M.F. Husain is a painter of high voltage. I do not wish to address the current debate on M.F.H. If he wishes to reside in Qatar, so be it.
I have known Husain since 1958. We first met at the Wellesley Road (now Zakir Hussain Marg in Delhi) flat of V.K. Narayana Menon, musicologist, friend of E.M. Forster and author of a book on W.B. Yeats. He held a fairly high position in All India Radio then.
Husain, who had given Narayana a large painting of his, was present when I entered Narayana’s flat with Han Suyin. Dom Moraes was also present at this odd gathering.
Even at that time, Husain’s artistic genius was apparent. He was excellent company. The more I saw him, the more I liked him. In those days, his paintings were sold for Rs 500. He did a portrait of a visiting American acquaintance of mine for Rs 1,000.
From 1958 to 1961, I lived in the Delhi Gymkhana Club. Husain used to drop in from time to time. He saw the bare white plywood partition in my little bungalow and painted it. If I remember correctly, he did so in a sudden flash of creativity.
In late 1960 I bought a Fiat car for Rs 11,000. A few weeks later, Husain turned up. “Can I borrow your car for a couple of hours,” he asked. “Yes, but be careful, it’s brand new,” I said. Two hours passed, four and eight, but there was no sign of Husain. I was more worried about my Fiat than Husain. When he did not turn up even the next morning, I was both alarmed and angry. Damn the fellow. I should never have lent him the car. (Later to my horror I learnt that he did not posses a driving licence.) He must have had an accident, smashed my car and himself, too, I thought.
I was in a fix. How would I trace him and where? I knew he lived in a room in Jangpura with no telephone. By the end of the second day, I was on tenterhooks. Suddenly Mr Maqbool Fida Husain drove in.
“You have a very strange concept of two hours. You have been gone for two days,” I said. I was relieved to see that my car was undamaged. That reduced my anger by half.
Husain, sporting a black beard, a bush shirt and trousers, answered, “I drove to Kanpur, to drop a friend there.” He said it so, casually, innocently and without putting on an apologetic act. I realised that Husain had a highly developed sense of irresponsibility and an even more pronounced disregard for time. He was a likeable character, devoid of guile, malice or schadenfreude.
Then he mostly spoke Hindustani or Urdu. His English was more determined than fluent. But this did not bother him. He was utterly unselfconscious.
In those far off days, I was close to, perhaps, Delhi’s most beautiful young woman. I asked Husain to do her portrait. To my amateurish knowledge of painting, it is one of his best. The date is 1961. Many think it is a portrait of Indira Gandhi.
Apart from his art, I much enjoyed his recitation of Mirza Ghalib’s poetry and his endless store of risqué jokes and stories. I also approved his indifference to money. I am told, this is no longer so. This bothers me not. He is a friend of very long standing and I remember him as he was when we first met. I recall with deep affection his stay with me in New York and London, where he painted me, my wife and our two children.
I also recall his cultivated art of irreverence, his disdain for banality and sham. He has, like the rest of us, many shortcomings, but with a vital difference. While our failings are mundane and tiresome, his are those of an infuriating erratic genius. At 94, he should be left alone.