M.F. Husain and Dubai: Remembering the legendary artist's relationship with the city
In 2006, M.F. Husain made the city his home. The decision was a "game-changer", according to friends, as being in the UAE allowed him to become a bridge between two very different cultures. Ahead of his death anniversary this Sunday, Shaikh Ayaz looks at the years the artist spent in the UAE
In 2006, M.F. Husain attended the Festival of Thinkers conference in Abu Dhabi where he rubbed shoulders with Nobel winners and intellectuals. Dressed in a thawb, he was carrying a long paintbrush that had become a part of his legend. While the Nobel laureates bolted out ideas from the podium, Husain, ever a restless soul, made his presence felt in his own inimitable way. Reaching for a canvas, he made a few strokes and voila, a signature virile horse galloped alive, much to the surprise of his audience. "People marveled that a man of 90-91 could be this sprightly and full of life," says Munna Javeri, Husain's longtime friend who had accompanied him to the event.
Later that night, the outrageously controversial and prolific Indian artist took turns at shaking a leg with a bevy of belly dancers and trading wits with great Nobel minds. That joie de vivre, the meeting of the high and low, the masses and classes, was pure Husain. At once realistic and make-believe, a historical accident and genius of his own making, Maqbool Fida Husain was always a man of paradox. Born in dusty Pandharpur, in India's Maharashtra region, the global nomad was never out of place anywhere, and yet, out of place everywhere. It was fitting, then, that 'home' and 'belonging' became both the boon and bane of his existence.
Painting the town red
India's most famous artist died in London on June 9, 2011, at the age of 95. "He symbolised the general public's perception of a modern artist in post-Independence India," artist Jitish Kallat explains. Anil Relia, a gallerist and friend, reckons that it was his growing fame that was ultimately responsible for his exile from India. "If Husain was a lesser known artist, this may not have happened," Relia rues. Fleeing persecution from extremists upset at his controversial suite of paintings depicting Hindu deities, Husain sought refuge in Dubai and London in 2006. Often dubbed as the barefoot Picasso of India in the West (though that label can be misleading, for it is on F.N. Souza's head that the title sits more easily), Husain's tryst with the UAE began in 2006 when he first moved to Sharjah where one of his cousins, Fida, was based although he had been visiting the UAE on and off since 2003. Later, Husain gifted Fida an apartment in Sharjah. "He could come in and go as he pleased. You know how Husain was," Relia laughs. In 2006, back home in India, the hate campaign against Husain had blown out of proportion. Arrest warrants were issued. One of his museums, 'Amdavad ni Gufa', in Ahmedabad where Relia serves as a director, was vandalised by a mob. It was a wake-up call for the ageing (rather, ageless) artist. In this moment of uncertainty, Husain decided to make Dubai his new home. Staying at the upmarket Emaar Tower penthouse near Deira, Husain's new world was every bit as flamboyant as the one he had left behind in hometown Mumbai, a place he reportedly died pining for. One joke went that the itinerant saint had finally pitched his tent, alluding as much to him settling down in dotage as to the Arabic-soaked décor of his apartment in Dubai. Red was its predominant theme. Everything - from upholstery to Persian rugs to even his own suite of paintings - was red. "I call it my red light museum," the maverick artist liked to joke. This is where, according to Relia, he had stored the famous Maria Zourkova collection, a repository of older works that his former Czech lover had returned after five decades saying, "This belongs to India." Husain later sold it to a London-based collector, hoping that the intimate collection stayed together in private hands long after his death.
Best of East and West
Munna Javeri remembers that each day with Husain in Dubai was an adventure. When in his beloved Mumbai, the silver-haired artist enjoyed walking the streets, never tied to one place for too long - downing cups of milky tea at Irani cafes or stopping by at a favourite eatery for biryani was a ritual. "Husain brought the same lifestyle to Dubai," Javeri tells WKND. He relished going out with friends, to restaurants such as Kamat for Indian meal and Ashrafi for Mughlai cuisine. "He loved Chinese. Since he had digestion problems, Chinese suited his palate," says Javeri, adding that his favourite hangout was The Noodle House in Jumeirah Emirates Towers. "He used to hang out in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers' lobby. He even received guests there, offering them coffee and khajur in typical Arabic hospitality," says Relia. A movie buff (who can forget his singular obsession with Madhuri Dixit?), the great modern artist was often found catching up on Hindi cinema at Lamcy Plaza. Not to mention the fleet of fancy wheels he owned, including the famous red Ferrari - zipping around in it, painting the town, er..., red. The flashy glitter of Dubai matched his own rakish personality. Talking to Relia and Javeri, it quickly becomes evident that Dubai gave him commercial success at a level he had never imagined. The decision to move there was a game-changer.
"In Dubai, his imagery didn't change but the scale of his works did. It became even bigger," says Anjum Siddiqui, herself an artist now based in Canada. Siddiqui's mother, Rashda, who was one of Husain's closest friends and has written a book on him, adds, "His ancestors came from Yemen. So, he could take to the Arabic culture like water. He had a close understanding of Arabic and wove that knowledge into his work." The Dubai phase included his much-publicised series on the history of Indian civilisation and 100 years of Bollywood. Besides, a major preoccupation with the Arabic civilisation had also taken root. Though the Arabic script had long entered the artist's imagery since his early days, in Dubai, his desire to reflect on his own Islamic roots had intensified. The Middle East offered him a great homecoming, making him a bridge between Hindu and Arabic philosophies. "He was more than just horses," says Rashda, smiling. "His themes were as diverse and universal as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, the Indian woman, nationhood and world history."
About the economic benefits of being in Dubai, Javeri points out, "Husain found a lot of patrons here, billionaires like Lakshmi Mittal. Sitting in Dubai, he could get the best of East and West. Dubai was lucky for him." Based in Dubai, Husain was in a position to take on huge commissions. The ambitious 'Indian Civilisation' series commissioned by Usha and Lakshmi Mittal in 2008 was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014, becoming the first retrospective of his late works post his death in 2011. However, the Dubai years were not "all fun and no work" for the grand old man of Indian art. As his prices went over the roof in the auction market and the list of private collectors grew, his productivity shot up dramatically. "He was painting in not ones or twos, but by the dozen," Anil Relia says. "He was selling in bulk and enjoying the fruits of financial success. We all know the biting poverty of his early life in Bombay. But he never forgot the hard times." Relia says he lived like a king but was, at heart, a fakir. "He was in love with the figure, not money," Relia says. "He had a childlike mischievous glint in his eye every time he heard that his painting has broken a record but beyond that, money didn't matter to him."
Most people, even those who don't know much about his art, know about M.F. Husain's love for Mumbai. In self-imposed exile, Husain missed home. Anjum Siddiqui remembers receiving a letter from "Husain uncle" from London signed off as, 'H for horse, H for Jai Hind and H for Husain'. "He carried India in his heart," says Anjum, who became a painter inspired by Husain. "It's cliché, but true."