Byline By MJ Akbar: Barefoot in the Dark
I could have fooled you completely by noting that he wears shoes, but let me offer a few less misleading clues. He drives through Dubai in a Jaguar that purrs like the beautiful cat it is, and is chauffeured by a young man whose temptations at the wheel get the better of him when the master is not in the car. He has a corporate office in the Emirates Towers, the sleek symbol of a new world planted on yesterday’s desert, a complex combination of offices, hotel, pubs, restaurants and boutiques offering the finest brands of Europe. (America is sparse in the upper echelons of Dubai shopping, since while America can send a spaceship to Mars and an army to Iraq, it cannot quite produce a Patek Philippe mechanical movement handcrafted watch.) He arrives for lunch at the Lebanese Al Nafura restaurant in a personally designed cotton suit, each stitch made to measure, each button crafted for style, each angle of the collar and lapel fashioned to be a personal statement. He eats a sparse meal, just a nibble of the delicious hammour fish and a touch of the brinjal in the mezze.
The meal over, we drive to his personal museum where he offers tea in a splendid tent in the garden that would not be out of place in the Arabian Nights. The motif is red, in the cushions that invite you to slump and the carpet that invites you to sprawl as it stretches across the wide rectangle on which the tent sits. The romance of the hookah and the metal jar is set off against a cubit of technology: a pale Japanese air-conditioner is good for the afternoon heat.
Some giveaway clues: he carries a long paintbrush, his signature security blanket. His face is lit by a permanently amused and bemused twinkle in the eyes. His hair has conquered age, waving over the scalp and swaying below the face, proof that white is a dazzling colour.
He is of course Maqbool Fida Husain. He is now a Non Resident Indian, much against his will, although he does whisper that he does not have to pay tax on the princely figures that his art fetches these days, something he did faithfully when living in India. He hints, wistfully rather than softly, that he misses his country. Politics keeps him away: he has become a target in the modern political wars of a democratic India.
Husain’s feet are famous for their wanderlust, but he knows that the only place where he can keep his feet on the ground is in his own country.
A friend told me a story which I recount to him. It seems that they bumped into each other at London’s Heathrow airport. Since everyone talks to the famous, and Husain is too polite to ignore a fan, my friend asked him where he was headed. Geneva. Just then a voice announced that the British Airways flight to Guyana was ready to board. Husain interrupted the chat to say that he might as well go to Guyana. As my friend watched, astonished, he bought a ticket and left. There are many ways of escaping the attention of a fan, but this was surely the most unusual. Was the story true? Husain laughed without betraying an answer. If it could be true, it should be true, his silence suggested. Myth is always a healthy option for a seamless legend.
He is not above tweaking his identity either. Two decades ago, when he was in his Bengal phase, whether working on his exquisite series on Mother Teresa, or the joyous ironies of the Raj, or the vibrant icons of revolutions, he often signed his work in Bengali. A Husain was above a Husain. His identity lay as much in the classical and unique independence of his line, as in his name: a name was only one form of a signature. It has never much mattered to which degree he stretched a nomenclature: there were times when he changed the meaning of "Maqbool", which signifies acclaim, and turned it into an erotic extension with "Mac the Bull".
Husain is over ninety now, and completely engrossed in his new muse, Amrita. A few years ago, he saw a Madhuri Dixit film, whose name I have fortunately forgotten, a hundred times, but she is now a few wisps within an endless album, a chimera that once devoured him but has now disappeared into a canyon of echoes. Amrita now rules the unfinished canvas on an easel in the hall, her face etched in more detail than a photograph could reveal despite being featureless within that superb contour of a curving line. Her sinuous form is a triumphant unity of reality reformed by the idealism of a genius. Beatrice, Dora, Rashda, Amrita: like Dante or Picasso, Husain demands the artist’s right to liberty over his muse, and like them he is authoritarian about his inspiration although he could never be as philosophical as Dante or as cruel as Picasso. There is a reality called Amrita, of course, but he is not interested in her birth. He is consumed by the innumerable ways in which she can be reborn through the creative juices of an erect paintbrush and the endless permutations available to a fertile imagination. He is both father and mother to his creation. And yet the wonder of that canvas is shared: if Amrita dominates the left in a languorous riot of well-divided colour, the right belongs to a single-hued figure, bent over in passionate concentration, the artist possessed, his beard and mane setting off unseen eyes that discover and rediscover the compelling nuances of an obsessive beauty. The artist of course is Husain. How old is this Husain? Not old at all. This Husain is young. The artist has equal rights to rebirth.
Amrita and Maqbool are a work in progress, and likely to remain so, I suspect, for a while.
The walls are resplendent with the first paintings of a new series, the civilisation of the Arab: powerful images in brilliant red, green and desert-sun shades into which Husain has immersed himself — the date palm, the circle as the sun and the circle as the city, luminous and dark, and the Kaaba, the House of God rising as the centrepiece surrounded by the calligraphic discipline of an euphoric alphabet. This exhibition will open by November, and the artist intends to invite his friends, particularly from India, for a preview that will surely become yet another celebration of a new summit in a pilgrim’s progress.
Why is an authentic Indian genius living outside his own country, when he wants nothing more than to laugh and converse in Delhi and Mumbai and Hyderabad and the dozens of other cities that are an integral part of his life? His mind and heart are as liberated as his brush; they have to be since they feed one another. From the billboard in Mumbai to an auction at Sotheby’s, his own life is as much a chronicle of the economic and cultural history of his country as any statistic. Is it also an inevitable part of the historical narrative that he should now become a victim of politics as fringe elements search for votes in the name of a simulated anger? Is this the new metaphor for democracy? Is this the dominant aspect of a new culture in which violence is the new cult?
It is perhaps convenient to ignore such questions, for both the Establishment and the Opposition, and pretend that they have much else to worry about, or indeed brag about, from the depression of inflation to the pseudo-triumphalism of an unequal economic boom. Where does an artist fit into such a national mindshare? But exile is not a term that can sit easily on the same page as democracy, and there will come a moment that will demand a decision.
Husain knows what he would choose. A cup of tea in a dhaba in Mumbai is worth more than tents and Jaguars on foreign soil. And he won’t need shoes in his motherland.