MF Hussain: A barefoot artist
The barefoot painter had long been on a thorny trail. The weary feet would take him no further.
From London we have received the report of painter MF Hussain’s death. He had been an unwelcome man in the country of his birth ever since he painted some nudes representing certain Hindu deities. He had been a globetrotter of sorts for quite some time but when he left India this time the doors were firmly shut on his return.
I am reminded here of Ghalib’s verse he used for the opening of his memoir:
The blisters in my weary feet had starting bothering me,
it’s nice therefore to notice that the path ahead is quite thorny.
The barefoot painter had long been on a thorny trail. The weary feet would take him no further. London thus became the last stop in his journey. He was ninety-six; a century eluded him.
By his own account, his early life was lived in poverty. Grandpa Abdul sold lamps at a small shop in Indore. His friends included Achhan Mian, the horse shoe man, and Kallu, the coachman. That was where Maqbool Fida Hussain developed his early fascination for horses.
The one person he always missed was his mother, Zainab, who passed away when he was just 18 months old. To understand the relationship, he says, he “felt the pottery shards recovered from Moenjodaro, wrote Ibne Zainab on Karbala’s burning sands, asked questions of Nefertiti, De Milo’s Venus, Michael Angelo’s Pieta, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa…”
He has also mentioned his step-mother lovingly. “Step-mother, Shirin, the daughter of a religious scholar from Sidhpur in Gujarat, had a sweet voice suited to reading aloud Mir Anis’s elegies.” Her brother, Muhamamd Athar, a scholar from the famous Nadwa seminary, screamed from his library one day that Maqbool had vandalised his books drawing flying horses on the margins. Sir Syed’s thick beard had been made into a birds’ nest.
Maqbool was told off but his grandfather declared nobody could scold the boy. Next, he took the boy to a stationary shop and bought him lots of paper, pencils and erasers. On his deathbed in 1922, he would hand his grandson ten rupees for imam zamin (ritual charity meant to buy him protection). In 1934, a stranger paid Rs10 for a water colour landscape Maqbool had just finished seated at the end of the same street in Indore – his first sale.
In 1950 he had his first one-man show in Bombay’s Art Bazaar. By 1960 he owned a Fiat car that would often be seen parked in front of a rickety teahouse. Qamar would shout the order: “Tea for Hussain Sahib, half milk, half water; make it strong and serve it in a glass.” It was here, he remembered, that Shakoor, the mason, told him: “Yours is a fun job. The car rides are a bonus. Look at me. Rain or shine I must go in with brick and mortar,”
“He is right,” Hussain remembered thinking.
“If the first brick he places is crooked, he’ll never escape the blame even if he raises a skyscraper above it. The first brick, the first line I draw, needs to be right irrespective of whether I am painting the Maha Bharata or Karbala.”
His impressions of Lahore were dominated by a roadside hoarding near the Badshahi Masjid bearing Iqbal’s line “Neither Afghans, nor Turks or Tartars are we”, by Faiz, Zahoorul Akhlaque, Raza Kazim’s haveli and by Kishwar Naheed’s white dupatta on which his brush flowed because Ahmed Faraz would not let him go and there was no paper at hand.
In 1994, he announced the Film Fair Award for Madhuri Dixit. On May 7, 1995, he presented her with his paintbrush. “Maybe this will inspire me to take up painting,” she quipped. “Maybe I will make a movie about you next,” he answered.
Shooting for Gaja Gamini, the movie about myriad perceptions of the quintessential Indian woman, started on July 10, 1998.
*Translated from Urdu
Published in The Express Tribune.