An interview published in ‘Journeys: Four Generations of Artists in Their Own Words’ by art historian Yashodhara Dalmia. Publisher: Oxford University Press.

The most iconic of Indian artists, Maqbool Fida Husain (1915) is also the most prolific, with a wide range of themes and styles that have spanned his eventful life. He began his career in Mumbai as an apprentice to a painter of cinema hoardings and, in the early years, even designed toys and furniture, and painted billboards. Husain joined the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1947 and speedily gained recognition as an artist in his own right. His early works on oil focused on village folk, albeit located within the city environment. His seminal work, The Spider and the Lamp, made in 1956, incorporated three women, both earthy and mythic, poised between the superstitious and the modern, emblematic of a post-independent country’s contradictory reality.

Husain exhibited as a special invitee, along with Pablo Picasso at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971. In his widening oeuvre, his depiction of horses, both symbolic and real, became his hallmark motif. He is perhaps the only modern artist to paint the entire epic Ramayana and the Mahabharata within modernist paradigms. In his later works, Husain delves into the contemporary situation, and whether it is the cataclysmic violence post the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the depiction of Mother Teresa’s enfolding compassion, his paintings speedily outlined the essence of the situation. He has also made religious works like Theorama, which have shown the presence of nine world religions in co-existence. At present, he is engaged with a suite of paintings on the Arab civilization.

As an artist, Husain has freely crossed boundaries and made installations much before it became a common practice in India. Right from the first Peep Show in 1968 at the Jehangir Art Gallery to the newspapers strewn about the same gallery in 1992 showing great devastation to the mounting of the Last Supper in Red and the Last Supper in Blue in 1993, his expansive oeuvre moves seamlessly from one medium to the other. As a film-maker, his very first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter, won him the Golden Bear award at the Berlin film festival in 1967. Subsequently, he made three other films, Gajagamini, Minaxi, and Tale of Two Cities, dexterously intertwining art with history. He reminiscences about the early years:

How did you begin your career?

In 1947, I had just entered the art world. I had been there for 18 years since I came from Indore. I had seen the works of Ara and Raza. In 1947, I exhibited for the fi rst time at the Bombay Art Society, and there, Souza saw my work. And then, the artists came to my house and invited me to become a member. Th ere were only three members at that time—Souza, Raza, and Ara. Each one had been asked to invite one member of their choice.

Souza invited me, Raza invited Gade, and Ara, Bakre. Th e fi rst group exhibition was held in 1948 and then we went to Baroda. At that time, Goetze was the director and he arranged our show there. In 1948, there was a show going on at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which exhibited the fi nest collection of Indian art and sculptures from diff erent museums. Th is had gone to Burlington in the UK and Souza said, ‘Let’s go and see the show.’ In those days, there were two prevalent groups—the Royal Academy people and the Bengal school. We really started something like a campaign to demolish these two. We used to meet once a month with the Progressive writers and the Indian People Th eatre Association people like Balraj Sahni, Mulk Raj Anand, Krishen Chander, people to whom we could show our works and then talk about their writings. There were other groups being formed at the same time like Paritosh Sen, Pradosh Das Gupta, and in Delhi, there was Sanyal who had just come from Lahore, Mago, and a few others. We were not formerly affi liated but we had arranged an exhibition in Calcutta between the PAG and the Calcutta Group. Souza’s and my paintings were rejected from the BAS annual show due to the British infl uence and the Royal Academy beliefs. A painter like Deuskar, whose painting hung at the RAS, Durandhar, and Pestonjee were the most sought after in the 1920s. So, on being rejected, we had an exhibition titled ‘Saloon D’Refuse’. Raza’s paintings were heavily infl uenced by Kokoschka because his guru was Langhammer. I must mention three fi gures, who strongly supported us, otherwise there was no support from a single buyer here in Bombay.

Kekoo Gandhi was there but he did not buy a single painting. Th e persons who supported us were Schlesinger and Rudi von Leyden, who was the art critic of Th e Times of India, and Langhammer, the art director of Th e Times of India. Rudi also used to paint and he was a good cartoonist, and he made many cartoons during the war. And these three came to India and settled here during the war. Schlesinger had a big collection of 1700 paintings in Germany.

He lost all those paintings. He was a pharmacist and Indo-Pharma was his company. He used to commission Raza to go out and paint and give him all the expenses, and then he used to buy all those paintings for the calendar of the company.

He used to buy my work too. In the beginning, my work was infl uenced by the German Expressionists like Nolde and Beckmann, and all that structure because my background of painting and reading was to do with the support of colour.

You paint a face not in the natural colour but you put a red here and green colour there. Th at was the way the ‘Wild Beast’ and the ‘Fauve’ used to paint in Germany. I came out with a set of fi ve paintings in 1948 after visiting Delhi with Souza, where I saw all the Indian works and then I felt that I should also paint something because till then, I was infl uenced by the Expressionists. Raza was famous in those days as a landscape painter and Kokoschka’s infl uence. Once I was painting at the Opera House bridge. At that time, I didn’t know Souza, Raza, or anyone but I had seen their works. Someone came and asked me, ‘How are you, Mr Raza?’ So that really established that Raza was a landscape painter. In 1948, after visiting Delhi, I combined three periods—the forms of the Gupta period, the strong colours of the Basohli, and the innocence of folk art, and worked on it, and then came out with five paintings, which were shown at the BAS in 1949.

Nobody had seen it, not even Souza. So at the opening, Souza caught hold of me and took me to the opposite Irani restaurant and said, ‘Just tell me, what is this? You have discovered something new?’ Rudi von Leyden wrote on it. With that exhibition, people started talking about my work.

With that show, people took it to Calcutta, to Delhi, and by 1950–1 Raza, Akbar (Akbar was not a member of the PAG but was very close to us) went to Paris and Souza went to London.

Th en, I became the secretary of the PAG, and for nearly two years I worked for it. I brought in Gaitonde and later Raiba. Altogether there were eleven members. And soon after that show, the group broke up.

Why do you think it broke up?

First of all, the founder members went abroad.

And Akbar and Souza used to write to me to leave India and would point out that there is nothing in India. They felt that the real place was Paris and would ask me to join them. Schlesinger said, ‘You should go.’ And I was very keen to go but I relied heavily on my Indian experiences. That was because of my background. I hadn’t had a Western-oriented education. All that I knew was the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Kalidasa. So I needed to look at what was happening there in the West. Souza said, ‘You work here another four to fi ve years because this is the formative stage.’ Bendre was there too. In my youth, I used to go and see him work. At that time, he told my father that I should train to be an artist. That’s why my father agreed. I was not so good in my studies; I could never get through matriculation, particularly mathematics and algebra. I was very fond of literature. I was studying Persian. And I used to go to the college with a friend next door and I would get involved with Shakespeare. I came from a very middle class Muslim family—not really orthodox but I could hardly speak a sentence of English.


You must have found it very different in Bombay?

It was a total departure. Although I had been very fond of art, I had studied calligraphy and used to write Urdu couplets. The first time I went abroad in 1953 I went to Paris. I remember an incident that took place there. By then, I had become well known. Mulk Raj had written a piece on me, so Souza said, ‘We started this and Husain is getting all the benefi ts.’ Raza came to receive me—I came by boat and then by train. Akbar said, ‘If the work of an artist is good, he exists otherwise he doesn’t exist. So the fi rst thing you do is open his portfolio. If his work is good, you bring him home, otherwise you don’t.’ I learnt from Akbar and Souza. My whole understanding was from these two people.

I used to spend hours, whole nights with them just listening to their conversations. And Akbar is brilliant in the way his thoughts flow. And so is Souza. So when I went to Paris, Raza was there.

At the railway station itself, he said, ‘Open up.’

He saw the work. He was not very impressed. Raza took me to Akbar’s place. Souza was there too. Th ey saw my work and Souza said, ‘Is this painting? You don’t know how to hold the brush.

You are just varnishing.’ At that time, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to jump out of the window. I went back to the hotel room with my confi dence shaken up. In all my life, I never felt so miserable ever again. Th at was the worst that happened. I felt like committing suicide.

They said, ‘You are doing nothing. What else?’ I was shattered, completely shattered. And then I went to London—there was Bakre. By that time, there was a big debate going on. Souza was doing those fi gures—those colours were almost like stained glass—there was a feeling for India. Souza painted Death of the Pope in 1963, which sold for 10,000 and it made big news. And Akbar was also here and he took out some old paintings to prove that it was not an original. So these fi ghts were going on. I went to London and to Bakre, and stayed there for nearly three months. There I worked. I only had 3000 and I stayed for fi ve months abroad. A friend of mine, my fi rst collector who was from Hyderabad, Pittie, gave me the ticket and a cheque of 3000. I showed that work to a famous Parisian gallery and the lady liked my work, which gave me tremendous assurance. But she said, ‘You have to stay and work here. You can’t work in India.’

Now even when I went there, I felt I could never live abroad. I’d like to come here for a few days and then go back. When I went to Italy, I saw the early period of the Renaissance, the eleventh century, and the works of Giotto, which impressed me more than the works of the contemporaries. I had a fascination for the classical—I would say Ucello—I didn’t like Michelangelo at all. When I went to Europe in 1956, at Frankfurt, there was an old lady who had supported the Expressionists during the war.

She was a rich old lady and she had showed my work in the gallery. I stayed with her.

What do you feel about the Impressionists?

Th e Impressionists never attracted me. When Picasso and the Constructivists came, they did something signifi cant. I forgot to tell you something. When the artists were rejected, they formed the ‘Salon D’refuse’. At that time, the Artists’ Aid Centre was formed by Schlesinger, Langhammer, and Rudi von Leyden. Rudi’s brother used to paint cartoons made by him and his wife also used to paint. So they sold all these and with that money, they formed the Artists’ Aid Centre. My fi rst painting in Bombay was bought by Schlesinger. He used to come home.

My eldest son was hardly five years old. I am talking of 1948–9. He used to buy my work for 150 to 200 and that was suffi cient for running the house for one month. In those days, paintings were priced at 100 to 150 and the big canvas was for 200. And the stumbling blocks at that time were Cawasjee Jehangir, Karl Khandalavala, and Dr Moti Chandra, who hated modern Indian art. Th ey liked either ancient art or academic art.

For that show, all six of us collected buckets of lai or glue, and we made posters about the show at BAS, which we pasted all the way up to Colaba.

One show was organized at the Communist Party offi ce at Matunga. In Delhi, Ram Kumar was already a party worker. He used to paint all those unemployed people. And then Harkishen Lall became a member. All of us also used to meet Sahir. Th ere was tremendous enthusiasm. There was some cause to fi ght, which was to demolish these two forces and establish modern Indian art. Dr Moti Chandra, Rai Krishen Das, and Karl Khandalavala—though he wrote a book on Amrita Sher-Gil, he just stopped there because he was in love with her. Th ree critics were in love with her—the other two were Barada Ukil and Dr Charles Fabri. Th ese two critics—Rudi von Leyden and Dr Charles Fabri, they supported the contemporary art movement in India. They were brilliant writers. And in Bengal, Ganguli was anti modern art. He also stopped with Jamini Roy. In 1951, I had an exhibition in Calcutta and he wrote against modern art. I couldn’t sell a single painting, so I had no money to come back.

Kanwal Krishna, a painter from Delhi, happened to pass by and bought a painting. Amrita had an exhibition at the Town Hall in 1936. I was in the crowd and she was like a princess with Karl Khandalavala on one side and Barada Ukil on the other.

Were you influenced by Amrita Sher-Gil in your work?

By 1940–9, we had already dismissed her in our discussions. She infl uenced Hebbar and B.C. Sanyal, which you can see in their early work. We had rejected Hebbar, Bendre, and Sanyal.

But Harkishen Lall we liked, and at one stage we had collected enough money to buy his works.

Th ere was tremendous amount of group activity and a feeling of working together but it has gone.

We started seeing very strongly in our own ways.

Th ough we were friends we were thoroughly opposed to each other’s approach—what Souza was doing, what Raza was doing, Akbar, Tyeb.

Although they were not members, they were major fi gures in contemporary Indian art.

How far did people like Wayne Hartwell contribute to your work?

Wayne was just a good-hearted man. He was a great support for Bakre, who used to stay with him. During the last year, when he was going away, he wrote a review of my work in Th e Times of India, which was very open. He used a lot of praise but with a certain language. I remember Dr Zakir Husain. Th e fi rst time he went to Germany, he brought back a lot of prints of Van Gogh, Picasso, and the others. In the group, everybody used to talk about it and then we saw it for the fi rst time. We were all familiar with the painters, but our aim was to go back to our roots.

I remember books also—we read more about Coomaraswamy than Herbert Reed and Malraux.

I didn’t know anything about it, it was Souza who used to say, ‘You must read.’ But earlier in Indore, I had read John Buss (Revolver!), which I had already discovered on my own.

What do you mean by saying that you were interested in our roots because you had already rejected the Bengal School?

But the Bengal School was revivalist. They wanted to retain the weak, anaemic lines. There was no structure—the modern language, the Cubists, Cezanne.

So you were exploring the language, but expressing Indian reality.

Indian sensibility. And that is the strong point of Souza. He is very colour-conscious, using strong, primary colours.

That large mural of yours, Zameen, which is part of the National Gallery of Art collection, denotes all these elements.

That was made in 1955 for the Lalit Kala exhibition—the fi rst year of the Lalit Kala Gallery. Rudi Leyden was there in the jury.

Dr Venkatachalam was the art critic and scholar in Delhi and D.P. Roy Choudhury was the chairman. Th ey were all against modern art.

Rudi fought for two to three days with them over the issue.

When do you feel that the general opinion against modern Indian art changed?

It didn’t take much time. By 1947–8. By 1955, in Delhi it was established. I remember the PAG, we had gone to Lucknow also and to the J.J. School of Art. And the professors there used to say, ‘Don’t mix with these fellows. Hamari bharatiya kala ko bhrastha kar rahen hain. Inke peche teen baithe huin hain foreigners aur yeh tamam nashtha kar rahen hain.’ Nobody has as yet given due credit to them. Th ey were responsible for a lot that has taken place in Indian art.

What has happened to the Schlesinger collection?

He had two daughters and when he died they inherited his works. He had one of my early paintings—a small painting. He was like a father fi gure. I used to tell him sometimes that I loved that painting. So when he was going to hospital, he said, ‘You do one thing. You take that painting and if I come back from the hospital, you give it back. If I don’t, you keep it.’

In this file photograph taken on 26 May, 2011, employees hold a painting entitled ‘The Sixth Seal’ by Maqbool Fida (M.F.) Husain at Sotheby’s auction house in central London. Carl Court/AFP

It had Raza, Souza, Ara, and Samant who was another important painter. All their early work is historically so important. Before he died, he went to Dr Moti Chandra. And he said he wanted to donate it to the museum. Th is was in the late 1960s. And Moti Chandra refused. He said, ‘This is dirt.’ Th at’s why I have attacked him so bitterly.

They didn’t know aesthetics, or distinguish between the dates—1870s or 1670s. There was an incident with Rai Krishen Das at the BHU.

He was an Indian miniature collector. So, once just to test him, we showed him a painting and he said 1760, after a year we showed him the same painting and he gave a diff erent date.

How do you explain a person like Mr Pittie’s response to modern art?

He is a Marwari and that too a raja sahib. He did a lot for Indian art. In 1952, he saw my work in Bombay. At that time Ayaz Peerbhoy was there and he advised him to buy my work, so he started collecting. For the last 15–20 years, he has been buying. He has a good collection of my work at his house in Hyderabad and he is thinking of building a museum. I had made 150 years of Ramayana. I used to meet Ram Manohar Lohia and he supported Lohia too. He told me, ‘You paint for Tatas and Birlas—why don’t you paint for the villagers?’ After his death, I started working on it. I used to sit with a pandit and hear both Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana. I used to sit with pandits and he provided the space. I worked seriously with it. It is my major work, which has not been shown yet.

I started in 1968 and it took me ten years to complete the exercise. I painted the epic not from the religious angle, but for the people. After Lohia died, these paintings were taken on a bullock cart to a village about 80 kilometres from Hyderabad and were spread out there. Th ere were these six feet and ten feet high paintings of Hanuman and Ram strewn around and the villagers sat enthralled for about three hours while Borakatha singers sang the epic. No one asked where are Ram’s eyes or why a particular painting was done in a particular manner.

Is it possible to see it?

Woh bara ajeeb admi hain. Raja saheb hain na. Very active politically, a Socialist. And for 20–25 years, he brought out a leading literary magazine without any advertising.

Amongst these three—Schlesinger, Rudi von Leyden, and Langhammer—who did you relate to the most?

Schlesinger. He made a good collection. He advised me, a very sensitive buyer.

Were Raza and Ara close to Langhammer?

Raza was close to Langhammer, and Ara to Rudi. Raza used to paint like Langhammer also.

Ara was just a cleaner and Rudi discovered him.

When I met him, he was an established artist. If you see his still life paintings, they are not inspired by any European artist. Th ere are strong lines with a lot of black in it. He did a huge mural—fi fteen feet long—for Independence.

And now I don’t know where it is. Rajiv Gandhi was doing the centenary and I was in one of the implementation committees. Th ere are a few political paintings which are impressive. One is Nandalal Bose which he did for the Congress session in Tripura somewhere in the early forties.

And this painting of Ara’s. We should issue stamps/posters. Pupul Jayakar, the Czarina of culture suggested it. And there are other artists who have done impressive work. Bendre made a painting for the Quit India agitation. In those days, I was there. It was a very important painting. Rajiv Gandhi said, ‘Art, masses won’t understand.’ Hence some commercial artists made some horrible designs, which were printed.

I just walked out of there and never attended any meeting. Ara’s mural should be part of the national collection.

Around that time Palsikar, Gaitonde, and Laxman Pai were three important painters. In 1948, Palsikar made a strong painting entitled Th e Singer’s Divine. I studied Indian form in that.

That was a masterpiece, which was bought by Rudi Leyden’s brother. I feel that we should get it back as it was a very important painting. His brother is still there in Switzerland. Th at was the focal point of all our discussion, with Akbar and Tyeb. Th at was the fi rst image in the modern art form evolving an Indian sensibility. But then he didn’t continue. He became mystical and asked what was the use of painting.

Schlesinger’s wife was a Goan woman?

Yes. She was a very ordinary woman, like a maid.

Publicly, he never took her out anywhere. But at home he was very loving, very caring. He had two daughters. I used to go to his house very often. Th ey used to be just opposite the Colaba bus stop. She was his second wife. His first wife was a German. He also had a twenty-five year old daughter from his fi rst wife at that time. He began by collecting bronzes. He had a huge trunk full of bronzes.

So really it was remarkable that these Jews who had fled from Germany contributed so much to modern Indian art in its formative years. Did their departure make a difference?

Rudi was here, he was very active till late.

Langhammer left early but his infl uence was not that great. He was a designer and not that creative. By the time they left there were many critics like Jagmohan in Bombay and Bartholomew in Delhi, who were very perceptive. In Delhi, the setting up of three Akademis in the early 1950s was a very good move. It was a good platform for expression at that time. Homi Bhabha was a major collector for the TIFR. This created a controversy.

There were questions in Parliament as to if that was a science institute or an art institute.

In this photograph taken on 14 January, 2004, a visitor looks at a huge painting called ‘Pieta by MF Hussain at the inauguration of the exhibition ’...and not only 88 of Hussain’ at the National Art Gallery in Bombay. Sebastian D’SOUZA/AFP

Tatas and Air India came later in the 1960s.

Jal Cawasji and Bobby Kooka were with Air India and they would take the paintings and give free air tickets in return. As a result, the artists could travel to Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, Paris. I did about four or fi ve trips. They had many paintings, but I don’t know where they are now.

Jal used to buy B. Prabha and Raval was the most fashionable painter in those days with all the Parsis, so much so that we started calling it the Air India school. They collected Shivax, Hebbar, and Bendre too.

March 1992


Th e Gufa, which was later vandalized by a mob, was opened in February 1995 in Ahmedabad, and was a spectacular installation made by M.F. Husain in collaboration with the architect B.V. Doshi. Emulating the forms of Ajanta and Ellora, the caves formed an organic structure, which was partly underground. It had natural light fi ltering in through skylights and shadows formed by large cut-outs that were strategically placed by Husain.

Like the ancient caves, this was conceived to form the living environment of the artist rather than to house anything permanent. In an adjoining gallery was placed Th eorama, Husain’s 120 feet long painting of the nine religions of the world.

Th e synchronic cave tradition contributed to what has always existed in India—the multiplicity of religions existing alongside one another. In an interview, he spoke about his creation:

Can you tell me about the Husain Doshi Gufa?

We wanted to build a house, which would not be a museum. It is like a cave with natural light.

The light changes according to the time of the day, casting different shadows inside. We want to invite tribals, folk artists, and modern artists to come and work there. It is an installation gallery.

We will not keep anything permanently there.

There is a wave of installation art in the West but we always had them like the paan shops, what are those? But we have not called them installations.

In the West, it has become a new thing. And now we follow them and make installations.

Perhaps you are the first modern Indian artist to make installations?

In 1960, there was a retrospective at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Bombay. I painted my car inside the hall and placed life-size fi gures inside. That was an installation but I didn’t label it so. In the same exhibition, I had a peep show. I constructed a small room and placed wooden puppets inside as they do in villages. Th is was in the 1960s when I took the entire gallery.

Bal Chhabda’s house in Bombay has furniture made by me. In the same exhibition, I made a black tent and put a dining table inside. It was like a horror chamber. It was called Sal du Bal —after Bal who is a close friend and a binding factor amongst all of us in the art world. It was dedicated to him.

What is your present work Theorama about?

It is a 120-feet long painting made like the pichwais. It contains all the nine religions of the world. It has been made on a large scale because unless it is made on that scale, it doesn’t serve the purpose. It is a characteristic of our culture to have paintings on an extended scale—to put horses, elephants, everything inside. Th e scale itself becomes like a work of art. When you go to worship, all the sculptures inside—what are those? We don’t need to get them from outside.

How did you think of a religious theme?

I have always been interested in religious themes.

In 1958, I painted the Ramayana. Then there was the Mahabharata, which was exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennial along with Picasso. There is a lot of intensity in our religions. Ravana has ten heads, Shiva also has ten heads. I have been fascinated by these since childhood. So last year, when the Hindujas were opening a bank in London and they asked me to paint on the Vedanta, I suggested that I paint all the nine religions of the world. Th e Indian High Commissioner, L.M. Singhvi, also felt that it would be very timely. Th e religions have been painted individually but never together. In Th eorama, I have not used obvious symbols, like the Swastika, because these create conflict. There is no halo behind any figure. It is a purely visual sign of icons. There is no fundamental value placed on any religion—they are all placed together. And the tenth religion is humanism, which comes after all these.

Tell me more about the caves.

Th e caves symbolize a continuation of the Ajanta and Ellora tradition. Th e very space of these caves was carved out and used. Similarly, the artists will use the space of these caves as the expression of art. In the caves, I have placed cut-outs, which are like shadows—there is nothing else. Th e caves are made out of wire—there is no foundation for it. It is a new experiment. The idea was mine and Doshi executed it.

We broke the cups and saucers used in Gujarat and placed them like tiles on the roof. The outer surface looked too white so I put a black line, like Shiva’s snake, to break the monotony. The workers were all adivasis but the technique is highly sophisticated. It is a strange creation, more like an installation than architecture. It is an extension of Shwetambari—now frozen in time. A fourth house, Rang Mahal, will be built by me in Hyderabad. It will be painted in diff erent colours.

I have designed all the rooms, the furniture, even the spoons and plates. Th is will demonstrate the art of living.

You are accused of commercializing art?

Where is there a question of that? I have spent my own money on this. I have not taken it from the government or anyone else. Let them go on—they cannot stop me. Every big movement has raised a hue and cry. When Impressionism was ushered in, there was so much protest. If you want to do away with past values, you have to take a hammer and hit it and destroy it.

February 1995

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