A People’s Painter

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A famous artist who was happy to oblige a friend and paint Mickey Mouse cartoons on her children’s furniture

There’s always been a sense of magic in MF Husain’s life, a fairy-tale quality that is perhaps there in our lives too but we don’t know how to exploit. There’s also a sense of heroism in whatever he did. He was clear about what he wanted to be and who he wanted to be.

Husain would only be content with being at the top. He resented coming second. Once, during an exhibition, Tyeb Mehta (Husain’s contemporary and close friend) sold at a higher price than he did. Three months later, Husain made sure his works fetched a better price. In 1959, Bal Chhabra opened a gallery in which all of us were showing. SH Raza had come from Paris and put up an abstract work, which he priced at Rs 2,000. When Husain heard this, he howled, “Abstract kya hum nahin bana sakte (As though I can’t make abstracts), who will pay Rs 2,000 for it?” The next day, he came to the gallery, removed two paintings and replaced them with his abstract works. He priced them at Rs 3,000 each.

Obviously, he worked overnight to produce those canvases. Within Husain, there existed two painters—one pure and another popular—which often led to contradictions in our opinions. I would question his horse subjects, but he would reply patiently, “Akbar, I am a people’s painter.”

He was indeed a people’s painter. He felt that painting should be for everybody. Once, while in Delhi, we were staying together. He got up rather early and started painting. Later, we stepped out. On the way, he asked me what I thought of his watercolour sketch, and I said, “I don’t like it.” He laughed out loud, “Akbar, you are a snobbish painter who paints for intellectuals. I paint for everybody who may or may not love art.”

Husain was already well known when I first met him. During that time, Roshan Alkazi (Ebrahim Alkazi’s wife) had asked him to paint Mickey Mouse cartoons for her children’s furniture. Husain did that with child-like enthusiasm. No work was too small for him. He believed in ‘yes’, never in ‘no’.

Chance played a huge role in his life. There was romance in his struggle. I believe everything fell in his lap. He did not seek fortune, fortune sought him out.  The first time he came to Bombay from Indore, he didn’t have a place to sleep. He put his bistar (bed) at Badar Baug (in Grant Road, Bombay) and when he woke up, he saw large cinema hoardings being painted. When the painters went out for tea, he climbed the scaffolding and without the help of the squares, finished the hoarding. When they came back, they were shocked to see it complete. Husain owned up to it and they immediately offered him a job. A famished Husain requested them for an advance of Rs 100 and said, “Let me have food and I will come back.”

A few days later, Fazila, who used to watch him paint, fell in love with him. She told her father about him and they had the marriage fixed. His to-be father-in-law invited him to stay with them since he didn’t want him to sleep on the pavement. Husain didn’t have to look all over Bombay for a place, and he didn’t have to sweat for a job either.

Again, Roberto Rossellini sponsored Husain’s trip to Italy within days of meeting him in India. In Italy, he met Rossellini’s wife, Ingrid Bergman, and asked her to pose for him. Husain set up his canvas and she started removing her clothes because she assumed he would like to paint her in the nude. He later told me, “Main toh ghabra gaya thha. (I got really nervous).” Rossellini was very happy with that picture.

Husain loved being at the centre of attention. We had a show at The Shridharani Gallery, Delhi, and all the painters exhibiting were present, except Husain. Someone said he would turn up late just to get importance.

We decided we would ignore him. When he arrived one-and-a-half hours late, he announced, “Main aa gaya. (I’ve arrived).” We responded, “Par tu toh yaheen thha. (Weren’t you here all along?)” We pulled his leg till he realised he was being made fun of. He thought we would miss him and enquire after him. Husain loved being missed. Today, in his death, he is being missed far more than he ever imagined in his lifetime.

As told to Shaikh Ayaz