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Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

Husain’s Magic Wand

The great Indian artist M.F. Husain breathed his last in a London hospital on June 9. Prayaag Akbar remembers a time before his exile, when the barefoot artist could walk freely in the land he loved.

y first memory of M.F. Husain is not of the man himself, but of a story that as a child I delighted in telling every visitor to our home. Whenever any of my parents' friends would come over I would drag them to the room my older sister and I shared and point to a wonderful sketch Husain had made that hung adjacent to our bunk bed. As I was a particularly obnoxious little fellow, it would give me great pleasure to describe in vivid detail a mistake my sister still counts as amongst the worst she has made.

I am looking at a photograph of the sketch now. It is a simple, charming piece: two horses galloping alongside each other, their bodies in perfect tandem, only their necks and heads at different angles. They seem, strangely, to be running in some sort of refracting glass chamber – at least that is what I make of the two bars that run vertically down the sketch. And then on one side, oblivious of the hoofs thundering towards her, a young girl stands proud and serene, legs slightly apart, a star-topped wand in her hand. Husain made the sketch for my sister when she was around 7. He made it while sitting in the living room of our Ballygunj apartment, using the prized Caran d'Ache colour pencil set my father had returned with from a trip abroad.

Being 7, and possessed of a simplicity that belies her Cambridgified future, my sister decided Husain had not done himself justice in the manner in which he had signed his name. So she decided to sign it for him, with black felt pen, right on top of Husain's own rendition of his name. Now, on one side, instead of the signature that is prized the world over, in my sister's childhood scrawl is: "Made by Hussan. For Diy with love". And then, mysteriously, "II, III". My sister is still to live this one down, and not only because she managed to misspell both of their names.

I realise now that, quite apart from the opportunity to tease my sister, the sketch had a strange hold over me as a child. What a wonderful gift to give a young girl, and how well it illustrates the quickness of imagination and clarity of spirit great artists must possess. Husain, colour pencil in hand, constructed a tableau that could easily give a young girl nightmares; any viewer should only naturally think the girl in the picture is about to be trampled. But somehow he manages to invest in that girl a great strength. She is not worried about the beasts charging towards her. In fact, she seems to beckon them with her outstretched wand, to will them to a canter. Well before my sister had encountered ideas like feminism and empowerment, she had a little signpost of feminine capability hanging next to her bed.

Over the years he gave her a few more sketches, though she did not quite succeed in mangling the rest. He never bothered giving me one – with an artist's sensitivity, he could perhaps tell that I would end up selling it some day for beer money. But this did not stop me from loving his work, especially the pieces that have decorated the walls of every house I have considered home since I was born. All these were gifts from the great man himself; like Picasso, Husain was an inveterate gifter of his work, something that has caused much consternation amongst those who collect his work for its monetary value.Image 2nd

There was one piece in particular, a giant watercolour from the Raaj series (it featured a young, Ascot-hatted Memsahib playing polo with her brown servant) that I used to come home from school and copy in my notebook time and again. I think back to that now and can only marvel at my good fortune; indeed, if today I were a painter of note, instead of someone who can't get stick figure drawings right, I'm sure people would count that amongst my formative experiences.

I believe M.F. Husain and my parents became friends while he lived in Calcutta. He would come over to our house sometimes, causing great pandemonium in our building. He wanted help with what I think is known as the Assassination series, a set of paintings he was doing centred on the killings of prominent political leaders from over the world. My father was supplying him with the political background to those deaths, and they would sit and have lengthy addas about political dynamics and cause and consequence. Most of this went over my head, but I would sit there with them, utterly fascinated by this shirt-pant sadhu and his undulating beard. Not knowing much of the artistic process, I cannot say how much of those discussions made it into the work he produced in that phase. But Husain had the thirst for understanding common to all intelligent people denied a formal education. He sought at every phase of his life to enrich not only his art but to challenge his very view of the world.

Husain immersed himself in the India he saw around him, and the work he produced was always rooted to this view

This is why the manner in which the screaming lunatics disposed of him is so hard to accept. It does not need repeating here that Husain loved India; it is visible in his every work. At a time when artists the world over were rejecting concepts like nationalism – and his own contemporaries had chosen the more conducive climes of Paris and New York – Husain preferred to remain amidst the sounds and smells and sharpness of the country of his birth. And in many ways, Husain's body of work is a chronicle of contemporary India. While other artists delve into India's past culture, Husain immersed himself in the India he saw around him, and the work he produced was always rooted to this view. I heard today that, exiled in Qatar, Husain's final work was to return him to a city he loved dearly, Calcutta, and that it would be about the rise of Mamata.

Even his lingering obsession with Madhuri Dixit was perhaps nothing but a reflection of one of our national fixations. He was, of course, delightfully aware of the foolishness of his fancies. Many of the paintings of the Madhuri series are captioned by the following couplet, a rhyme I read when I was thirteen years old and that came back to me as soon as I learned of his death: "In the eighth decade of Maqbool Fida, yeh kaunsa mod hain umra ka?"

A Life Less Ordinary

1915 -> born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra.

1935 -> moves to Bombay and joins Sir J. J. School of Art.

1947 -> joins the Progressive Artists' Group, founded by Francis Newton Souza.

1952 -> has his first solo exhibition at Zurich and soon becomes popular in Europe and the US.

1966 -> The Government of India honours him with the Padma Shree.

1967 -> makes Through the Eyes of a Painter, a film shown at the Berlin Film Festival. It wins a Golden Bear.

1991 -> is awarded the Padma Vibhushan.

1996 -> comes under attack for painting Hindu deities in the nude.

1998 -> His paintings of goddesses Durga and Saraswati invite the wrath of Hindu groups, who attack his house and vandalise his art work.

2000 -> writes and directs Gaja Gamini, with Madhuri Dixit Nene as lead.

2004 -> directs Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities, starring Tabu, Kunal Kapoor and Raghuvir Yadav.

2006 -> goes on self-imposed exile.

2010 -> is offered citizenship of Qatar, which he accepts.

2011 -> passes away in London.

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