June 10, 2011 (Calcutta tube / IBNS): Back in the late 1980s I was an audacious student of art in Kolkata’s Birla Academy of Art and Culture. It was sheer insolence now I know, the only redeeming thought being my decision to enroll in the commercial art section. But despite the brazenness it was around that time that I got some exposure to art and artists. Those were encounters that I still treasure.
One of those spin-offs of enrolling myself in Birla Academy was the opportunity to meet many famous painters from close. Husain and Paritosh Sen were few of them.
[ReviewAZON asin=”115938682X” display=”inlinepost”]We had then heard that M F Husain often walks barefoot and the tittle-tattle around me was that it was one of the many gimmicks he would use to stay in news. I was almost swayed by that opinion till I met other painters in later life and witnessed how desperate and unethical they can be for publicity and a few charitable lines or reviews. It was later that I knew that good reviews in even top publications can be purchased and some of the influential reviewers actually trade a good publicity with a complimentary painting from the painter.
In retrospect, the barefoot act was Husain was unfathomable, but as time passed and I experienced the world around me with all its plurality and richness, I knew it was Husain the eternal Bohemian. I would say he was a tramp, a Charlie Chaplin, with a paintbrush. The child in him would like to gallop free like the restless blue-white-yellow-green horses of his canvas.
And I know now that he did not chase controversy or cheap publicity. It was the other way round because of his tremendous talent, courage and originality. With all their cajoling and TV appearances many Indian painters seeking glory could not achieve what Husain was blessed with by his artless vitality, candour and casualness.
I remember one evening in late eighties when Husain walked into Birla Academy barefoot. He was disarmingly humble and jovial, beads of sweat on his forehead. I was wondering how one can attack this man so ruthlessly for his Bohemian ways.
He was there around for a few days and then one day we were in an elevator together, going down to the ground floor from the top. He looked at me and smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and then patted me. I was carrying a roll of handmade paper and some paint brushes with all the pretence of an art student.
I vaguely recall him enquiring about our classes. As I walked out of the elevator, I knew I am basking in Husain’s reflected glory. I rushed home to tell my mother, who had just read some interesting story about his self-confessed personal life in a newspaper.
My first experience of a Husain exhibition was on the penthouse of Tata Centre in Kolkata. I do not remember the year, but it was more than two decades back. I went to the exhibition not drawn by Husain but by the sheer thought of taking an eyeful of the lush Kolkata maidan, the Victoria Memorial and the skyscrappers of Kolkata visible from the top.
The exhibition, of what I can recall of my feelings, then did not appeal to me and I came back with only the panoramic view of my city from the top. The works- or the lack of it- on display in fact killed my interest in Husain for a while.
But all that changed in later years when I saw more of him and discovered how original he was. I started liking his horses, his women and even my stray sketches adorning the edges of my exercise books were influenced, perhaps unwittingly, by his bold lines.
Many years later I met him again at the press conference and the premiere of Gajagamini at Metro Cinema of Kolkata. I was amazed by his vitality and youthfulness. I got more opportunity to talk to him.
But what Husain’s originality taught me was to have faith in my own ways of practising a trade. Be it painting or journalism, originality will always survive and Husain all his life was an embodiment of that idea.
In the later years controversies around his works did not limit to his barefoot ways. It got virulent and murkier with the saffron forces vandalizing his works.
But I cannot end this article without the sad thought about the way the fabled artist community of Kolkata responded in 2003 when Husain purportedly said most Bengal painters lack stamina and energy.
Kolkata painters, including those who later ritually lambasted former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on Singur and Nandigram, went to the CM in a group and persuaded him to boycott the inauguration of Husain’s show at a city gallery.
I am curious to know about their reactions to Husain’s demise.
– Sujoy Dhar