At 93 years of age, MF Husain could have been forgiven for calling it a day. But when he sought exile from India in 2006—on account of the vandalisation of his works and the stress of presenting himself in small-town courts all over India, where cases of obscenity had been filed to harass him for having had the temerity to paint goddesses in the nude—he sought not retirement but revalidation.
And that came easily for, arguably, India’s most popular artist. In spite of his advanced age, the royal family of Qatar commissioned him to paint an epic series on the Arabic civilisation for the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. And in London, the Mittal family—which had gifted the city the controversial ArcelorMittal Orbit ahead of the Olympic Games—seized the opportunity to ask him to paint a tribute to Indian civilisation.
That should have been enough to keep most artists busy, but Husain, missing familiar places and faces in India, was known to have painted extempore at the homes and offices of a large number of Indian families, demanding nothing more than affection and a home-cooked meal in exchange for a hastily improvised drawing or painting. He would appear at the doughty Dorchester, where the staff invoiced him for scribbling figures on its pristine damask napkins. In Mayfair, where he had a studio, the white-haired and often barefoot artist became a familiar sight for Londoners bemused that he should carry a large paintbrush with him as an indication of his profession. At the venerable Victoria & Albert Museum, like scores of art students on any given day, he could be seen sketching on his pad at the Ironwork Gallery, unaware of the chuckles he inspired among visitors ignorant of his fame but conscious only of his age.
It is from this phase of his life, spent in Doha, Dubai and, in particular, London, that a number of ‘last’ works by the artist are gaining currency.
Most, understandably, are not for sale; they are the legacy of families who befriended him in an alien city and extended warmth and hospitality. Though Husain was wealthy—if his collection of sports cars and bikes is any indication, he was extremely rich—money was something he rarely carried on him, so his art became the currency of exchange for favours rendered. The right-wing parties that had hounded him in India enjoy the support of many non-resident Indians, but in London Husain seemed not so much offensive as vulnerable. Secretly, they clamoured for his works, so even though prices were falling back home—or, at least, they were failing to keep pace with modernists SH Raza, FN Souza, Tyeb Mehta and VS Gaitonde—his popularity never waned. Because he still had a large inventory of unsold canvases, he was not required to paint to eke out an existence, however luxurious. The sale of those works—this writer is privy to some of them—now afforded him the comfort to paint in a manner and style of his choosing.
Some of these ‘last’ works, the ones commissioned by Usha Mittal, will now go to the V&A’s gallery 38A for a viewing as ‘Master of Modern Indian Painting’ from May 28 to July 27. According to a spokesperson, even though Husain is “not very well-known” in London, “this exhibition will rectify that”. The V&A had been in conference with the Mittals about a number of projects, and it was natural that the First Family of Steel should suggest the Husain exhibits as a starting point for that venture.
Husain wanted to paint 31 triptychs or 93 panels to express his vision of India, a country that he referred to as “a museum without walls”. Among the peers of the Progressive Artists’ Group, Husain alone, among the founding members, chose to paint a holistic view of Indian society from the vantage of the street, often portraying myths from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but also singers, dancers, musicians in a manner that some described as expressionistic while others dubbed it primitive impressionism. Wrongly called ‘the Picasso of India’—that sobriquet better suiting Souza—Husain was maverick, manipulative, marketable, as popular for his remarkable talent as his ability to command the media. He mocked the press, made films with popular film stars, and was quick with repartee, a one-man act that became the face and form of modern art in India from the 1950s till his death in London in 2011.
Usha Mittal was principally responsible for the patronage the family extended to MF Husain when he began work on the project in 2008 in London. In this email interview, Usha Mittal shares the shaping of the series and her interactions with the artist.
Why did you choose Husain for painting this series?
Husain Sahib had a profound understanding of Indian history and culture and was knowledgeable about many aspects of life in the subcontinent, from mythology and religious beliefs to architecture, poetry, music and the visual arts. On seeing Husain's series on the Hindi film Mughal-e-Azam, I suggested to him that he should capture the history of the Indian civilisation on canvas. The conversation led to a major commission, which the artist started working on during the final years of his life.
Why pick on the Indian civilisation as the series theme?
The Indian civilisation is rich in culture and diversity, and spans thousands of years. Aspects of Indian civilisation have been represented in Husain's paintings from the start, whether folk images, rural life, dance, mythology or history. With his immense understanding of India and her culture, I felt that Husain Sahib was uniquely endowed to execute such a commission.
Did he discuss the panels with you before painting them?
He was very inspired by this project. Every time I would meet him, he would talk only about the next panel, and would ask for my opinion. In fact, he was talking and dreaming about the forthcoming panels on his last day.
Which are the other Indian artists in your collection?
Apart from Husain, I very much admire the works of Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta and SH Raza.
Can you share incidents
of your interactions with Husain while he was working on this series in London?
I saw him paint on several occasions. When he painted, he was totally submerged in the paintings. He had a childlike enthusiasm, and happily painted while listening to music. He had a great sense of humour, and his knowledge of Indian culture, customs and traditions was commendable. Before he started painting the history of India, he read several books on Indian history, and spent several weeks analysing and determining what he wanted to paint and how. He decided he wanted to paint 31 triptychs, but unfortunately could complete only eight. I always admired his qualities as a painter.
Husain’s worth, or the worth of a Husain
Despite a fall from grace, he cared about his legacy