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Interview with M F Husain: An icon in exile


TSI | New Delhi, June 9, 2011 11:02
Tags : MF Hussain | India | Exile | bazaars | death |

An icon in exile An Icon in exile

(An exclusive interview with M F Hussain published on TSI's April 4, 2010 issue)

 You have been out of India for a long time. Don't you miss your friends, fans, the alleys and the neighbourhoods, the bazaars?

Memories have their own ways of touching your heart. I have spent the best part of my life in India. But cell phones and computers have made the world smaller. I can talk to anybody whenever I feel like. I keep in touch. Distance does not matter anymore. I can say that I don't miss anything.(Smiles)

So, are you cutting yourself off?

How can I? I am an Indian and I will remain an Indian. Just because I've become a Qatari citizen doesn't mean I will lose my Indianness. I'm getting NRI status, which means a lifelong visa and I can buy property anywhere in India.

When do you hope to return?

I will. I don't know when, but certainly in the near future. At the moment, I have two big projects in Qatar. I am doing a series on Arab civilisation. Then in England, I will be working on a series on India. I can never get away from India.

What pushed you towards painting?

I was fond of drawing since childhood. I never threw tantrums for anything else apart from eraser, pencil, paint and brush. I used to draw on every possible empty space. My relatives gave up on me. They often said I would neither land a decent job nor find a girl to marry. They were right. I never had a job in that sense and the girl I loved was not allowed by her parents to marry me. In Indore, there were two large portraits of Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar and his queen. I used to look at them for hours. I was later told it was painted by the French painter Brancusi who had stayed for two years in Indore on the invitation of the Maharaja. I used to think that had they given me just two days, I would have produced better work. As I grew up, I began participating in events. I used to closely study the paintings of great painters of that era and before. An icon in exile

It is generally believed that your iconic horse was also born in Indore?

During Muharram, people used to make huge taziyas and decorate horses. I got attracted to them since my childhood. In fact, I used to visit Imambaras to see horses. And then, as time passed, I started to incorporate them in my paintings. I did a lot of experiments. I saw horses of different breeds-Chinese, Japanese, Turkish and Arabian. From them, my horse took birth. It is altogether different. If you watch closely, the hips of my horses have a feminine touch, and that is why they look so attractive.

You were nominated to the Rajya Sabha but never showed any inclination towards politics.

My personal belief is that every person should be politically aware, must have an ideology, a point of view and should have political street smartness. But, having said that, I also maintain that an artist must detach himself from all these. He should be away from active politics. During my growing days, I heard the speeches of several people, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Hitler, to name a few. However, I did not get carried away. I supported whom I thought to be prudent. But I never became a part of their politics.

You also saw the days of the Raj.

I hated them. I used to be furious at people who were hangers-on. In many of my initial paintings, I protested against their policies. Way back in 1930, I made a painting where I showed a British lying on the road with a dog beside him. They used to hate us and the same hate I reciprocated in my paintings.

And when Partition happened, did you think of migrating to Pakistan?

Never. I was always against the Partition. Leave alone going there, I barred the letters of one of my brothers-in-law who had migrated there.

You have experimented a lot. You have made paintings with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain playing their instruments in the background. Does that mean anything?

Of course it does. If a painter has calibre, he can bring every art, every emotion and every mannerism alive on his canvas. The painting I did while Ravi Shankar played has broad strokes and colours that give a clear impression that music is being played.

Then in Delhi, I clearly remember, you made several paintings sitting on the roads for many days.

Actually, I wanted to prove that solitude is not a prerogative for any type of creation. It just requires the right mood. The notion that you require solitude for painting is elitist. I painted for six days on the roads and produced six paintings. People used to gather around me. There was a lot of noise. But I used to be too engrossed in my work to notice that. You see them and you'll realise that these are no different in quality from my other works. The concentration that you talk about comes from within. It has nothing to do with the surroundings. And mistakes are a part of life. People must not hide them. People who seek solitude for their art are those that are afraid that their mistakes would become public. I have made mistakes under the watchful eyes of the public and I have rectified them. An icon in exile

You penned poetry, or rather shayri, wrote prose and made films. Was canvas and paints not enough to assimilate all your ideas?

I don't think like that. I used the canvas and paint as my voice for long. But every art has its importance. In my heydays, I did stories and wrote shayri too. It was no more than a hobby. I adopted, Haya, as my nom de plume. My friends used to say jokingly it should be changed to Behaya. I wrote poetry in English too. Octavio Paz organised a discussion on my poems in Mexico.

What poem was that?

It was titled "Landscapes: My Words born in you are yet unspoken". But film is the most powerful medium to articulate your ideas with force. It has actors, dialogues, songs, music and yes, colours.

Indira Gandhi gave you some responsibility in Films Division and you did a movie. It was mute.

I am a man of paintings. There is no sound in my world. I did the same with the movie camera. Long ago, we did have silent films. The difference was, I did not allow any kind of sound in my film and not the human voice alone.

You have been so closely linked with the film world. Who has been your favourite actor?

The country is yet to see a better actor than Dilip Kumar. But he was a misfit in Mughal-e-Azam. So was Prithviraj Kapoor. Madhubala was the best in the film. I preferred Dilip Kumar in Devdas.

And among directors?

Every one of them stands pale in front of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

And if you have to name a film.

I consider Ray's Pather Panchali among the top ten films in the world.

You liked Madhubala as well as Madhuri. What parallels did you find?

I loved Madhubala's smile. But Madhuri's talent and beauty have no parallels. She can't be compared with anybody. No director used her talent well. Her career passed like that.

So what was special about her?

When Hum Aapke Hain Koun came, some friends insisted I watch the movie. I came out after 15 minutes. They insisted again and I watched it for half an hour and came out. But then they said I need to watch it full. I did. I was mesmerised. I watched it 18 times.

It's hard to believe.

No, you'll have to believe. It had a song Didi tera devar diwana. As the song starts, she stands with her semi-bare back towards the camera. After the music starts, she takes five steps backwards. Those five steps is the soul of the movie. She is so beautiful that it cannot be expressed in words. Her beautiful hips carried that day. Every step is magic, whether she is lighting a temple lamp or doing anything.

So you made Gajagamini with her?

The idea was always there in my mind. I was looking for the right heroine and I found Madhuri. I was searching for my mother in that movie. I had lost her in my childhood. I cannot remember her face. That is why I decided that in that film, I'll show Madhuri from the back for the most part.

You love songs too. The film world has given us so many talented composers. Who's your pick?

Undoubtedly Naushad. Then, A.R. Rahman. The uniqueness and variety in Rahman's music is unparalleled. It was never attempted before. His score in Slumdog Millionaire has touched new heights. In fact, I consider Jai ho to be the single biggest incident post-Independence. Gandhi's exclamation was limited to India while Jai ho reverberated all around the globe.

So you liked Slumdog?

I loved it. Nobody gets Oscars just for the sake of it. The way it was conceived and mounted impressed me. In our movies, drama is incorporated in rather forced ways. There is a lack of pretension in foreign movies.

Your life has been a brimming river. Any regrets, any failures?

In 1960, I was written off. It was said there were no possibilities in me. I became desperate. I was unable to work. I spent three years in a mental dungeon. But then things changed and success came my way. I realised that those three years of solitude were very important. Otherwise we keep on work ceaselessly. We have no time to reflect on life and its intricacies. Those were the most precious three years of my life.

Were you ever drawn to astrology, spells and superstition?

No way. I never ever showed my palms to anybody. Not even for entertainment. I believe in scientific theories. But there is one incident that still bothers me. It was in 1952, and I got an invite to travel abroad. I had no passport. I needed my birth certificate and I wrote to the school authority. They replied that since I had not cleared my dues there, I would not be given the certificate. So I did an affidavit and put my birth date as September 17. After that, my career just took off.

What time of the day do you work?

Twenty-four hours. I paint six hours in the morning and six hours at night. In between, I read books. I've never had an assistant. As a painter I do everything myself, even the menial work.

Where do you draw your energy from?

Passion is the biggest driving force. The Bhagavad Gita says one should focus on work. That is supreme. Allama Iqbal used to say, "Amal se zindagi banti hai, jannat bhi jahannum bhi."And since my childhood, I used to accompany my grandfather to akhadas and I used to do all sorts of exercises. And I was brought up on the wheat of Malwa.

Indore was once famous for cricket stars. C.K. Nayudu and Mushtaq Ali were from Indore. The game never caught your fancy though.

I never liked this game. But I like to see Tendulkar play. Mushtaq Ali was my batchmate. He used to play cricket, and I was fond of hockey. Their mannerisms were that of the elite. I played tennis and football. I love football. Even today, I spare time for this game.

So, who are your heroes in football?

There are two names worth mentioning- Pele and Maradona. For quite sometime, Pele was everybody's hero. Then came Maradona. He was magnificent but people destroyed him. He got entangled in sex and drugs and the world never saw much of his game.

How do you spend your usual day?

There is no delight better than a cup of morning tea. When I was in Mumbai, the first thing I used to do was to take a sip of Irani tea. In Delhi, I loved teas from Nizamuddin dhabas. I used to go out alone. It has not changed here too.

What do you like in food?

I was considered an avid meat-eater once; but no more though I still love keema. I can eat anything but the truth is, there is no better food than dal-chawal and dal-roti.

Do you smoke, or have liquor?

I never smoked. After the open heart surgery in 1988, doctors recommended red wine for me. So, like Ghalib, I drink red wine of the best quality.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017