Husain uncensured

Of course we will miss him. Even if Maqbool Fida Husain were in exile, he was now a Londoner. One of us. It was a sight that always cheered us up — the flowing white locks and beard — and the trademark barefeet. In fact, it was this time of the year that he would be spotted the most, with London warming up, the start of the cultural get-togethers, the celebration of the art exhibitions and auctions, and also the arrival of Indians “summering” in London.

As we all mulled over the wonderfully eclectic collection of Indian art that is now available in London — we would always find a “Husain” to admire. And sometime later, one would spot the artist himself, looking as much at home as he probably did in the streets of Mumbai. Though a little more frail each time one saw him.
It could not have been easy for him though he always smiled cheerily about it all, and dismissed any gloomy thoughts. Very rarely would he speak about his own desire to go home and no doubt there would always be a longing that would never go away. But it was something he preferred not to voice too openly because sadly, his very vocal fundamentalist critics had found him here as well. Some years ago, it had been a huge shock for all of us when his exhibition in London had also been threatened. It must have been a complete surprise for him too because London is a place where freedom of expression is almost a dharma. But, unfortunately, the self-appointed thought police proliferates in the name of securing “culture”, and that exhibition, despite protests from many of us that his works should continue to be displayed, had to be removed. That was probably the last time a full fledged public exhibition of his original works was held here as well.
The reality was that apart from the frequent exhibitions by auction houses of South Asian art, Husain sahib was not given the same platform, even in London, as has been given to other Asian artists. Recent entrants like Subodh Gupta often drew much more comment and interest than he did. Perhaps the reason could be that the art appreciated in the UK is often about exhibitionism and even performance. Marketing is also very important. Husain sahib’s art was probably far too deeply rooted in the ethos, politics and colours of India to be truly appreciated by the masses here in the UK, or even by art critics who did not really engage with him. Perhaps this is a sad commentary on how little we, as a community have done to promote our best known artists. Recently, I was at a dinner that was attended by movers and shakers (who were 99 per cent white and British) most of whom would have been familiar with India. Many spoke to me about cricket, but no one mentioned Husain sahib’s passing away or had even heard of him. This is indeed a tragedy. For us he was probably India’s greatest painter — but he was living in a country which allowed him his freedom but possibly could not give him the recognition he deserved.
As I pay him my respects, I cannot but imagine the grand memorial he would have got back home in India, the cavalcade of people who would have attended — and how everyone from the Prime Minister downwards would have been there. Now his body lies in a mosque in Tooting — and will then be taken for burial at a cemetery in Woking. For a man who had grown up wandering the streets of India — it is a strange farewell. So far from a land that had loved him — but had kept him at a distance!
Strangely enough barring an obituary in the Financial Times, and a photograph in the Guardian, India’s Picasso died here, mostly unnoticed. Of course, now the memorials will begin, but I cannot but be depressed that today we, among those who appreciated him, could not give him the last salaam he so deserved.
In fact, we had talked about him just a few days ago at a pre-auction champagne viewing, of a superb collection of South Asian art at Christie’s where some of his works had been displayed. Observing the energy with which the paintings were made, we had discussed how prolific Husain sahib was. And what a great legacy he had created. Learning that he was in hospital was a shock because he seemed eternal. How could one ever know that we would never ever see that familiar figure on the streets of London again? This time the Christie’s collection had a superb range of Souza’s etchings, as well, which had apparently been lying with his children and had only now been displayed. These etchings were bold and quite risqué, and one wondered what the thought police would have done if a similar exhibition had been held in India. They would have gone berserk. Is this going to be the future for us then — that the work of our progressive, provocative artists will be divided —and the really bold work will only be seen in foreign countries?

Meanwhile, it has also been a season of book readings, discussions and launches — and having just returned from the Hay-on-Wye festival — it was lovely to attend a completely different sort of book launch at the House of Lords. This is a very unusual book written by a feisty young woman, Malini Chib, called One Little Finger. It is rare that even a book reading can be inspirational but this certainly was. Malini has cerebral palsy making it difficult for her to communicate and yet this gutsy girl has got a double MA, runs a book shop in Mumbai and has even managed to write a book. While much of the credit must go to her mother Mithu Alur who has led the crusade for the differently-abled in India, Malini, on her own, has shown an immense amount of courage and independence.
Over tea and scones, at the lovely Cholmondeley Room, overlooking the Thames, many of us were teary-eyed listening to the amazing journey of this brave young woman. Another tale which celebrates the triumph of the spirit…

Kishwar Desai can be contacted at

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