“We look before and after,
And pine for what is not;
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught” —-Shelley's Ode to a Skylark
What do we do now? He is gone. No amount of shame, regret, broodings, tears, nostalgia and a sense of loss would ever bring back what we consciously let go of. No matter how much we try to numb the feeling of guilt by stressing the need to celebrate the legend's life at his death, we will never be able to forget what we did to him when he was alive.
But, hold on… maybe, I am wrong. Public memory is short and so we, we the passive, incompetent, pseudo-democratic, pseudo-secular, silent onlookers of India would definitely forget the pain of alienation we have caused him and forgive ourselves for our atrocious blunder in a matter of time. I am sure India would beget another Maqbool Fida Husain and lose him too.
Husain's paintings, like poetry, were “a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions and feelings” and not a laboured exercise. His art was immensely fascinating because his understanding of the world, the gods, nature, man (and woman, of course), life and their interpersonal relationships was both deep and nascent. It was deep because he was gifted with an insight that dealt with the subject matter of his painting at a micro level; and nascent because, all through his life, there was the utmost invention and fancy in the creation and conception of his thoughts. His “mumbaiya cutting chai” and swarm of sweating masses at Chandni Chowk were as important an inspiration for him as the legacy of ‘Khajaraho' and the Indian cinematic experience. His understanding of humans and nature was at the same time so intense yet so light, so perpetual yet so nouveau that his incessant brush strokes were always full of aesthetic pleasure.
In an interview, Husain said: “I have painted in the idiom of modern art, the contemporary way… that's very difficult to understand. Where there is a figure of woman I paint, it is nude but that figure is not realistic. The nudity is a metaphor for purity and strength.”
The innocence and depth of his thoughts that do not reflect even an iota of malice, even after his forced self-exile, say a lot about the man beneath the artist. But are we so naïve that we can't understand what Husain was trying to depict or did we conveniently allow the successful fruition of a political propaganda?
Apart from the nude ‘Bharat Mata,' another controversial painting of his was ‘The Rape of India.' I laugh and cry at the same time with disgust and disbelief at the controversies surrounding that painting. Husain is falsely accused of splitting the canvas in half because he allegedly wanted to suggest that India will split and crumble under foreign invasion, to have painted blood and two bulls with green faces because he is a Muslim expecting ‘Islamisation' of India. How could we not see through the insanity of the allegations imposed on a man who gave up wearing chappals 45 years ago, when on the death of ‘Muktibodh' (arguably, the greatest Hindi poet) a realisation dawned upon him that he should suffer some pain, whose mother, instead of saying ‘khudaai kasam,' taught him to say ‘devasheesh shapath,' who, before starting with his magnum opus of 150 paintings on the Ramayana said he feels as if Valmiki himself has become a part of his being, who never forgot the river on the banks of Indore (where he spent his childhood) on either side of which was a ‘mazaar' and a ‘Shivalaya,' and a man who at the time of Partition of India said India's humanity was more important than her borders? Irrespective of whether he was in or outside India, Husain always painted, with the Indian landscape, Indian traditions, Indian mythology, Indian life and Indian people at the back of his mind. He was a man whose art was an epitome of the idea of a pluralist, united, secular and humane India.
In 2002, one evening, while sitting on one of the pavements near the Shivaji Stadium in Connaught Place, I saw a lean white robed man speeding past me. I couldn't see his face but my instinct said it was Husain. By the time I stood up to follow him, he disappeared round the corner. I ran, looked around and eventually found him inside a shop, barefooted, holding a stick in one hand and an artefact in the other. When, gasping for breath, I reached him and asked whether he would give me an autograph, he smiled and said: kyoun nahi denge.
He patted my head and wrote his name on a piece of paper. That ‘relic' is a part of him that would live with me and similarly whether ‘WE, the people of India' see “through the eyes of a painter” or not, his legacy would continue to live on. I daresay, in the end, both the people and the ideology which chased him out of India as well as those who, tongue-tied and hand-bound, did nothing to bring him back would be erased from the collective memory but three things would endure…Hindustan, Husain and his Art.
(The writer is former president, Delhi University Students Union and former national general secretary, NSUI. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org)