We first met M.F. Husain at a dinner party in 1963 in Delhi. Tall, slim with bare feet and windblown hair, he was a striking figure. We were Husain fans and were very happy and excited to meet him. Sunita asked Husain if he was interested in tennis and invited him to witness the finals of the National Championship between Vijay Amritraj and Mal Anderson the next day at the Delhi Gymkhana Club. His enthusiastic acceptance surprised us. He was at the courts bang on time the next day. It turned out to be a very exciting match. In the final stages of the fifth set, Sunita said that Amritraj was sure to win. Husain disagreed and said that he thought that Anderson would win. “Let’s bet on it”, he said. “If Amritraj wins I will give you one of my paintings and if Anderson wins you give me one of your paintings!” These were outrageously generous odds by any standard and Sunita happily accepted, half in jest. Surely Husain was not serious.
Amritraj won and we avoided mentioning the bet. The next morning, when we came down to the reception of the Oberoi Intercontinental Hotel, they told us that Husain had come early in the morning and had left a painting for Sunita. It was a striking 4ft x 3ft canvas, a spectacular ‘Husain Horse’ done in oil that was still wet. The arched neck and bold lines exuded power and pride. We were over the moon and could not believe his generosity. We wanted to thank him but could not locate him. So we called his son, Shamshad, and asked where could we find him. To our astonishment, he gave us three options: one of the coffee shops at the Oberoi Delhi, a second one in Madras, and a third in Bombay. Shamshad said that Husain carried air tickets to most destinations in his battered khadi jhola and just took a flight to any of the places in the morning. He never carried any baggage. He was an unfettered soul who flew with the impulses of the moment, always searching to breach conventional barriers. Eventually we located him in the coffee shop at the Oberoi in Delhi and thanked him profusely. Indebted, I told him that whenever there was an important tennis match, I would always keep a seat for him in case he was interested to watch the game. The years flew by and he invariably turned up for the major tournaments in India and the Davis Cup matches. An ardent fan of Chris Evert, he was very fond of Wimbledon and watched the tournament with us every summer. In fact, a couple of weeks before he passed away, he talked his way out of the ICU at the Royal Brompton Hospital to come and watch the final of the French Championships with us on television. Frail and wobbly, he pushed aside my helping hand and said, “let me walk like a drunken sailor”. I have never seen such a robust, fearless spirit. I remember one summer in London when Husain hurt his right wrist badly in a fall. Everybody was very worried. With a dismissive wave of his left hand, he said, “No problem, I have already done a painting with my left hand!”
Calcutta had a very special place in Husain’s heart. He always stayed with us as he was totally free to come and go as per his whims and fancies. An early riser, Husain was a regular at the Russell Street dhaba where he took his morning tea and discussed politics with a group of morning-walkers. He was totally at ease there, happily mingling with taxi drivers, cleaners and others.
With his boundless energy and drive, he met Calcutta’s greats in the world of art, music, cinema and literature and participated in addas over endless cups of tea and coffee. His mission was to imbibe the views and experiences of the greats in all spheres of life. Invariably, before one of his major exhibitions, he would meet the renowned experts on the subject before beginning his bold interpretations on canvas. On the first occasion, when Husain visited Mother Teresa with us, we could see that he was deeply touched. On the way out, he burst into tears. He spent three weeks visiting Mother Teresa’s homes for the poor which left him traumatized. He locked himself in a room for more than a fortnight and produced what I consider to be one of the most brilliant exhibitions of his works. The paintings of Mother Teresa came straight from his heart. Some of these are in museums in the United States of America. The exhibition on Mother Teresa was a stunning success and a prelude to his greatest period. But the horse in myriad forms was the soul of Husain’s paintings. With a few quick strokes of the brush, Husain could conjure a flying horse as a saviour of the highwayman or a prancing horse in full regalia that was fit for a Mughal emperor. It was also his visiting card. A small sketch of a horse sent to our room would herald his arrival at the lobby. When we told him that we would greatly treasure a small collection of his horses to add to our collection, he responded with much love and alacrity and produced 12 small paintings. Amongst them is a masterpiece where the figure of the horse encapsulates the sacred karmas.
Husain was often accused of overcharging for his horse paintings which he could produce in a short time. His agitated response was that he had travelled for more than 30 years around the museums of the world studying the horses painted by other masters before he found the form of his horse. Every line that he drew had been practised a million times till he perfected his horse. He often referred to his horse as Duldul, the all-conquering horse of Hazrat Ali. One is not sure if he was aware that “the best etymology is from DLL of the first syllable of the word, meaning finder of path”. Indeed, Husain was one of the greatest painters of India with a global presence who not only was the ‘finder of a path’ but also led others to it. According to his talented son, Owais, Husain’s horse was also influenced to a great extent by the drawings of the Chinese masters.
Husain was a multifaceted, restless genius and distinguished himself in the world of photography and cinema. In 1981, a collection of Husain’s photographs titled ‘Culture of the streets’ was picked up by the prestigious Tate gallery for an exhibition in London. He told me that the photographs encapsulated three worlds — the man on the street (reality), the towering, larger-than-life dashing images of heroes and heroines of cinema (fantasy), and the endless blue sky looking down on the play of destiny. His success in photography did not satiate his relentless drive and drove him back into the world of cinema after his first foray in 1967. When Indira Gandhi was the information and broadcasting minister, Husain was commissioned by the Films Division to do a documentary on Rajasthan, in colour. Husain insisted on doing it in black and white and stuck to his guns. His effort was severely criticized by the ministry. Understandably, the government officials were unable to appreciate the technical brilliance of the film. Husain’s discarded and much criticized effort in black and white found its way to the Berlin Film Festival where it won the prestigious Golden Bear award. There was a phase in his life when Husain roamed around the world with a movie camera in his hand obsessively shooting just about everything in sight.
In 1999, Husain felt that he was ready for Bollywood. Inspired by his newfound muse, the glamourous Madhuri Dixit whose film Hum Aapke Hain Kaun he saw countless times, he boldly sailed into Bollywood’s unchartered waters with the spinnaker billowing in the wind for his first film, Gaja Gamini. His family members, who had seen many entrepreneurs ground into cinematic dust and drowned in debt, were in despair. “I will not borrow a single paisa and will raise money only by selling my paintings”, declared Husain. We came to know about it when he rang up Sunita one morning and said, “Are you ready?” “Ready for what”, asked Sunita. “Come to Mumbai, you are the rajmata in my film, Gaja Gamini. Will Naresh allow you into the filmy dunia?” With a whoop of joy, Sunita responded, “He will have to.” “Then report tomorrow to Mehboob Studios in Bombay!”
What we saw over the next few weeks was astonishing. His intense passion for Bollywood transformed him into a ‘superman’. There was no management team. Husain handled everything. When he ran short of money, he would paint at night and sell his work. He ran afoul of the contractor mafia when he innovated and produced with bamboos and paper overnight a Kerala forest set for Rs 3,000 for which they had quoted 30 lakh. Such was the measure of Husain’s versatility and creativity. For me, the film was a hotchpotch of his ideas, but artistically and visually it was very beautiful. The brilliant colours transported you into another world.
Gaja Gamini did not make 100 crore in the first few days, but Husain found a buyer who agreed to pay 100 crore for 100 of his paintings. “I have a cheque for Rs 25 crore in my hand”, he said to me over the phone from Singapore. Husain was the Steve Jobs of the world of painting, and more. Unlike Jobs, he worked without an army of helpers. He created, marketed and sold his paintings through multiple sources at the highest prices, and helped Indian art prices soar.
Husain’s story stretches over many years. He built his innings with singles and doubles, desperately scrambling between the wickets for runs, and successfully countering the infinite variety of spin that life bowled at him. The last two decades were his slog overs. He stormed the world of art with paintings which stood out like rockets on a Diwali night. At times, he would slip in a lemon amongst his works which fetched astronomical prices and secretly laugh at the art critics. When the millions rolled in, he indulged with abandon on the luxuries of the super rich. Penthouse suites, chauffeur-driven Rolls and Bugattis, bodyguards, shopping at Hermes for everything but his toothpaste — he seemed to be on a real high. But deep in his heart he yearned to be back in India, walking barefoot on the sidewalks, drinking tea in earthen cups at a dhaba in the noise and bustle of the great Indian bazaar.
He once said loftily, paint-brush in hand, “When I begin to paint, hold the sky in your hands as the stretch of my canvas is unknown to me”. In the end, Husain’s canvas went beyond the sky and touched the stars.