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Up close and personal: Five decades of friendship with M.F. Husain

M.F. Husain

M.F. Husain

By Saket Suman,

Book: Husain: Portrait of an Artist; Author: Ila Pal; Publisher: HarperCollins India; Price: Rs 699; Pages: 306

An honest and incisive biography of the iconic painter, penned by Ila Pal, herself a noted artist, this book takes you a step closer to the life and craft of M.F. Husain. The author shared a long-lasting friendship with the late painter and, as a result, offers insights that one would not have access to otherwise.

On a rainy day in 1955, Pal saw Husain for the first time, standing in the portico of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. Six years later, in 1961, she actually met the star painter, “the tall wiry man, with a salt-and-pepper-beard”. It was the beginning of a long and enriching association between an eager student of art and Husain, a journey that lasted 50 years.

The cover of this biography features an image of Husain, probably in his last days, reclining on the floor. It has not been overburdened with words and endorsements by celebrities. Dressed in a white kurta and pajama, Husain appears carefree, perhaps tired after a long day’s work. Scattered around him on the floor are newspapers — and the background has been faded to keep the late artist in focus.

This also true for the rest of the book as, despite dealing with a range of issues from the world of art, the biographer never loses focus of her subject. Pal shares tidbits of his life, takes the readers on a journey to places that Husain visited and recalls the many conversations they had together. The book also delves into the artist’s exile from his homeland at the fag end of his life, exploring the question of creative licence in a climate where people’s sentiments are easily hurt and where censorship rules the roost like never before.

Renowned across the world as an iconic artist, Pal maintains that Husain was about many other things at the same time. He was a curious boy from Pandharpur, a painter of billboards, a maker of toys, an aesthete, the inveterate progressive artist he soon became, and later a filmmaker and style icon who walked about barefoot with a long brush in hand.

Even though Pal’s journey with the artist began as a student, and she wanted to learn the craft under his guidance, Husain resisted the term “guru”. A decade into their companionship, Husain spelt out why the concept of “guru” was incompatible with growth — and regressive for a contemporary painter.

“Every new painting is an assertion of one’s individuality, of one’s breaking away from the past and from the masters, however great,” Husain told the author and she quips, in the book, that this small incident was what removed the invisible barrier between them and they met thereafter as friends.

Filled with anecdotes about his charisma, his sharp wit, his sense of wonder about the world at large and his insatiable hunger for love, this warm and personalised biography traces his evolution through his many avatars. It attempts to unravel the enigma of Husain, who is considered the master of contemporary Indian art, and the auctions of whose works at Christie’s and Sotheby’s changed the Indian art market forever.

“Husain’s passion for painting was rooted in his love for life. Forever eager to experiment, he was unwilling to confine his life and art to the boundaries of the known… Husain did not create masterpieces in each medium he tackled, but by undertaking a different creative process, he constantly rejuvenated his intrinsic creative urge. Through every creation Husain saheb reassured us that he was still a seething and unrestrained creative force,” Pal writes.

Apart from all that is expected in a biography of a widely revered artist, this offering also goes further and chronicles the impact that Husain had on the art world.

‘Husain’s marketing strategy was a coup of sorts’

The barefoot “Picasso” of Indian art, Maqbool Fida Husain, apart from being a versatile artist, was also an astute marketing guru, reveals a biography by Ila Pal, who shared an enduring five-decade-long friendship with the late artist.

According to Pal’s book “Husain: Portrait of an Artist” (HarperCollins/Rs 699/306 Pages), in the 1990s, when the much-acclaimed artist was facing the ire of radical Hindu nationalist groups and had as many as eight criminal complaints filed against him, he became “audacious enough to raise the prices” of his paintings to international levels.

“Not that he could do this overnight, nor was it easy to get internationally well-known auctioneers excited about Indian contemporary art. For the first time, Indian artists started fetching phenomenal prices in Sotheby’s and Christie’s as these international auctioneers saw their chance to reap a harvest,” Pal notes in the biography.

She further points out that the marketing strategy that Husain evolved was a coup of sorts.

“Brand M.F. Husain was a very deliberate creation on my part,” Pal quotes the late artist as saying.

She also points out that he arbitrarily raised the price from Rs 40,000 to Rs 1 lakh a canvas at a Christie’s sale in the early 1990s.

“Suicide, everyone muttered, but Husain won. The canvas went for Rs 5 lakh. Next he priced the canvas at Rs 6 lakh and it went for ten and then soon after at one crore,” Pal writes in the book.

And that is not all, Husain plotted hard to pull it off.

“I got Citibank to sponsor my show and invite a super-select audience. I then went about creating a spectacle; I mounted my canvases at the ceiling height, and had them rolled down to live music, supported by dance troupes. I similarly orchestrated a show with Madhuri Dixit, choosing the Living Media group as partner for maximum splash,” the late artist is quoted as saying in the book, from an interview in 2008.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at saket.s@ians.in)


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