Opinion | Husain: The boy who lived to paint
From a painter of film posters to one of India’s most controversial artists, M.F. Husain lived a richly chequered life
In 1934, when M.F. Husain first sold a painting, the roadside transaction added a grand total of ₹10 to his tattered pockets.
At 17, with a bicycle his most glamorous possession, he was still just a creatively inclined grandson of a tinsmith from Pandharpur, Maharashtra, without any conception of the kind of celebrity—and notoriety—that awaited him in the years to come. In his 90s, he would be hounded out of his own home by howling mobs and hooligans, forced, in the end, to seek sanctuary in a foreign land. In 1934, though, there was little inkling of the trauma that lay ahead—instead, the rupees in Husain’s hands were his first ever earnings, and as an old man he would remember the absolute thrill they brought him, in addition to a much-needed boost of confidence. While it was no fortune, at a time when everything from a cup of tea to a roof for the night cost only a few paise, ₹10 was the buyer’s way of telling him that he was good; that perhaps Maqbool, son of Fida, had it in him to become that remarkable thing: an artist.
Husain, whose (formal) birth anniversary it was last week, always had a love of flamboyance, whether it was in the way he painted (sometimes before mesmerized audiences), behaved (his discarding of footwear on a permanent basis is famous), and even remembered the past. His very birthday, for instance, was chosen arbitrarily because nobody remembered the actual date of his arrival: “because I (liked) the sound of September,” he laughed, “I decided I was born on 17 September, 1917. However, the alliterative sound of the three ‘S’s...made me change the year to 1915!” Then there was the loss of his mother, which Husain often related with a tragic flourish. Before he was 2, he was taken unwell. His mother, Zainab, decided to sacrifice herself to god if her son were spared. “She laid Maqbool on the bed in the quivering light of the lamp,” a biographer wrote, “covered her uncombed hair with a black sheet, lifted her hands in prayer and went around the bed seven times.” That night Zainab was dead, while Husain became the boy who lived.
Husain certainly had a sense of his own destiny, which fuelled a determination that resisted all pressures to settle into conventional life. After a short-lived apprenticeship with a tailor led nowhere, his father acquired a camera for him, in the hope that the boy’s obsession with light, form, and image could be channelled into a reliable trade. Husain, of course, had other plans—while he used the camera, including to take a photograph of himself in the nude, his love of the brush clung to his fingers. What began with him tracing a pencil on magazine pages, evolved into a passion, to which was added a powerful sense of observation. His stepmother feeding her baby filled him with a wondrous realization about the female form; rituals in the temple and the company of a Brahmin boy who thrilled him with tales from the Hindu epics; and a thriving market and its bustling crowds birthed a lifelong interest in people, their faces, and, most importantly, their singular stories.
In Indore, where his father moved for work, Husain absorbed cultural influences that stayed with him for life. He played Hanuman during festivals, and observed Muharram processions; years later, he went to Varanasi where he claimed to have found “the essence of India”. After he won a medal in a local competition, his father came around and spent a princely sum to bring Husain oil paints and new brushes. The son even made plans to study at the JJ School of Art in Mumbai, but when Fida was laid off work, hopes of acquiring formal training crumbled. Instead, barely 20 years old, Husain moved to Mumbai, painting billboards for money and, to the initial alarm of the lady who supplied him his meals, falling in love with her daughter. But these years were integral. “Frankly,” he is quoted as saying in Rashda Siddiqui’s 2001 book, In Conversation With Husain Paintings, “I don’t think I’ll ever forget my yesterdays. I know how it is to work hard on a hoarding that is put up for only a couple of weeks and then destroyed.”
Husain had plenty of ambition, and from the start groomed himself well, whether, as his biographer Ila Pal wrote, it was his George V beard or his conscious decision to master the English language. In fact, F.N. Souza, who founded the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947, once declared that the secret of Husain’s success was “40% your beard, 30% your personality, 20% your friends, and 10% maybe your talent!” Husain too credited talent as only one part of the equation for success: “An individual,” he said, “only requires 5% of creative capacity. The rest is sheer hard work.” He would know—through the 1940s, he painted commercially, designed furniture, took up projects on the side, and even briefly worked in a textile mill in Warangal. A stable income released him from financial pressure, and this liberated his imagination, expressed on increasingly saleable canvases.
Such commitment paid off, and by the 1950s, Husain’s reputation was on the ascendant. While a 1948 show in Kolkata saw his work dismissed as “a betrayal of Jamini Roy”, Husain enjoyed greater success in Delhi. He was sent on a delegation to China, and by the middle of the decade, was honoured by the Lalit Kala Akademi. He toured Europe and picked up friends and contacts by the dozen, and in the 1960s was not only earning several thousand rupees apiece for his work, but could also afford a car and other luxuries. The teenager who was thrilled with ₹10 once grew into a celebrated painter, one of India’s most prominent faces in the international avant garde. He would go on to sit in Parliament, and travel the world, making friends, chasing lovers, and living a life as vivid and rich as his canvases. In the end, gloom did cast its shadow on him, when self-appointed custodians of culture took umbrage at a Muslim’s brush depicting Hindu divinities in ways beyond their creative comprehension. But by then the boy from Pandharpur was already a legend: he had nothing to prove anymore, and if at all a loss was incurred, it was not by him but by an entire nation.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai
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