Three years ago, my fashion designer friends Amir and Huma Adnan invited me to join them for a rendezvous with M.F. Husain. What I thought would be a brief meeting turned out to be an extraordinary evening with the legendary artist. Husain took us to his private art gallery in Dubai and shared with us a special incident in his life that led to the setting up of this gallery. Over cups of lemongrass-flavoured tea, he chatted about various things, from his childhood in Indore to his projects.
Husain was then living in exile in Dubai and he was sad and hurt about being hounded out of India; but it was amazing to see his love for life and the energy and enthusiasm with which the then 92-year-old artist looked to the future.
In media interviews he always talked about celebrating life, and that evening I saw for myself his wonderful ability to enjoy every moment to the fullest. Here was a man who was intelligent, media-savvy and very aware of his own talent and charisma. But behind that flamboyant public persona, I saw a person who found joy in the simple things of life and an artist who simply loved to paint.
Husain liked to wear Amir Adnan's designer sherwanis and kurtas and was a regular customer at their boutique in Jumeirah. And that is where our evening began. He came to fetch us in his much-talked-about Bentley. Dressed in white trousers, a white shirt and a smart white waistcoat, and carrying his paint-brush-shaped cane, he looked dashing. He wore no shoes but thick black socks. "I am careful about the way I dress because I believe that the clothes you wear make an important statement about you," he said.
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He relished the tea and snacks that were offered to him, happily accepting several rounds of samosas. Then we drove to Deira to see the gallery, located in a penthouse he owned overlooking the creek. The gallery was dedicated to Maria Zurkova, a woman the artist had loved and lost many years earlier. The walls were painted bright yellow but the entire decor — from the carpets and the cushions to the lamps in the apartment — were in shades of red. And he called it the Red Light Gallery. "The name is designed to make people sit up," he said with a chuckle.
Husain spoke about the romance in great detail. "In 1956 I held my first exhibition in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Maria was assigned as my interpreter. She was well educated and came from an artistic family. I was impressed by her knowledge and understanding of art and she loved my paintings. She was 25 and I was 40, but we became good friends. We also had our differences. She often teased me that my art would always be bogged down by traditional Indian cultural influences just as I would always have a beard due to my traditional religious background," Husain reminisced. "Just to prove her wrong I decided to shave my beard. You should have seen her expression when I turned up for the opening of my exhibition clean-shaven and wearing a three-piece suit. And she was even more stunned when I announced that none of my paintings were for sale because I had decided to give the entire collection to Maria," he added.
Husain returned every summer for six years to Czechoslovakia and soon his friendship with Maria turned to love. The two then decided to get married. "I had the consent of my wife," he assured us. "I was excited and flew to London, where I bought a wedding gown for Maria. I also got an international driving licence and bought a car. I tried to convince some of my artist friends to come along but they told me I was crazy and refused. So I set out alone on that journey through Europe. Maria met me at the Czech border. We talked through the night and finally decided that a marriage between an Indian and a European, both steeped in their own culture, would not work," recalled Husain sadly. "Our relationship had been one of pure, platonic friendship and we decided to keep it like that."
Two years later, Maria wrote to tell him that she was married and moving from her country and needed his authorisation to take his paintings out of Czechoslovakia. Husain flew down and helped her pack the paintings. He never communicated with her after that. In 2006, a chance meeting between Husain's friend and Maria's husband put them back in touch. Maria invited him to visit her in Australia and he flew down with his daughter for an emotional meeting after 42 years.
"I was surprised to see that despite knowing the value of the paintings she had not sold any of them and had looked after them carefully," he said. He was even more stunned when Maria said she wished to give the paintings back to him because she believed that they belong to India. She personally packed each piece carefully, keeping back only a few portraits of herself.
"Artists rarely have the good fortune of retaining even a few of their original works. And here, at 90, I suddenly got back an entire collection of paintings from my early years and that too in excellent condition. Many artists, including Picasso, have talked about regretting not being able to retain or re-acquire their early works. Surely there was a divine hand that helped in preserving my earliest works and returning them to me," Husain said.
To be shown around that seminal collection by Husain himself is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The Maria Collection offered an amazing insight into the creative journey of one of the greatest artists of our times. They included sketches, charcoal drawings, pastels, oil paintings and even some paper cuttings. Beautiful paintings of cows, simple village folk, families travelling in bullock carts, men on bicycles, children in a Madrasa, the local priest, and gypsies in colourful attire spoke a lot about his childhood in Indore and the simple small-town life that was the source of his inspiration.
His philosophical leanings and love for Indian mythology, literature and cinema and bright colours could all be seen in these early works.
"As an artist grows older, he improves in terms of technique but loses the spontaneity of his younger days. These paintings have helped me reconnect with that forgotten part of myself. These 80 artworks represent the nucleus of my entire body of work over the past 60 years; and they have helped me tremendously in a project that I have titled Husain Decoded, where I am trying to restructure my work back to basics," Husain said. "For my 92nd birthday, I asked my friends and relatives to give me toys, because I want to stay in touch with the child in me."
As we all sat on the floor, surrounded by the paintings, sipping tea, Husain pointed out to us a painting of two sisters, which was his favourite because it reminded him of his two daughters, sketches made during his travels to Czech villages with Maria and a self-portrait he had made after shaving off his beard. The paintings took him back to his childhood. "At the age of 12 I told my father that I wanted to be an artist and that I did not want to waste my time studying maths and other subjects. I was interested in art, poetry, literature and philosophy, which I taught myself by reading voraciously. I was fortunate that my father understood and encouraged me," he said.
He told us about his difficult journey from a poster artist who was paid 4 annas (about 2 fil) per square foot for painting film hoardings to his first solo exhibition in 1947 in Bombay [now Mumbai] and his gradual climb to becoming India's most famous and successful artist. "I sold my first painting in 1933 for Rs10," he recalled.
He was philosophical about his struggles. "Standing on scaffoldings and painting film posters was hard work but that helped me hone my skills and gain experience working on a large canvas. Today I can paint anywhere and never need a studio or a private space to do my work. My family in Dubai includes two sons and many nephews and nieces, and I spend the evening with whoever has the most interesting dinner menu. And afterwards I paint in their living room," he said.
"I have been criticised for staging public painting events. But if a musician can perform in front of huge audiences, why not an artist? The process of creating a painting is fascinating and I want to share it with others. And I want youngsters to see that even an experienced artist makes mistakes and has to trash some paintings," he added.
Husain spoke about his marketing skills with pride. "Being a good artist is not enough. It is important to market yourself correctly. My deliberate creation of brand M.F. Husain has resulted in greater international awareness of all Indian art," he said.
He did all the talking that evening, moving randomly from one topic to another related to his life. He told us about the documentaries and films he had made, the series he had just finished for an exhibition in London based on K. Asif's film Mughal-E-Azam and the research he was doing for a mega project of 99 paintings on Arab civilisation. He talked fondly about Shaikha Mouza, who had commissioned the series and had provided him with excellent facilities to work in Qatar.
About his much-publicised obsession with actress Madhuri Dixit he said: "My mother died when I was 18 months old. Madhuri is Ma Adhuri [mother incomplete], who fills that void in some way." I asked him about some uncharacteristic abstracts by him that I had recently seen at an exhibition. "Some months ago I fractured my right hand. But I cannot stay away from painting, so I painted those with my left hand," he said.
As we walked out of the room, Husain pointed out a portrait of Maria done in 2006. I could not help saying that this Czech woman had understood the artist's significance and contribution to art better than his own country. To this he replied: "My art is not easy to understand. But I know that barring a few bigots, my people love me and appreciate my work."
The last time I saw him, he was walking the ramp for Amir Adnan at Dubai Fashion Week. "Fashion is also art," he said. "And I loved being backstage with all those models," he whispered with a mischievous smile.