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Asia/South Asia
Wise words from an old master, 'India's Picasso', at 90
John Ridding

          We had arranged to meet in his friend's shoe shop in the opulent Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel in downtown Mumbai -- which was somewhat ironic since M.F. Husain never wears shoes. But in a concession to convention, or the Mumbai winter, he is sporting black socks as he ambles to our restaurant upstairs, a sprightly 90-year-old, unmistakable with his white hair and beard and an 18-inch paint brush in his hand.
The socks and the brush, he says, are partly for effect -- small symbols of a marketing instinct that, along with a prolific talent and boundless energy, has kept Husain in the vanguard of contemporary Indian art for the past half century.
Now, finally, he and his peers are gaining global recognition and rewards. Records have tumbled over the past two years as excitement about Indian art has mirrored the rise of its increasingly affluent and confident society. A Husain sold last year for $2.0m in a private sale in London, trumping the $1.58m fetched just a few weeks earlier by his Mumbai contemporary, Tyeb Mehta, at Christie's in New York. Both prices were multiples of previous records.
"We are now on a par with the rest of the world," says Husain, his soft voice in keeping with the refined calm of the Sea Lounge, as much a salon as a restaurant, 20ft above, yet miles away from the bustle of Mumbai bay below. "It has not happened suddenly," he adds with obvious understatement.
His tofu salad lies neglected as he describes his rise from painting Bollywood film hoardings as an impoverished teenager and the parallel journey of India's contemporary art. It is a story of iconoclasm, independence and tenacity, where Husain and his peers had to create a market and an understanding of their approach as much as the paintings they produced.
"We wanted to demolish the existing schools," he said, referring to the Progressive Artists' Group founded immediately after independence to counter the disillusion its young members felt with the traditional and British-influenced arts establishment.
The progressives were not a rigid school. "We were all highly individual artists. We wanted to create a language of our own. We had 5,000 years of culture, but we needed to find how to interpret it." For his part, Husain took inspiration from India's epics, its folk arts and the many different traditions that have been absorbed by the subcontinent. "We have a unique secular culture, a unique composite culture," he says.
The result, in his works, is a combination of bold colours and an eclectic range of symbols. His style, as much as his fame, has seen him dubbed India's Picasso. But the range of his subjects is unique -- from Mother Teresa and Bollywood stars to the Last Supper and Indian mythology. A nude painting of the Goddess Saraswati in the late 1990s, which prompted charges he was "anti-Hindu", was one of several works to spark controversy. But Husain has always denied divisive motives, justifying his works solely in terms of artistic inspiration.
Despite their disruption to the established artistic order, Husain and the progressives frequently found support from influential quarters. One of their early patrons was the head of the state science institute. "Questions were raised in parliament about why they were buying modern art," Husain recalls. "But Nehru stood by us. He stood by anything new."
While the progressive artists were gaining acceptance and critical success, Husain's independent streak brought difficulties. "I didn't want to follow the trend to starkness. I appreciated the avant garde movement, but I never adopted it," he says. "So in the 1960s they said I was finished. I had paintings removed from [a] Delhi museum. Even some of my colleagues turned their backs."
He was rarely, however, far from the limelight, nor from the edge of experimentation. When Indira Gandhi sought to inject life into the government film division, Husain seized the opportunity. "I had always wanted to make a film, but the medium was too expensive. So I thought, here is my chance." The result -- an experimental work called Through the Eyes of a Painter -- left its Indian sponsors and audience confused. But it found success intemationally, winning a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
His paintings, too, were gaining international recognition. At the São Paolo Biennale in 1971, his "Mahabbarata", derived from an epic of Sanskrit literature, hung alongside works by Picasso. Momentum gathered in the 1980s, helped by Rajiv Gandhi's Festival of India events held in Britain, France, Russia and the US. "That helped change the perception of India," Husain recalls.
"People still thought of us as a mystical place with lots of lepers and snake charmers."
Commercial breakthroughs followed. Encouraged by the rising affluence of India's diaspora, Christie's set up shop in Mumbai in 1986. Husain decided to strike.
Previously his works had been fetching a maximum of Rs50,OOO to Rs60,OOO, but he demanded a reserve price of 4.0 lakhs (Rs400,000) at their first big Indian auction. Then Sotheby's arrived, and he demanded 6.0 lakhs. "It worked," he says.
"And now we are on a par, and we should stay there."
But if demand is strong, what about supply? While in many countries the art scene is dominated by youthful figures, such as the UK's Young British Artists (even if they are beginning to approach middle age now), India's artistic elite is notable for its age. Husain was developing a contemporary style before Andy Warhol was born. Tyeb Mehta is 80. So is Syed Haider Raza, another founding member of the Progressive Artists' Group.
Husain believes there is a talented new generation bursting through. But there is little indication that he plans to vacate centre-stage. Despite his age he is perhaps the most prolific painter at work today. With about 30,000 pieces in his portfolio, he continues to have two or three projects on the go simultaneously and paints with astonishing speed.
He marked 2003, the year of his 88th birthday, by producing 88 oils across four Indian cities. And there is little let-up on the horizon. Already in the diary for 2006 is a giant mural for a Mumbai cinema and a show of 20 to 30 water colours in London. "After open-heart surgery they said take it easy, and only paint miniatures," he scoffs, referring to an operation he had in 1988.
His energy is evident in the rapid stream of anecdotes he relates, condemning my lamb fajitas to a fate of cold and waste as my pen struggles to keep pace. But he appears anything but hurried. The pomfret decision -- grilled or fried? -- receives deliberation. His grey linen suit, black silk tie, and the wand-like paint brush clearly took some thought. Rather, his speed reflects an early training that required fast and efficient work.
Moving to Mumbai as a teenager when his father lost his job, and forced to support himself, Husain turned to portraits. "I used to do them in 20 minutes," he recalls. "But they all wanted their cheeks rosy, so I did cinema hoardings." There was plenty of work, but it was tough. Husain would often paint a dozen hoardings in a week. "But if the film flopped, often I wouldn't get paid."
In addition to speed, films gave him a mass market and a muse. Most famously, Husain adopted Madhuri Dixit, the film star and a national icon.
After watching her film Who am I to You some 70 times, he produced paintings modelled around her. "I wanted to take art to the millions. I wanted to use film and her image. People said I was running after her skirt, but this was my masterstroke, to make art popular."
His relationship with Dixit developed into a film he directed, entitled Gaja Gamini, which translates as "majestic like an elephant's walk". He says it is a metaphor for bauty in Sanskrit, and refers to the appearance, from behind, of the walk of a comely woman. "But I don't think you would want to use it today," he adds, breaking into a laugh.
Husain's good humour is evident in the handshakes he gives admirers drawn to the sofa on which he is dining. And it is readily explained by his current fortune and the support of an extended family: "Since my wife died I often call up my sons and daughters to see what is on the menu, and then I decide where to go for dinner," he jokes.
These family ties underpin what he describes as a "smooth existence". But is "smooth" an appropriate lifestyle for a famous artist? Aren't tensions and turbulence required to fuel such prolific creative fires? "Giacometti said he needed crises for his work," Husain recalls. His substitute, he says, is muses. "I have two or three simultaneously. It is all very open. Naturally, now I am in a position where people want to be with me."
It is unclear quite what he means by "muses".
But it is likely he would relish rather than recoll from any publicity they might bring, and appears comfortable with a celebrity enhanced by the current clamour for Indian art.
He is similarly enjoying India's broader emergence on the global stage. "I see such dynamism in India. For the past three or four years we have been growing by leaps and bounds." He believes his country's rise is sustainable, though he sees risks of social and generational strains in a society that is expanding so quickly.
"If our youth are suddenly rich they might lose focus," he warns. "Culture is too important. It is our identity." Then, grinning broadly, he says: "We need to look to the elderly, the wisdom is there."
FT Syndication Service


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