A first-person account of MF Husain comes as a refreshing reminder of India’s artistic heritage where the artist firmly and unshakeably belongs
Who is Husain? The mercurial Maqbool, India’s most prolific, saleable, and world-renowned artist, reigned on the Indian art scene for over half a century, and was the first to command prices of Rs 5-Rs 10 lakh, but did anyone really know him? The public’s impression about Husain is that he went about barefoot, was obsessed with drawing horses and Mother Teresa, loved film actresses, and painted Hindu goddesses unclothed. The media called him the enfant terrible of the art world, and alternately praised and vilified him. Even the art world deserted him at the end. As recently as in November 2017, a first-time exhibition of all 29 of his Chinese Scroll serigraph series had to be closed down prematurely due to threatening phone calls accusing him of deshdroh (treason)! This happened in Pune, one of India’s top cultural centres.
Yet, even a-decade-and-a-half ago, Husain’s name was synonymous with art in India. He left India in 2005 to pursue projects that he felt he did not have the peace of mind or sponsorship to do here—too many legal and political issues over his goddess paintings, as well as birth identity, left him vulnerable and scared. As he had said, “I have done so many versions of Bharat Mata, the first one was nearly 30 years ago. Why the last one got me into trouble, god knows!” Since he left, Husain has been rarely celebrated in this country. It is in this context that artist Ila Pal’s first-person account of Husain comes as a refreshing reminder of India’s artistic heritage, where Husain firmly and unshakeably belongs.
In narrating little-known stories about the artist as a child and young man in Pandharpur, Indore and Mumbai, Pal gives us charming facets of the budding painter and his very humble origins. An artist who later became known more for his love of, and ability to stay in, the limelight. The book is largely based on Pal’s conversations with Husain about his artistic journey, how he served as the pivot point for the avant-garde movement helmed by the short-lived Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG)—along with his friends FN Souza, SH Raza and Tyeb Mehta—his concept of, and feelings about, India and Indianness. Most of all, the book tries valiantly and earnestly to capture, albeit through a prism, Husain’s erratic excellence and energy as a real person, with his struggles and foibles, indulgences and impetuousness.
Husain “observed life with a child’s abandon and a sage’s wisdom”, writes Pal. She first met Husain when she was 22 years old, so she had a front-seat view to the phenomenon for close to 50 years. This is also her second book on Husain; the first came out 24 years ago and received poor press, so this one benefits from distance and hindsight.
Throughout his lonely six-year-long exile, Husain never gave up on the possibility of returning home; his son has talked about how he desperately wanted to slip back once, maybe just touch the ground and have a cup of tea, and return from the airport. The last wish of an old, spent man, longing to die in peace in his own country, was it too much to ask for? Pal writes how, like a true artist, Husain was acutely aware of the transience of everything, how his body of work was like ‘a burden’ to him: “Two hundred years from now there will be another Husain, and the people… should see his work… Nothing is immortal.” In the end, people just bought Husain, they didn’t even glance at the paintings. Only 15-20% of his 60,000-plus paintings are in the public domain; those who have dismissed his astonishing prolificacy, accusing him of little substance, really had nothing to go on. As Ebrahim Alkazi said: “…for critics he remains an enigma… They have barely been able to categorize one phase of his when he has stormed into another.” Pal’s long friendship with Husain has helped her draw a kind and affectionate portrait of this enigma. Lacking in jargon and spiced with a wealth of undiscovered details and entertaining stories about an untamed, irreverent and phenomenally diverse personality, the book will, no doubt, be of great value to future students of art and art history, apart from Husain aficionados.
The author is a freelance writer