (laughs) This was the seat of Hindu learning! The custodian of Bharatiya sanskriti!

Is there anything that you find obscene in the world?

Bad behaviour. That is all.

Also Read: On MF Husain’s death. And unfinished relationships

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