Alvida, Maqbool Fida: M.F. Husain, Free at Last
Like possibly several other children growing up in the kind of lower-middle class metropolitan households that attempted to reconcile their aspirations towards culture with their frugal habits in the 1970s and1980s in Delhi, my first introduction to the art of our time was the framed print of a Husain painting. We had no television. And my parents had no gods. The only icons in our modest house were two framed pictures – an inexpensive N.S. Bendre, (Lalit Kala Akademi) print of a few women at a well and the reproduction of a Husain painting, possibly detached lovingly and carefully from an Air India calendar, possibly featuring the kind of goddess image that incensed the zealots who made it impossible for M. F. Husain to live out his final years in India.
The occasional bus ride to the National Gallery of Modern Art in the company of an enthusiastic (and wanting-to-be-enlightened parent) would yield a glimpses of more paintings, and then, again, there would be more Husains – bold, galloping horses, faceless angular, cheerful, dancers, myths, entire histories. My eyes would travel to odd corners of the paintings, where there were sometimes more interesting, if quieter things going on, at a slight remove from the central drama of the bold strokes that dominated the pictures.
On one such trip, I think it was my mother who pointed out to me a gaily, madly painted fiat, with a jolly (but gaunt) Santa Claus at the wheel, turning the circle of India Gate. “Look”, she said, “there goes the artist – M.F. Husain, he drives his car without chapels and shoes on his feet.” I think I must have been ten, but at that time, it did feel to me that if this was an artist, then to live the life of art must be an incredible freedom, literally footloose and fancy-footwear-free. What a jolly, fantastic, cheerful, ramshackle car, what a great burst of light of a beard, what a halo of hair ! That combustible locomotion of form and colour seemed to transport M.F. Husain, even then, in and out of my understanding of liberty like an automobile turning circles on a roundabout, not necessarily going anywhere, just happy to be alive, excited to be well-fueled and mobile.
Now, decades later, when I mumble ‘artist’ to the question ‘occupation ?’ asked curtly and almost invariably on arrival at airport immigration desks, that sense of liberty embodied in Husain’s drive-away grace, which made such a profound impression on my ten year old consciousness, still comes to the rescue of my ravaged forty-something mind under the bleak light of all those situations where one is asked to account for oneself under duress. I come away from all such encounters with my dignity intact. I never thought I would ever be an artist, but now that I am called out as one, I suppose one must make the best of being what it takes to be an artist. In my life-time Husain was one of those who invested the vocation of art with the artless grace of whimsy and liberty. For that alone, regardless of what I may think of the entire body of his work, I am grateful. I am sure I am not alone in my gratitude.
Husain could only have become who he did in the world of art. Art and sport, and to a lesser degree film and politics (which are both heavily mired in dynastic compulsions) are perhaps the only spheres of activity in our harshly, pathetically hierarchical society where a young man or woman can come, literally out of nowhere, like Husain did, paint billboards for a living and still (very rarely) make it eventually into a sustained presence in the limelight, touching the eyes and minds and senses of millions of people. It tells us something about the world we live in when we realize that when all else has failed, it is art, for whatever it is worth, that has sometimes lived up to its promise of being a tiny quasi-democratic, half-egalitarian island, where the wild-card of unexpected energy and talent can still upset the best laid plans of privilege and the easy habits of power. That is why we need art in our hollow society, to still keep a door half-ajar to the anonymous practitioners of today who might yet make us turn and think again about life tomorrow.
Last morning, Husain turned the corner of mortal existence. He steered the wheel of the incredibly colorful automobile of his life down a one-way road where we can no longer see him, nor follow him. He is, in a sense, free at last. And we, the ungrateful people of the country which made it impossible for him to die with dignity and honor in the city he loved, should be grateful that he will no longer have reason to blame us for his humiliation. Now we have the opportunity, as a society, to think a little carefully, for a while, about what fools, what philistines we have been to have lost his company while he was alive.
In my godless, unbelieving upbringing, the divine came calling, only occasionally, courtesy M. F. Husain. If there is a lasting, enduring affection that I have for the incredible vitality of the traditions that some people simplify by calling ‘Hindu’, it is to some measure the responsibility of Maqbool Fida Husain. His love for the stories of Ganesh and Durga, for the figures of the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana took me into territories that the piety of countless Amar Chitra Kathas and the saccharine soap of Ramanand Sagar could never enter. He nudged me into an understanding of the fact that the traditions they call Hindu (because they are obsessed with names where the nameless is more appropriate) are richer, more ambiguous, laden with more secrets and stories and magic, laughter and desire than anything that any fart in saffron robes or khaki shorts and black cap can ever pretend to know or feel. He showed me lila, play, and made it the stuff of goddesses, and occasionally of gods. The goddess who rode the monkey’s tail, the resplendent but austere strength of the sky-clad goddess astride a tiger, these were worth more their weight in faith, fida, then the sermons of a million dharam sansads. He made me understand that one can say ‘maqbool’ (I accept) to ‘fida’ (faith) even when one is sustained most actively by doubt. My atheist soul’s abiding affection for the beauty of faith, and particularly for the faith of my ancestors, is partly by way of boyhood brushes with the reproductions of Maqbool Fida Husain.
If today, I turn to the Mahabharata or the Ramayana like an automatic reflex when thinking of a difficult ethical question, it is thanks to artists like Husain, to poets like Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and to their affection for, claims on and deep, abiding, subversive respect for the dense forests of all our traditions.
It is thanks in part to this barefoot farishta, this strange white bearded, halo-haired namesake of the martyred bride-groom of Karbala, that I made peace with being born, at least fractionally, nominally Hindu. And contrary to what the censors in saffron might think, it was this lesson in liberality that also made me think that Salman Rushdie has a right to be read, that Taslima Nasreen has a right to be listened to, and yes, that even those handful of moronic cartoonists of Denmark whose work says more about their limitations than it does about their sense of humor, have a right to be seen, and if necessary, laughed away. God, or the gods, if they are in heaven, must be laughing loudest at our reluctance to laugh with them. Husain, if he is in the corner of heaven specially reserved for those accused of heresy on earh, must be laughing too.
In the end, Husain won his Karbala, even when he lost in battle. His horses, like the good horses of Imam Husain, will keep riding, even after their rider has dismounted. It is the VHP, the RSS, the BJP and every pompous holy-honcho who held forth on Husain’s heresies that stand defeated today. Their vision of culture, ‘samskruti’ ( to be said with a sufficiently upturned nasal twang) is in tatters and in need of having to be salvaged by a petulant contortionist with hunger-management issues and dreams of private militias. Their vision of politics is articulated by those who dance (and not, I have to say, very well) to display their mourning. Their morality is held hostage at the hands of mining mafias. Their poet-laureate is comatose and was never a good poet anyway, and he was a worse statesman than he ever was a poet.
The fools who harangued Husain will fade into the obscurity of the footnotes of art-history text books as miserable examples of what a society should never do to artists. Among them will be people like a cardiac surgeon (Dr. Togadia, of the VHP) who saved fewer lives than he helped take away, a third rate painter of sentimental kitsch (Raghu Vyas) who stoked the early protests against M F Husain at Arpana Kaur’s gallery in the Siri Fort Institutional Area in Delhi (perhaps as a means to offload ballast from the sinking ship of his artistic career) , and the geriatric cartoonist-turned-cartoon (Bal Thackeray) with a reported taste for lukewarm beer (never trust a man who can’t take his beer cold!)
Behind them will be the entire massed ranks of the Sangh Parivar, as faceless and featureless as figures in a Husain painting. Their contribution to culture, their addition to the sum total of intelligence, amply representable by the great Bharatiya contribution to Mathematics – Zero. Paradoxically, In bidding farewell to M.F. Husain, we are also saying good riddance to those who baited him. Now that their object of hate has left the building, they don’t quite know what to do. Their harrumph and bluster has turned into a deflating whine. Some of them have even appeared on television to express their contrition, pretending that they meant him no harm, actually, while filing hundreds of cases in courts across the country. No, it wasn’t terrorism-by-court-notices, it was just a rash of art criticism, wrapped in the language of legalese.
Central to their enterprise and their discomfort was the fact that Husain deployed a visuality and an iconicity that was instantly processable. Whether it was the vigorous Gaja-Gamini on the walls of the Azad Hind Dhaba on Ballygunge Circular Road in Calcutta or the murals on the interiors of an Airport, Husain’s images were never very demanding. They did not need much work to be done to be read by their viewers. They were deceptively simple, straightforward, often striking, sometimes banal. Even a fool in a pair of khaki shorts and indignation leaking from his groin could (mis)read them, easily.
Unfortunately for the Hindutva with a hard-on brigade, contemporary art in India has moved on from where Husain Sa’ab stood, and stayed standing. This was more than evident in the last major survey exhibition of contemporary art from India featuring Husain’s work – the Indian Highway roller coaster that began its journey at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2009. There, Husain was represented by work that seemed both monumental and dated. Around him, was a plethora of work, some exceptional, mostly interesting, some indifferent, but all of which, spoke a language more reticent in terms of figuration than did Husain.
The knikker-critic can neither get this language like he thinks he ‘gets’ Husain, nor is he capable of being provoked by it. It will seem way too distant and cold to him. Not enough images, not even gods, not even much by way of nakedness. Which is why, in a minor footnote to the Husain saga, we have seen a sad Sunday-painter called Dr. Pranav Prakash exhibit a set of embarrassing and cringe-worthy paintings featuring images of a ‘naked’ Husain, to the great delight of the fringe of the Hindutva warriors. (Some even rallied in support of his right to ‘freedom of expression’). Lest I be misunderstood, it needs to be said here that I would never grudge fools the right to express themselves, freely. How else would we know who they were? Prakash’s naked Husain painting is a strange mirror-pastiche of Husain’s style, revealing in all its mediocrity, how much in awe and debt it is to the very object of its derision.
Contemporary Art is way too distant and aloof from the knicker-critic’s world. Husain got his goat, because in a sense Husain spoke his language, even if to turn his world upside down and inside out. Husain was his secret self. The one who actually enjoyed and loved the world of the puranas and the epics, rather than the one who merely took sterile pride in them. The Hindu far right hated Husain, because most of all it hated the delight of what it meant to be an inheritor of the Hindu worlds it ran away from. It hated its own humanity. Husain was a far better claimant to that magical legacy of a universe of colours, enigmas and stories than any Pracharak or Sarsanghchalak could ever be.
Today, Husain has attained what the Sanskrit scriptures sometimes call ‘Kaivalya’ – that unique freedom, that exceptionality, that carries with it a tinge of isolation, a shade of autonomy, a sliver of loneliness. A trace of this radical autonomy is visible in an early photograph of Husain taken by the critic Richard Bartholomew, which came to light for a generation that had never known it in the exhibition of Bartholomew (Senior’s) work put together by his son, Pablo. In this photograph, Husain can be seen on a rooftop (is it the rooftop of the Naaz Hotel in Old Delhi?) with the domes of the Jame Masjid in the background. It seems to be a clear, Delhi winter morning. Husain is in his prime, a man possessed of his delight in what he is doing. In the company of a friend (Richard) in a context he loves, but somehow, detached, distant, at a slight remove. Like an angel on a rooftop, absorbed in Kaivalya.
Who can touch that space ? No bigot can ever hope to grace a foothold in that sunshine. He is free of the bigot, but the bigot will be haunted by him, until his movement dies its necessary death. And yet, without him, culturally, the bigots will be rudderless. They can never taste the Kaivalya, the radical autonomy that is Husain’s by right. They will no longer know what to hate, whom to harass, whom to harangue. And without being able to hate, harass and harangue, they will be nothing, mere shadows of their petty fitful selves. Husain never needed them, but they needed him. They needed him, ever so badly. That need will erode them like nothing else can. That is why Husain, our ever youthful bridegroom of many forms and colours, lost the battle, but won Karbala. Yazid is only a decrepit wall for pilgrims to throw stones at forever in a little known corner of Damascus. There will always be a conversation that you can kick-start with a Husain horse, just as soon, there will be a time when people will ask “Togadia? Who?”
And now that we are no longer required to sign petitions to defend M.F. Husain, an honest and long overdue critical assessment of his work may actually begin. Now will be the time to think about how artists are trapped by repetition and the endless affirmation of themselves in their work. Now will be the time to understand and reflect on how a ‘star-system’ in matters of culture reduces even the most interesting artist to a cardboard cut-out. Now will be the opportunity to think about how and why we have elegies and obituaries aplenty, but so little by way of discursive and critical engagement. Now will be the time to remember that too great a proximity to power can distort the perceptions of even those who appear as the most innocent and playful of artists. Now will be the time to recall the irony in the fact that Husain, who himself fell victim to the shenanigans of a fascist mindset, had at one time, during the nightmare called the Emergency, saw it necessary to paint Indira Gandhi, its architect, as Durga, the victorious goddess. Now is the time to understand that Husain’s innocence was not innocent. Now is the time to remember that Husain loved cinema, but made two incredibly bad feature films (‘Gaja Gamini’ and ‘Meenaxi’). Now is the time to reclaim M. F. Husain as a grandfather, as uncle, as the stranger you make friends with on a long train journey, as the man who tells you the most wonderful stories and then stumps you with the narrowness of his world. As the angel and the buffoon, the faristha and the funtoos, all at once.
Now is also the time to remember that he was not the only Indian artist who felt compelled to leave India because of the images he had made. Few people, especially the kind of cultural liberals who signed endless petitions on his behalf ever remember that the coteries around the Indira Gandhi who Husain painted as Durga made it virtually impossible for the Nirod Mazumdar who painted her astride a donkey to live and work in India for many years. Now is the time to acknowledge that when it comes to the humbug of censorious intentions, the RSS and the Sangh Parivar do not have any monopoly. The Congress, the Left, Gandhians, Muslim and Christian zealots have all made calls for bans and harassed artists and writers.
Perhaps it was this realization that ultimately made Husain choose the bleak freedom of exile over the fulsome humiliation of continuing to hold on to the fetish of Indian citizenship. He said it was because of ‘logistical reasons’, because of the way his work needed to be done, but no one could mistake the fact that what drove Husain away ultimately was not just the hatred of the Hindu far-right, but also the opportunistic and cynical indifference of the so called liberal centre, which in time honored Congressi fashion chose to buckle and prevaricate rather than take a clear stand. In doing so, it revealed a malaise that is deeper than the fissures of political divisions. The sickness of the compulsion to play safe rather than fair.
In a delightfully mischievous poem called ‘Duronto Asha’ (Audacious Hope) another white haired, white bearded eminence, the other gaunt Santa Claus of my bilingual boyhood, Rabindranath Thakur, speaks of his impulsive desire to stop leading the sedentary, safe life of those accustomed to too much self-affirmation of their own identities. Rather than content with being a milksop bhadralok Bengali, Rabindranath, suddenly and impulsively declares his true desire by saying – ‘ihar cheye hotem jodi Arob Beduin’ – ‘were I much rather an Arab Bedouin – lost under the desert’s open skies’. I am reminded of this as a way of squaring the circle of how we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that Husain, in his final years, in choosing to base himself in Qatar rather than Delhi or Mumbai, was perhaps exercising elements of the ‘were I much rather an Arab Bedouin’ option.
The only time I ever met Maqbool Fida Husain (spotting him from the window of DTC bus number 408 turning the circle of India Gate at the age of ten doesn’t really count as an encounter) was a few days before the opening of the ‘Indian Highway’ exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London in the early December of 2008. A large mural sized painting by him was being installed. He sat, with a tall thin paint-brush in his hands, adding the very last finishing touches. People went up to to him and made polite conversation. My comrades and I in the Raqs Media Collective, were installing not far away from him. We were introduced. There were ‘adaabs’, a few smiles. I took the pictures you see with this post. We went back to our work, he went back to his. Our fishing boat signalled to his ocean liner, like ships that cross each other in the ocean’s night. We acknowledged each other’s presence and drifted apart, as ships navigating entirely different courses must. Still, it was good to have seen the lights glitter on this nearly century old vessel. It was good to have sensed the rattle of its engines and turbines, to see its tall mast and take one’s bearing from its prow.
A little later, his daughter, who was looking after him, asked us, and several others, whether we had seen him. Husain had disappeared. A search party was quickly put together, and a little while later he was found, under the open sky of Kensington Gardens. His daughter was relieved. She told us, as a ninety something man, Husain was in good shape, sharp in all his responses, lucid. The only thing that worried her sometimes was the fact that he would sometimes get up and start moving, as if in a straight line, and walk as long as he could without getting tired, without stopping, and that this worried her about him getting lost, or hurt while absently crossing a busy road.
When the news of his death sunk in, I was reminded of his walk-about ways. He just got up, left. Stretched his canvas. Sorted his paints, started working, stopped, and then got up and left again. The pettiness of nations, the smallness of the minds of those who speak loudly on behalf of nations, could never hold back his final moves. Or, as he said laughing, playfully invoking and twisting Iqbal in a television interview not so long ago when the interviewer painfully and persistently asked him yet again, why he had chosen Qatar over Hindustan, – “Hindi hain hum, vatan hai, sara jahaan hamara’.
The canvas of the open sky was always waiting for the bedouin with the paintbrush in his hand.