I had first heard of Hussain, as a child when somebody happened to mention that he was a famous painter who refused to wear any kind of footwear and preferred to travel barefoot. That remark was enough for me to categorise Hussain as a unique individual, who had a mind of his own and did not necessarily believe in doing something just because it was the norm. Everything that I heard about him after that only reinforced this belief.
Poornima, the night of the full moon, where the river is worshipped by lighting diyas in the water (Courtesy: from the brochure of V&A museum, London)
I do not make any claims to having any knowledge or understanding of art. However I do know what I like and though it is a fact that Hussain is recognised as the world’s greatest painters, had he been a struggling inconsequential street artist, I would have liked his paintings just the same. His paintings, the first of which I saw on a program aired by Doordarshan, appealed immediately, not only because of his use of bright colours but also because they could be so easily understood. Hussain himself is believed to have stated in an interview that he wanted his art to talk to people. So you have paintings depicting the daily rituals in an Indian household with clothes being darned on Singer sewing machines and women worshipping at the Tulsi Vrindavan. You have paintings showing Delhi during the freedom movement with Jawaharlal Nehru against the backdrop of the Parliament and of Madhuri Dikshit doing the Kathak.
Madhuri Dikshit doing the Kathak. Apparently Hussain had gifted her his paintbrush.
(Courtesy: from the brochure of V&A museum, London)
Shashi Tharoor recounts an interesting anecdote about Hussain in his book, ‘Bookless in Baghdad’. The great Pablo Picasso , it is alleged was not at all impressed with the new breed of artists who drew “slapdash cubes and squiggles” and Picasso would often command them to draw a horse with the notion of getting the basics right first. When this story was recounted to Husssain, he promptly opened a book of his own work that was lying on the coffee table and then proceeded to sketch a posse of horses. Shashi Tharoor, who happened to be present at the scene, recalls “I have never forgotten the moment: watching the artist’s long brown fingers glide over the page, the horses heads rearing, their manes flying, hooves and tails in the air, as Hussain left, in a few bold strokes, the indelible imprint of his genius.”
Kathakali (Courtesy: from the brochure of V&A museum, London)
Hussain’s love for horses is well known and it is alleged that he had got into trouble as a child for having drawn flying horses in the margins of his notebooks. However his grandfather forbid everyone from scolding him and instead went and purchased some water colours for him. Hussain sold his first painting on the roadside when someone agreed to pay ten rupees for it. In trying to make a living from his paintings, he initially went from door to door asking everybody if they wanted to have their portrait painted. He soon grew disillusioned however when he found that everyone wanted to have rosy cheeks in spite of what they looked like. One can only guess at the value those initial portraits would fetch today.
Tulsi worship (Courtesy: from the brochure of V&A museum, London)
Born in Pandharpur (Maharashtra), Hussain’s love affair with India and with Mumbai in particular was well known. It therefore broke his heart when he couldn’t visit his country because of the numerous death threats that he received. His son remembers Hussain asking him if he could visit India just once. In an interview that his son gave to the Guardian he recalls “He (Hussain) had this idea that he could get a flight and just slip in, perhaps sit for a while in a tea shop, and slip out.”
It is a travesty that in spite of being one of the greatest painters that India has produced, few Indian people have actually seen his work. Generations of Indian children will grow up without having any idea of his work but then religion is probably more important to India than art. That is why Hussain will always be remembered as the painter who drew nude Indian goddesses. The fact that his nude paintings of the goddesses cannot be deemed obscene by anyone who cares to take a look and resemble pencil drawings more than anything else is not important. The fact that he painted almost 10,000 paintings, all of them based on Indian culture and considered as works of artistic genius all over the world, is a fact that is not important. A plea to include a chapter on Hussain in the school text books would almost be an impossible dream that would be laughed at and ridiculed. Not only did Hussain have the right wing Hindus hounding him but he managed to raise the ire of the Islamists too for having a line from the Koran in one of the songs in a movie that he directed.
Travelling in Pandharpur, the bullock cart is driven by Hanuman while young lovers ride on a motor bike (Courtesy: from the brochure of V&A museum, London)
Hussain worked in London at his Shepherd Bush studio for several months of the year when the controversies had yet to surround him. He also made London his home when he was hounded out of India. His studio in London would make an ideal venue for a museum on his life showcasing some of his work. A museum dedicated to him would be unthinkable in India but would be a fitting tribute to him in a country which not only served as a kind of second home to him but which also recognised his genius.
A Indian dance form (Courtesy: from the brochure of V&A museum, London)