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M.F. Husain, Indira Gandhi & a portrait

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Husain and his subject, the author.
Husain and his subject, the author.

K. Natwar Singh

M.F. Husain had, by 1970, made his reputation as India's leading painter. He was keen to do a portrait of Indira Gandhi. I knew Husain well from 1958. In the mid-1960s he had twice stayed with me in New York. He arrived un-announced. He left un-announced. In 1963, I arranged his first exhibition at India House in New York: no art gallery would touch him. I took him to Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Laureate. He painted her portrait gratis. He also did a portrait of R.K. Narayan and two portraits of mine.

He is a genius. No formal schooling, no serious training in art schools. Humble origin. Large-hearted, in great demand by ladies of all ages. His sense of humour is quite original. Very few people know what a sensitive man he is. Also, moody. He has no regard for punctuality.

On November 14, 1967, I sent a brief note to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as follows:

“M.F. Husain has just returned from the United States where he had gone in connection with his film.

“He will be in Delhi for the next few weeks and would be most grateful if P.M. could give him time to sketch a few drawings of her, for a portrait which he is most keen to paint.

“He assures me that P.M. is not required to pose or do a ‘sitting'. If P.M. approves we could ask Husain to come to Parliament House to draw sketches while P.M. carries on with her normal work. It is of course impossible for a character like Husain to go unnoticed or be unobtrusive, but he assures me he will do his best.”

On November 15, 1967, my note came back from the Prime Minister. On the note she had written: “How long is he here? I should very much like to do this, but it can only be done on a comparatively free Saturday?”

Husain had to wait for over two months on account of the Prime Minister's schedule. Finally, on Saturday, January 20, 1968, I called Husain and asked him to come to South Block, adding that she would only be able to spare 15 minutes. Earlier I had warned Husain: “Be on time, or else.” For once he actually arrived a few minutes early.

I escorted him to her room. As soon as he got his pencil and drawing pad out, I got up to leave. But he said: “Natwar, sit down and keep talking, otherwise I will become self-conscious.”

Husain went to work without losing a moment. In five minutes he had finished Indira Gandhi's sketch and handed it to her. She looked at it carefully and remarked: “You have made the lower part of my face look like my father's.” Husain made no response. She handed the sketch back to him. He put it aside and started all over again. The second time he got it right. He thanked her in chaste Urdu for giving him time. She smiled and got on with her files.

On the way out I told him, tongue-in-cheek: “Let me tell you that we had to put off [meetings with] several foreign dignitaries to accommodate you.” He chuckled. Then came the vintage Husain response: “Achcha kiya. Khurafat bakte.” Translation: “You did well. They would have talked rubbish.”

In those far off days he did wear shoes, did not carry a long paint brush and had not gone grey.

( K. Natwar Singh, writer and litterateur, was a diplomat and subsequently Minister of External Affairs.)

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