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: