Up close and personal – an interview with M.F. Husain

Interview with M.F. HUSAIN

His enigmatic painting style, vibrant colors and extraordinary multi-faceted personality have attracted the attention of art lovers and made the inimitable M.F. Husain an immediate and consistent media-draw. In the frenzy that seems to follow him wherever he goes, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is, in fact, a genius. A master of his craft, with a body of work that stands up to the harshest of critics, a prolific career that encompasses well over half a century and over 10,000 canvases, extreme energy, an irrepressible creativity and a fearlessness that has led him to experiment with diverse mediums, including poetry and film making. In true romantic fashion, he began his career as an impoverished artist in Mumbai painting cinema hoardings. Since those early days, his life has moved in an amazing arc bringing him accolades, awards, fame, wealth and the inevitable controversies that seem to attach themselves to high profile persons, artists not withstanding. The last decade has been rife with brushes with anti-secular forces in India, which finally compelled him to make his home first in Dubai and now Qatar. Neither controversy nor pain has however quenched the artistic spirit. Or the patriotism.  Displaying not a trace of bitterness he says, “There are cycles in history. This too will pass.” At 95, M.F.Husain defies time. Oblivious to the fires that rage around him, he focuses his tremendous energy and passion to unleash the fires within, through his art.

Excerpt of An Interview with M.F. Husain

Your style is very distinctive – the brush strokes are bold, decisive and so certain. What was the process that developed your artistic approach?

Right from the beginning I would say that my style is agitative. The whole approach, in fact, is agitative. It is neither peaceful nor passive. It is a reflection of our times. The language of modern art is fragmented; it is a protest. It is very different from say, the 18thcentury. That order and organization is all gone. Mankind has brought the world to the brink of annihilation. In the name of progress, this is what they have given us. All our sages and thinkers – all nonsense. We destroy peace and then we search for it. Nature is perfection but we have defied nature and gone against it. This is the result.

Have you ever tried your hand at sculpture?

Not much. It takes too much time and I am very impatient. If I start something I must finish it in one go. I start early in the day and I must finish the work however long it takes. I have developed the technique to work at a furious speed.  I work with all mediums but prefer the ones that allow me to work fastest. I have developed a technique, which tries to translate the way I think. But I wish I could paint faster to keep up with my thoughts and ideas.

Is oil your preferred medium? How about watercolor, acrylic and other media?

Acrylic is a wonderful medium. It is my favored medium today though I have worked with all. Oil is traditionally preferred but it takes time to dry, you have to wait days for each layer. Acrylic is the fastest – it works like oil, its permanent, but it doesn’t get yellow with age and can be exposed to direct sunlight. Watercolor is also a fascinating medium. There are so many potential accidents; you have to develop control over the medium. You don’t know what will happen when colors bleed into each other. I find it the most satisfying medium. I feel such a sense of adventure when I work with it.

How do you think your childhood and the pain you suffered of having lost a parent at a very young age colored your work and your perception of the world?

I lost my mother at one and a half, and that single fact defines me and diminishes everything else. There were no pictures of my mother because of the time she lived in. So that image is something I strived to recreate. 80 years after she died, I got a chance to make a film, and it was the image of my mother that I tried to recreate in it. She was from Maharashtra. In the dress and manners that is who I recreated- my mother as I saw her. The protagonist played by the actress Madhuri Dixit never faces the camera, so her face remains unknown. The loss of my mother meant that I lost attachment to places. All my life I have travelled and gone places. I have pushed boundaries.

What has it meant to be so revered, to have won so many accolades?

These are incidental things. The artist who is in search (of a higher truth) does not bother with such things. Till the age of 40, I was not known. I was simply working in Mumbai to earn my livelihood. In 1947 when India gained Independence, I roamed the streets of Mumbai rejoicing, thinking everything has changed. I thought heaven was now on earth. At that time I decided to exhibit for the first time, and I entered the scene with a vengeance. For forty years I had been watching. I was conscious of what was going on in the world of art but the identity of the nation, is the root of your own consciousness. I was conscious of the historical value and the significance of what India had to give, of the 5000 years of culture. India’s Independence gave me courage and initiative.

You have evolved in a path that is totally your own.

In 1947 when I attended a show in Delhi of some specimens of traditional Indian artists for an exhibition to be taken abroad, I was totally taken aback. I understood then that these were our roots. In India we have evolved far beyond the art of the West and Europe. You see the work The Dance of Shiva for example. It has evolved over thousands of years. Human research that has gone into it over entire centuries. The great masters have already worked on this for so long, that we no longer have to. The great artists have done the traveling, and we should go on from there. Pick up from that point and we have to go on.

Do you visualize a thought and then begin painting or do you just go with the instinct? What is your method?

I have an idea. I research it.  The idea develops in the process. For example, I wanted to do a series on classical dance. I went and lived with the dancers to learn more about them. You have to research your subject thoroughly. In this age of technology anyone can paint a good picture but does it have relevance?

You have been accused of commercializing your art. But the little boy, the artist and the brand that you have famously identified as three separate identities within you, do they still coexist and work together?

These 3 characters are in my autobiography of the early 90s and they all meet together in me. All three identities move together with me at all times. The child within – the face of innocence, is very difficult to keep and maintain, but without it and without the artist, the third, which is the brand, does not work. In this commercial world you need the brand, but I am not concerned with the brand all the time. I simply use it to attract people. Only if there is substance, the brand works. Salvador Dali said any man could become famous, but only for 15 minutes. That’s how long it takes to expose lack of substance.

There have been some recurrent themes in your pictures. The horse is one, and your exquisite renditions and conceptualizations of womanhood in all her incarnations is another. What do these themes signify for you?

It began as a fascination for these concepts but they are simply the forms. There are so many nuances, so many thoughts behind each rendition. You can draw thousands of horses but in each you try to find something more, something new. You are not painting a stereotype. Every painting is an extension of the idea, each grows beyond and above.

You have explored many mediums of expression.

I always wanted to become a filmmaker but the medium is so expensive that I could not for a long time. I am in sheer ecstasy when I make films.  The creative process there is all encompassing. In 1967, I made my first film. It was a visual equation. No story. Just music and the visual. I experimented with this style. It was made for the Film Division of India, and was totally rejected and ridiculed by critics and even friends. I took it to New York and showed it to the Film Division of the Museum of Modern Arts. It was accepted and shown along with  (celebrated Indian film maker) Satyajit Ray’s films! Later it was sent to the Berlin Festival where I won the Golden Bear.

You now live in Qatar. How has the change affected your work?

I came out of India only because I wanted to work in peace and quiet. I chose first to work in Dubai because I like it here. I wanted to create a body of work that depicts civilization from Mohenjo-Daro to India today. I also wanted to do a series of paintings on the Arab civilization. Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned invited me to work in Doha to create 99 canvases of the Arab civilization. The industrialist Laxmi Mittal in the UK has also commissioned a series of works on the Indian civilization. Next year India celebrates 100 years of cinema, and I am thinking and working on a series for that too on my own initiative.

Being away from my country has given me a sensitivity that sharpened the creative process. What I am experiencing here and the intensity of my work here has amazed me. Pain makes you more sensitive, more intense.

Your love of cars and your collection of some of the finest and most expensive cars are well known. Is it a passion with you?

The machines are so beautifully designed; I think of them as modern sculptures that are also functional. Form follows function. Today it is important to create something that is beautiful and useful. I am creating an ensemble depicting the theme of form and functionality.Three life-sized Murano horses, made on my specifications in Italy, will be placed among the vehicles- the Ferrari, Bentley, Jaguar, Phantom Rolls Royce and Bugatti. These will be accompanied by a 10-feet-high model of Leonardo da Vinci’s Flying Machine, as depicted in his drawings, and a sculpture of Abbas ibn Firnas, the Arab man who was the first to make a scientific attempt to fly. These will have, as backdrop, a 10-feet-high and 40-feet-wide painting. The whole ensemble will be housed in a special museum, commissioned by Sheikha Mozah. Her Highness is an amazing person with great vision, and a passion for art in all forms.


This article has been published in Durrah Magazine.

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