M. F. Husain, India's greatest and most celebrated artist, called me from his hospital bed in London Tuesday afternoon. Speaking in a soft, low voice, with old world courtesy, he informed me matter of factly that he had suffered “a silent heart attack” in Dubai some time ago, that it had gone undiagnosed, and that he had just checked in at the Royal Brompton where the doctors and medical facilities were excellent. I enquired how he was feeling and he said he believed there were no complications. I asked if there was anyone I should inform about his hospitalisation and he said members of his family were on their way.
I had a sense of foreboding that this might turn out to be a farewell call. I knew he had sighted many more than a thousand moons, scored a century by the Islamic calendar, and was probably fit enough to go on to a hundred years by the Gregorian calendar. I was touched that he had telephoned me at a moment he must have felt vulnerable and possibly helpless in a hospital bed far, far away from his homeland. Family, two sons and one daughter, managed to get there in time to be with him at the end.
My mind went back to 1996 when a communal hate campaign, physical threats, acts of vandalism, and impending arrest forced Husain-saab into exile. He was distraught, deeply unhappy, and felt abandoned by the India he loved. He kept calling us from London, from New York, pleading that he must absolutely come back to India, “not die in a foreign land.” After months and a good deal of negotiation with the Maharashtra authorities, he was allowed to return in the dead of night and in disguise, a fruitless exercise as he was recognised, even in his Alpine hat and Italian boots, at Mumbai's international airport — and before that at Heathrow. We received him at immigration and whisked him away to the Taj Mahal, Mumbai, always his well-wisher, which now provided a safe haven.
During this insecure period, we accompanied Husain-saab to court proceedings in Indore and elsewhere and acquired first-hand experience of the harassment and terror he faced from bigoted mobs. We witnessed what uncertainty and fear this creative genius, then in his eighties, had to endure in rising India. However, the one city where he felt completely safe was Chennai, where he stayed either with his son Mustafa or with us. He always travelled light and left a set of clothes and art equipment in our homes.
He relaxed, he painted, he spent several nights working with A.R. Rahman on the music for his current film. He always came armed with reels of his latest film, which he screened for our friends. He sometimes called on the writer R.K. Narayan, the seniormost member of his Rajya Sabha ‘gang of four,' from a period he brought alive in his satirical Sansad Upanishad. He spent early morning hours gazing at, and sketching, a blue-and-gold macaw.
However, this was a decade fraught with intimidation and legal threat. Husain-saab finally left India in 2006 to make his home elsewhere. Since 2006, with the escalation of the Hindutva hate campaign against him, he had been living in Dubai and Qatar and spending his summers in London. He travelled freely except to India, where he continued to face harassment and physical threats, with the system impotent and not committed to enabling his return. Though the Supreme Court intervened on the right side, it was too little, too late. The Congress-led government, it became clear, could do no better than the preceding BJP-led government had done in protecting Husain-saab's freedom of creativity and peace of mind.
I remember the artist telephoning me in New York, in February 2010, to give me the news of his impending acceptance of Qatar nationality. “Honoured by Qatar nationality” but deeply saddened by his enforced exile and the need now to give up the citizenship of the land of his birth, which he has lovingly and secularly celebrated in his art covering a period of over seven decades. He made it a point to emphasise that he had not applied for Qatar nationality, which was conferred upon him at the instance of the modernising emirate's ruling family.
Until his passing in the early hours of Thursday, the artist worked a long day, producing large canvases and life-size glass sculptures. Never had he been as commercially successful. His work was mostly devoted to two large projects, the history of Indian civilisation and the history of Arab civilisation. The latter was commissioned by Qatar's powerful first lady — Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned, wife of the emirate's ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani — and the works were to be housed in a separate museum in Doha.
Husain-saab, although sad, was never bitter against anyone in India, or for that matter anywhere else. His quiet and dignified passing in a London hospital brings to a close one of the sorriest chapters in independent India's secular history. I know no one more genuinely and deeply committed to the composite, multi-religious, and secular values of Indian civilisation than M.F. Husain. He breathed the spirit of modernity, progress, and tolerance. The whole narrative of what forced him into exile, including the failure of the executive and the legal system to enable his safe return, revolves round the issues of freedom of expression and creativity and what secular nationhood is all about.
Let the people of India pay their respects to a great son who, rising from humble origins, used his prodigious talent and creativity to portray and celebrate all that is diverse and wonderful about this country and the historical civilisation it represents.