Ahmedabad: Artists’ love for coffee and tea joints isn’t new. M.F. Husain was no different, especially while visiting a city like Ahmedabad, which is dotted with tea stalls, or ‘kitlees’ as they are known locally.
If Gregory David Roberts, who penned the bestseller ‘Shantaram’, spent much of his time in Mumbai at Leopold Café (targeted by terrorists during the November 2008 attack), Hussain a deep bond with Lucky Restaurant, located in Ahmedabad’s Walled City area.
Waiters hustling to serve tea, buns and snacks and customers loudly complaining about delays in service are a common scene here—as it is at most such joints. But ask any regular customer and he will say the tea at Lucky Restaurant tastes different.
Siddiquibhai Ansari, the restaurant’s oldest employee, who has been working here since 1970, reveals the secret ingredient: “We mix a little Bournvita and chocolate powder in the tea.”
Some people, however, are attracted to this restaurant for another reason: an original painting by Husain hangs on its wall.
The restaurant’s founder, K.H. Mohammadbhai, was Husain’s friend and the artist started patronising the joint almost half a century ago, when it was just a tea stall, Ansari says.
“I was the newest employee at this kitlee then,” he remembers. “One day a lean man with long beard wearing a pathani dress came and Mohammadbhai hugged him. I thought he must be a relative of Mohammadbhai. He sat on the bench next to the grave and sipped tea and kept writing something in his notebook. Later when he left, Mohammadbhai said that he was the famous painter M.F. Husain.”
A neem tree and the old grave are still there, but the tea stall has since grown into a restaurant.
Siddiqui doesn’t know that just a year after he first met Husain in 1970, the artist got a special invitation to display his works along with those of the legendary Spanish painter Pablo Picasso at the reputed Sao Paulo Art Biennial. He was later awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1973.
For Siddiqui, Husain was a “famous painter” and a friend of his employer, the late Mohammadbhai.
“When I first saw him he was wearing chappals. Many times he would come bare feet also, but most of the times I have seen him he was wearing shoes,” Siddiqui says, showing a picture of himself with Husain in which the artist is wearing shoes.
Husain, who passed away at a London hospital on 9 June, was well known for making public appearances barefoot.
“In 2004, Husain had come to Ahmedabad for an exhibition. One day he came and asked me if I can lend him a canvass which I readily gave him,” Anil Relia, a friend of Husain and director of Archer Art Gallery in Ahmedabad, says over the phone from London. “He made this painting at my home overnight. The next day we along with architect B.V. Doshi went to Lucky Restaurant where he gifted this painting.”
Relia says he met Husain at the hospital where he was admitted and had a long talk about some of his paintings. The painting gifted by Husain to the restaurant could well have fetched over Rs1.5 crore while he was alive.
“Now that we cannot expect more paintings from Husain, the value of his paintings will go up considerably. Prices of his paintings having interesting history behind them will be valued more,” he says.
But Siddiqui and M. Hasan, son of the late Mohammadbhai who still has a stake in Lucky Restaurant, say the painting hanging there is not for sale.
“Every time he came to the city, he made it a point to sip tea here. His memories will remain alive in family members’ hearts as well as in the form of the painting that he has gifted,” says Hasan.
On the other side of the city, some of Husain’s famous works are on display at the Husain-Doshi Gufa, an underground art gallery designed by architect Doshi, another close friend of Husain for nearly 40 years.
“This Gufa dedicated to Ahmedabad is our humble present to the city, so that people can know what unexpected things can do and how a city can generate similar centres which will encourage young, old, literate, illiterate to come and inspire,” Doshi says.
This Gufa, which has been vandalized in the past by activists protesting Husain’s nude depiction of dieties elsewhere, was built by unskilled tribal workers using simple hand tools to execute computer-aided design.
After the construction was over, Husain, with a brush in his hand, announced that he felt like painting. Along with architect Rajesh Sagara, the painter did the free flowing lines inside the Gufa, painting the walls, ceilings, even the air-conditioners.