I FIRST MET MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN IN 1967, when a retrospective of his work was organised by Pundole Art Gallery on the premises of Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, then called Bombay. Husain, who first attracted media attention in 1947 when one of his works shown in the annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society had won a prize, had become a public icon by 1967. During that brief encounter I couldn’t help noticing that just like the vigorous energy of his work Husain himself was full of life. Over the next 40 years we kept meeting at different forums related to art as well as cinema, which he was also passionate about. At times, we shared a meal at his house in Jangpura or his son Shamsad’s house, in another Delhi neighbourhood. During those meals I noticed another thing: this man with an enormous appetite for life eats very little.
The last time we met was in London, in October 2009; he had invited me over for a meal in an upper-class Chinese restaurant. By this time, I had written a book (Maqbool Fida Husain) that was an overview of his work from 1947 to 2007, and our relationship had become close. There were four of us at the table, including a woman friend of Husain visiting from India. The table was laden with food and while we were gorging ourselves, Husain flirted with the food and a glass of wine. He was telling me how he was creating a remix of various elements that had dominated his work, the horse, the female figure, eternal cities like Benaras, myths both classical and modern. It was then I asked him whether he still wanted to come back to India. For a moment he became somewhat pensive and then asked, “Is the government really serious?”
He was, of course, referring to various recent reports in the media suggesting that the central government was making an effort to bring Husain back. His question was a sad rhetoric because we both knew that the government really didn’t care. Husain has been in exile for nearly four years now. He has built a new life for himself in Dubai, Qatar and London. He has settled one of his sons and several nephews in Dubai, who are all devoted to him. In London, he usually lives in a serviced apartment on an annual rent. Qatar has assigned a separate gallery for his work in its Museum of Islamic Art. Surrounded by luxury and with no need to work for a living, he still wakes up before sunrise and paints for several hours, like a classical musician doing his daily riyaaz. Once this routine is over, he gets ready to face the world, to meet friends or go out for lunch with guests. But despite leading a full life abroad, he wants to come back. If for nothing else, to enjoy the company of his old friends, his grandchildren and perhaps to drink tea at his favourite Irani teashop in Mumbai.