I do not know whether to mourn or celebrate M.F. Husain’s passage to the next space he has occupied as an eternal wanderer and the creator of unique images for humankind. I met him in Hong Kong in 1988 surrounded by a 100 children aged three to seven in a hall splashing colours on a 24 feet long canvass. I became immersed in the laughter and myriad coloured strokes that the grand master was creating completely down on his knees as a humble ‘learner’. He loved the Thadanis as they loved him, indulging him in a spin around the island on their red Ferrari, a thrill he could never say ‘no’ to. I wondered why the barefoot Greco like figure with very frugal disciplined food and drink intake had this passion for cars!
The puzzles began to fit in place as he sat in my kitchen sharing his life’s story in chaste Urdu almost as a compulsion to remind himself again and again about who he was, his origins and struggles. He deliberately shared all his experiences and emotions like an open book and we felt so honoured to be part of his ‘inner circle’. He shared his profound acknowledgment of his mother’s love, his first pain, his first deprivation, his first liberation, his first film hoarding; all firsts where the expression through art reigned supreme, irrespective of which class he belonged to in his life span. The class was not important, the feelings were and the search for the ultimate multimedia expression that Husain revelled in absolutely. He made it clear that if we wanted to befriend him we all had to become fellow travellers in ‘his journey’, where filmmaking, great film makers Kurosawa/Ray/Bunuell, theatre, great artists, actors, poets, musicians including Mozart, the ordinary people and their lives struggles all fused in one genre—or the Husain genre of art.
He created his unique frames through enquiry that was always inspired by the ordinary/extraordinary people on the streets at different times of the day, backed by plenty of well-researched knowledge. He always preferred his morning strolls very early at five or six am with his sketch pad often in his night clothes and always alone and barefoot. He said, “Baela, I need to mingle with the people unobtrusively like one of them to be inspired… I want to see my spaces and frames through their eyes, struggles and questions.”
He liked searching for the ‘Grand design’ for his canvasses through ordinary eyes, be it religion, politics, historical symbolism, mother and child, horses, umbrellas, poets and poetry, religious deities, the Raj, Lahore, Calcutta and Paris series are all a part of that pursuit.
To Husain I am indebted as each time I called him to help in worthwhile causes, he was there for me. He never said ‘no’. He was there to feel for the underprivileged children, their absolute right to quality education as he had been one of them himself; the deprivation resonated so loudly within him that he had to come forward in any way he could.
He collaborated with me in two major fundraisers in Hong Kong and Lahore called, ‘Visions in harmony I & II’. Both were multi-sensual events, live painting inspired by live music and poetry. The canvasses would then be auctioned for a dignified price to meet concrete milestones. On both occasions he would never come equipped with artwork, a firm believer in creating the masterpieces on locations and sites and we simply had to believe in this method without panicking about the end products as they were always superb, effortless, evolving and beyond human.
I felt honoured that I was instrumental in bringing him to Lahore in 1990. Since then he always stayed with my father, another unique citizen of South Asia or the world, Raza Kazim. Both got along so well with each other that I was superseded and very quickly relegated to a very ordinary backstage prop. Husain had found a kindred spirit. The two were like boys on the loose, no holds barred, perfectly understanding each other’s expansive boundaries and norms, passion for relationships with abandon.
To Kazim and his causes he dedicated a set of his ‘Paris Series’ silk screens, paintings and unforgettable demonstration and interactions with the students of the Sanjan Nagar Public Education Trust (SNPET) School at the age of 90. A five-year-old child at the school became so fascinated by his swift vibrant strokes, she asked him straight, “Husain Sahib what will you become when you grow up?” Yes, he had that ability to transform and reverse the object and the subject so effortlessly.
When we at Sanjan Nagar asked him his permission to sell the painting and blackboards he worked upon at the school, he said, “Absolutely, that was what they were intended for.”
He could not say ‘no’ to Kazim, for he too shared his torment for being in exile and the legal harassment. How could a soil be denied to him, the dust and its kushboo (scent) which gave him inspiration in the first place? That scent lived in his veins and the last flows of the red blood cells allowing him to pass on with ease to another sphere, another reality at 95 or 99 years of age. Does it matter?
The writer is M.F Husain’s friend and admirer and works as a Director Programmes, ITA, and Managing Trustee, SNPET, Lahore