The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A cause tarred by a stolen Husain
- Two paintings go missing from anti-globalisation meeting venue

New Delhi, Jan. 13: Talk of oil over troubled waters. An international forum to discuss all that was wrong with globalisation ended with an epilogue that was bigger than the event — a missing painting in oil by none other than one of India’s most celebrated artists, Maqbool Fida Husain.

The Asian Social Forum (ASF) — a platform for social activists — wound up in Hyderabad with a fiasco that it won’t forget in a hurry. Two paintings — by Husain and Alex Mathew — loaned to the forum by the artists went missing on the night of January 6.

Despite the presence of police and a private security agency, no one knows what happened to the two mega-size paintings, which were put up under a shamiana for the six-day event at the Nizam College grounds. The ASF — the Asian chapter of the international development platform, the World Social Forum — would like to believe the paintings were carried home by a labourer who mistook them for a tenthouse banner.

Husain begged to differ. “A 4 ft by 13 ft painting cannot possibly be carried away by a labourer from under the nose of the authorities. This is an out-and-out case of theft, probably masterminded by an international gang,” he told The Telegraph from Hyderabad.

An FIR was lodged with Hyderabad police today — six days after the paintings went missing. “We were hunting our office premises and talking to the tenthouse people and labourers before going to the police,” said an apologetic Prabir Purkayastha, spokesperson for the ASF.

Held from January 2 to 7, the ASF event was attended by representatives from across Asia. The Indian delegation included activist-celebrities such as Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy. It was a large-scale meeting ground of establishment-bashers where anti-globalisation and anti-communal views flowed freely at workshops, seminars and debates.

Everything was going great guns — with 15,000 to 20,000 people attending the event every day, workshops running house full, and, of course, Husain and Mathew kindly agreeing to lend a painting each from their precious private collections to be displayed at the event. All free of cost — plainly, as Husain said, as a goodwill gesture.

The event was supposed to draw to a grand close, with former President K.R. Narayanan addressing the closing ceremony on January 7. “There was complete chaos the night before. The shamiana where the paintings were displayed had to be pulled down and a stage built. Unfortunately, we did not appoint our men to oversee the work and somebody walked off with the paintings that night,” said Purkayastha.

The ASF launched a massive six-day search operation, with no result. “Either the paintings are gathering dust at some labourer’s house or have been flinched by someone who realises their worth,” said Purkayastha.

All this might never have happened had Rasna Bhushan, a Hyderabad-based art critic — who brokered the deal between Husain and the ASF — not noticed the zero participation of artists at the meet. “I mentioned this to Mr Husain, who generously agreed to put up one of his most precious paintings and also read out a chapter of his autobiography at the event,” she said.

Little did Husain realise that his goodwill gesture would end in bad news. But Husain is not taking the “breach of trust” — as he calls it — lying down. He addressed a press conference in Hyderabad today, “to inform the people that one of my most precious painting has gone missing and I am very upset about it”. Husain said the painting — called Waqt (time) — would cost about Rs 70 lakh in the market.

“The painting is a visual version of a poem written by Javed Akhtar on time. When I read the poem, I was so moved by the words that I decided to depict them on canvas. The painting was a part of my private collection displayed at my museum in Hyderabad,” Husain said. He said he had agreed to lend the painting — done in Calcutta four years ago — to the ASF because he identified with its cause.

Mathew’s painting — a 1.5 feet by 2 feet pastel drawing on paper — has two images of the Buddha deep in meditation. “The painting stands for peace and harmony and was extremely relevant to the theme of the event,” said Bhushan.

Although Mathew was also in Hyderabad, he stayed away from the press meet.

It’s apology time now. ASF office-bearers tried to meet Husain in Hyderabad this morning but the octogenarian artist refused to meet them. The 31 organisations that come under the umbrella of the ASF have now expressed their regrets in a two-page letter of apology to the artists.

There is, however, little else that the ASF can do. “Although the event was a success, all that people are talking about now are the missing paintings,” lamented Purkayastha.

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