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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 26, June 18, 2011

M.F. Husain: What was his Fault if he Loved his Traditions?

Monday 20 June 2011




Everyone departs, few leave footprints, very few cause a vacuum. The legend of Indian art is gone. Hard to believe, for he had miles to paint—his series on cinema, on Indian civilisation, innumerable images in his young mind, heart and body waited to be painted by his long restless fingers. He who once painted hoardings for a living in a hard urban metropolis, carrying the innocence of his native village with its Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb, of camaraderie between Hindu and Muslim cultures, began to paint in the sixties the two myths he loved, Ramayana and Mahabharata, which he not only painted but also travelled with in bullock carts to many villages for whom modern art was a strange animal, but these myths were not.

Those who attacked him a few decades later are unaware of this beautiful and selfless zeal of his. There was not a truer and more patriotic Indian artist. He was a large-scale painter and muralist, and painted and lived kingsize, but was forever a fakir, a barefooted Sufi clinging fondly to his long brush as he brushed shoulders with diamond-studded women, talking of Michelangelo, as much as with his favourite chaiwallah on Grant Road where I, too, sat and sipped tea in a chipped porcelain cup with the great Master.

I was so much in awe of him that I did not dare introduce myself in 1974 when he selected three of my works for an advertised group show in Shridharani Gallery. There were hardly any galleries, buyers or media for art then, so every little step mattered. I got a scholarship for Advance Course in Painting at St Martins College of Art, London, in 1979, and experienced for the first time the pain of separation from my country and family. I returned in two months. Shamshad Husain had got a scholarship in Royal College, London, that year. But how could I tell the Master’s son, now a dear friend, that an unknown Indian painter was dying of homesickness on alien soil? I came back and went to Mumbai for my first solo in 1980, the Mecca for artists (which Delhi is now). Artists from Calcutta and South also found welcoming galleries, Parsi collectors in Mumbai.

Husain bought my first painting, Custodians of the Law, and sent his gallerist Kali Pundole to pay me. Kali bought four large works. Kekoo Gandhi and Arun Sachdev followed, so did Godrej, Dubash and Nicholson. I came back empty-handed and overwhelmed. Other young painters had also benefited from his understated generosity. But it was not a painting that was dumped somewhere. Ten years ago, I saw it hanging in his museum in Bangalore among the Tyeb Mehta and Ram Kumar he had acquired.

When I speak of home-sickness in London I can imagine, but not accept, the huge pain his exile in the last years of his life must have inflicted on an Indian who so deeply loved his Bharat Mata. The Z security enjoyed by even criminal politicians could not be provided to the icon of Indian art, forcing him away from the colours of Holi and the ghats of Varanasi that he loved and painted.

His nudes, after all, were the legacy of Khajuraho that he visited and revisited and drew from, not the production of some perverse mind. What was his fault if he loved his traditions so much and wanted to incorporate them in his work? No political party could ensure him and his art the peaceful creativity he longed for in his last years. A handful of us spoke when we could, but we were a very small voice, after all. We drove him out, can only mourn his loss now, and try to fathom his pain of exile from the land he madly loved and furiously painted in his large canvasses throbbing with life and love of life.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

Arapana Caur is a well-known artist.

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