In 1994, M F Husain’s film connection took another turn. That year Husain announced the best actress Filmfare award for Madhuri Dixit. He had never seen or met her before and did not for another year. Somebody later forced him to watch Dixit dance in Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun which was still playing in theatres. He went to the movie and then kept returning to watch her.
Maqbool Fida Husain is not, was not, Picasso of India. He was M F Husain of the World — a unique maestro, influential and limitless. He made the world richer, brighter, lovelier and more meaningful with a huge body of work spread all over the globe. It really does not matter how many of his portraits are torn or shredded by bigots in ‘Incredible India’.
Despite meeting him several times and having an almost uncontrollable urge everytime, I could never muster the courage to ask why he walked barefoot. I always felt I would be infringing upon something extremely personal. Some said he did that for attention but it sounded ludicrous. For someone like Husain, who could make colours sing, dance and engage the viewer in a fascinating, charming and witty conversation, bare feet seemed too weak to be an attention-seeking device. But shoes or not, I never saw him without a big brush in his hand.
It was, however, easy for me to ask him why he painted women’s faces without features, especially of women in saris. “My mother died when I was one-and-a-half years old. I cannot recall her face. All I can remember is a sari-clad silhouette,” replied Husain. And this sari-clad figure with a featureless face kept appearing in his paintings be it poet Zehra Nigah’s portrait or Mother Teresa’s.
It was a delightful visual experience to watch Husain paint. Once in a private gathering he did a painting as a gift for Karachi-based fashion designer Bunto Kazmi’s daughter Fizza. After listening intently to a Western classical composition, Husain remained still for few minutes as if to soak up the sound energy. And then his brush sprang into motion. With the speed of lightning it moved and then, as if to wipe off the blandness of the canvas, he began painting vibrant colours. The brush moved like streaks of lightning would through the skies but, instead of destruction, it brought forth a beautiful composition in his signature bold strokes. The energy, the speed, the vibrancy — all left the viewers spellbound.
Husain’s interest in art began at a very early age. Colour entered his life the day he drew sketches on his uncle’s books and created a ruckus. His grandfather declared that no one would ever stop Husain from painting anywhere and got him a colour box. His father encouraged him after he saw his son’s first oil painting inspired by a film poster. In his hometown of Indore, Husain would go to paint landscapes with N S Bendre who later became the dean of fine arts at a university in Baroda. It was on Bendre’s advice that Husain’s father ordered canvases and oil from Mumbai for his son.
Moving images always attracted Husain. In fact, reading his autobiography – M F Husain Ki Kahani, Apni Zubani – feels like watching a film. It was at a very young age in Indore that he made drawings of a farmer and a buffalo cart on paper roll and put them in a cardboard box so that when he pulled the roll the drawings made a moving scene:
Animation at its most basic. He would only get to watch films twice a year whereas his father was an ardent cine-goer and watched silent films every week. One day when his parents left for the movie theatre, Husain followed them and when his father was buying tickets he also showed up at the window. Compelled, his father had to buy a ticket for Husain too. And then life was good.
At the gates of film studios in Mumbai, he was fascinated with “pari chehra” Nasim Bano being driven in and out. One day he painted her and took the work to her husband Ehsaan who was making Ujala. In his own words, Husain looked like “Lord Curzon in a suit” but Ehsaan still sent him away.
Then he painted the set of Emperor Akbar’s court where Anarkali was dancing and showed it to S Mukherjee who was filming Anarkali at Filmalaya Studios. Mukherji used it as the set design for the film but neither paid Husain the promised 75 rupees nor mentioned his name in the credits.
Meanwhile to earn a living, Husain continued painting film divas like Kanan Bala and Durga Khote on giant size film posters and circled around studios for payments. In 1951, Mumbai witnessed a grand renaissance in the arts with the Bhulabhai Desai Centre bringing young artists from different disciplines under one roof. Imagine the creative energy in a place with Waheeda Rehman practicing Bharatanatyam, Husain painting, Ravi Shankar playing the sitar and Ibrahim L A Qazi rehearsing his theatre plays. It was from here that Husain began establishing his authority on the modern Indian art scene. He was a member of the group that included Safdar Hyder Raza and Tyeb Mehta among others, who broke the long-held trance of the Bengal school with their inventive work and bold ideas.
Later when Indira Gandhi became India’s minister of broadcasting and information in the mid-1960s, she decided to promote film art. Husain was selected to make a film titled Through the Eyes of a Painter. Shot in Rajasthan, it was a new experiment and ended up winning a Golden Bear at Berlin.
Husain’s association with cinema led to another very adventurous experience. When in 1956 Roberto Rossellini – invited by prime minister Pandit Nehru – came to India to shoot India ‘56, the Italian film-maker announced he had fallen in love with two people:
Husain and Calcutta’s Sonali Dasgupta who was part of the film project. He saw Husain’s work at the Bhulabhai Desai Centre and bought 15 canvasses. The painter and the film-maker also became good friends — a friendship manifesting Husain’s love and devotion. Rossellini and Dasgupta fell in love and the media got a huge international scandal to chomp on. Husain decided to help the lovers. He brought Dasgupta in a burqa to Delhi in a train with journalists on board but no one had the courage to ask him to unveil his female companion. According to plan, he got off the train at Nizamuddin Station in Delhi from where the couple then left for Italy. Later, he also helped calm the frayed nerves of Rossellini’s wife, actress Ingrid Bergman, who was understandably upset over the affair.
In 1994, his film connection took another turn. That year Husain announced the best actress Filmfare award for Madhuri Dixit. He had never seen or met her before and did not for another year. Somebody later forced him to watch Dixit dance in Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun which was still playing in theatres. He went to the movie and then kept returning to watch her. After having watched her in the movie and having painted her, he finally met Dixit for the first time when she invited him over for tea which extended to lunch the next day. They kept talking.
And then he decided to make Gaja Gamini as a tribute to her. It was in 1999 in London when I met him returning after shooting the film in Paris. He had fractured his right hand in a fall at the time and allowed me to watch an unedited version of the film. It was another visual experience – one long, gorgeous canvas of Husain – this time with dialogue. When I asked him why he was besotted by Dixit, he only said: “No one will ever understand. Madhuri is an embodiment of an Indian woman.”
Probably, it was his passion for the beauty of women and the search for his lost mother that he felt attracted to women from a very early age. Another passion I felt in Husain’s life was for places. Rajasthan, Hyderabad, Prague, Paris, New York… he roamed the world capturing its colours. His third and last film, Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities, gloriously captures his love for places.
Husain’s other quality was his generosity. Once he made 22 paintings and exhibited them at his alma mater in Indore. The paintings were not for sale. At the end of the exhibition, he selected 22 children and gave them a painting each. Similarly, he told me while I was watching Gaja Gamini that he cut the painted sets of the film and distributed them among spot boys and other junior professionals. “I told them to keep the paintings. They can make millions once I die and be rich,” he gleefully said. It was his generosity that made me rich too when he made a sketch for me with his broken hand. And what a lovely sketch!
It is not just the sketch that makes me rich. It was time spent and conversations with him that make me even richer. As Zehra Nigah said when commenting on an Indian television show soon after Husain’s passing: “It is our good luck that we get to meet and have the company of great people, a stroke of sheer luck.” I, too, have been extremely lucky.
The Herald is Pakistan’s premier current affairs magazine published by the Dawn Media Group every month from Karachi.