Take Two

Exhibition-cum-sale of MF Husain

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He’s now a citizen of Qatar. Sad denouement for an artist like Husain, a personality so integral to Indian art.

MF Husain’s Dubai mobile was switched off last week. He’s usually disarmingly easy to talk to, but last week, Husain, it seemed, had finally had enough. Even names in the Indian art world couldn’t get through to him. As one person said to me, “The only person talking is one of his children.” After several days of feverish guesswork, Husain finally told a Qatar-based reporter for the Malayalam weekly Madhyamam of the emotional atyachar inflicted on him by his home country. “I can’t hate my motherland. But India rejected me. Then why should I stay in India?”

While our law-enforcement agencies let hoodlums threaten and abuse Husain, Qatar offered the artist an unparalleled retirement plan. It is at this moment far more lucrative for Husain and his family that India’s most famous painter becomes Qatar’s only major artist.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Husain is still ferociously productive. At 94, he maintains a rigorous work schedule, and with a signature worth millions, he’s literally still creating the family’s fortunes. In July last year, when I spoke to him, he said his new works were going to be part of a dedicated Husain-only museum project commissioned by the Qatari and UAE governments and managed by a private foundation manned by his children.

Husain’s works are already in Doha’s brand new art edifice, the stupendous IM Pei-designed Islamic Art Museum. There are also unconfirmed reports that the ruling family of Qatar has requisitioned 99 Husain canvases, and conferred Qatari nationality to honour the artist. (The government of Qatar has not made any official statement.)

As young countries in the Arabian Gulf transmogrify into cultural patrons, they become relevant in the arts the only way they know how: by throwing money at troubled artists. Even Michael Jackson was, for a time, funded by a Bahraini prince on the understanding that Jackson would cut an album, write a Broadway musical and even write his autobiography.

It is a sad denouement for an artist like Husain, a personality so integral to everything we loosely refer to as ‘Indian art’. A Qatar resident who saw Husain at a government immigration office said he sat in a waiting room without fanfare, alone, seemingly pained by what he was doing. For a man who has been inspired by India throughout his career, Husain’s decision to become a subject of the Emir of Qatar couldn’t have been an easy one. Hopefully, it was worth it.