Few painters have been loved and hated so fiercely in modern times as MF Husain. His paintings have always evoked response; they never go unnoticed. With much of his art and life played out in the public, a recent biography brings the interested reader up and close to the personal journey of one of India’s most celebrated painters.
Husain, Portrait of an Artist , by Ila Pal, is a reliable read as the author, also a painter, has had an enviable friendship and mentorship with Husain since 1961. The biography tells us about the life and times of Husain, beyond what his over 40,000 paintings have shown us in his decades as a prodigious artist. Given the unique association of the biographer with her subject, the book has a wealth of information about Husain’s life and work. It’s not brilliant in its writing, but for the sheer information and details it offers, this is a good one as any.
The biography alternates between Pal’s recollections of “Husain saheb ” and long passages in Husain’s voice, which at times makes the reading uneven.
The appealing parts of the biography are the unknown bits about Husain’s childhood; of life in Maharashtra’s Pandarpur, where he was born in 1915. His childhood recollections are packed with memories, but none as stark as his mother’s death when he was but a year old (Is that why he found solace in the maternal figure of Mother Teresa in Kolkata many years later, ponders the biographer). It was a childhood of genteel poverty, constant change of cities, patchy education under the tutelage of a maulvi , and life with a stepmother and new siblings. There were moments of glee like receiving an unexpected gift — an Agfa camera box — from his father, Fida Husain. (“Raghu Rai dismisses me as a bad photographer,” Husain would crib to friends in Mumbai, decades later).
Much of Husain’s life as an artist has been recorded, but it is accounts of his childhood and life as a young adult working in Bombay in the 1930s, painting billboards for six annas , that offer rare insights.
The biography traces the life of Husain the artist and his rise as a painter, the brutal reception he received from the Bengal critics for his maiden show in 1934, where he sold his first painting for ₹10. Of course, there is the faithful list of beautiful women, whom Husain gleefully showcased in his art and his romances; they receive more than a passing mention in the book. His friendships with the famous and the ordinary folks, his early struggles and run-ins with critics in his later days are all detailed. Out of all this emerges the portrait of an artist — a vulnerable, human and determined person. And it shows most importantly how Husain remained connected to the street, the common and the regular, the village dust and the city sprawl, making him truly a people’s painter.
Given the myth around Husain and the attention he received for his quirks, and the reactions his paintings evoked, the book manages to draw up the picture of a man whose struggles were real. Anecdotes, and there are many, throw light on his quirks as well as his prodigious talent.
Reading the biography, one is overcome by shame that the artist was largely in news in the 21st century for being the hate figure for Hindu groups; one who was forced into exile (even as he longed, until his death in 2011, to come back home and hang around the streets to have a cup of chai) following the violent incidents over his works.
The listing of Husain’s remarkable oeuvre show the extraordinary arc of chronicling India, and her people — paupers, pundits, politicians, movie stars and gods and myths — through decades. Husain diligently documented the people and the passage of India’s modern history until his passing — paintings on Indian civilisation, the Independence, the controversial one on the Emergency and Indira Gandhi, the Mahabharata paintings in 1979, of Mother Teresa in the 1980s, of the cyclone-devastated Andhra Pradesh and Bhopal, massacre of innocents in Assam, and personalities such as Phoolan Devi, Sunil Gavaskar, Amitabh Bachchan, and Madhuri Dixit — all made it to his canvas.
“He observed life with a child’s abandon and a sage’s wisdom,” writes Pal. A truer word was never said about an amazing artist and his prodigious body of work.
It’s a tragedy that Husain was attacked and accused of being an iconoclast. He remained then, and to the last, a man attuned to street colours and people, his heart thrumming to the earthy beats around him.
This biography, written with affection, perhaps is a reminder to many to bury their harsh judgements of him.
S udha G Tilakis a Delhi-based journalist