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Maqbool Fida Husain lives life in full zest at 94
Maqbool Fida Husain’s quest to trace his cultural roots coupled with an effortless grasping of diverse cultural influences has made him one of the most recognizable contemporary Indian artists. “Even though I miss not being in my homeland, I see it just as a minor element of my struggle. I’m amazed at the affection and love I still get from people back home,” he reminisced in an interview on the eve of his 94th birthday. He was in New York, painting a 45 feet canvas to mark the occasion.

On their part, several artists across the country chose to pay a special tribute to the veteran artist currently in self-imposed exile. Artist Ravi Gossain paid a tribute to his ‘guru’, terming Husain as the engine, which ‘drives Indian art globally’. Days before his birthday, artworks were compiled and sent to the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust for a publication on his birthday. Ram Rahman of SAHMAT came up with the idea of a book and sent out mails to over 100 galleries and artists, requesting them to join the exercise as a gift to Husain on his birthday. Author of Maqbool Fida Husain, K Bikram Singh and art critic Geeta Kapur charted his life’s fascinating journey.

Artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, who made a small albeit significant work, mentioned the aim was to reassure the legendary artist that they all are with him. It was a collective gesture from the artist community to acknowledge Husain’s contribution. Incidentally, his autobiography is being transformed into a movie, which is tentatively titled ‘The Making of the Painter’. Promising actor Shreyas Talpade stars as the young Husain.

Life has been a never-ending struggle for the celebrated painter, since his childhood, until now. He lost his mother when he was just one and a half years old. It's a loss he is yet to ‘come to terms with’. The nostalgic artist often recounts how starting his career as a billboard painter allowed him to stay afloat during his initial tough days in Mumbai. It was necessary since he arrived in the city penniless. He was painting billboards from the age of 11 for 7 long years to earn his livelihood. Though simultaneously he was painting, he could not exhibit his works for 18 years.

The artist has mentioned: “I had come to Mumbai from Indore at 18. I would then just make cinema hoardings, which brought me closer to movies, my other love. When independence came, everything changed. I was so charged up that I gave up painting hoardings the day we got independence.” An insightful essay on him in The Washington Post describes Husain as an iconic artist, hailed by many as India's Picasso, pointing that his paintings are still coveted at international auctions.

It adds: “The flamboyant, Ferrari-driving artist divides his time between Dubai and London now. He has a large body of work that runs into literally several thousand pieces of art and comprises a series on the erstwhile British colonial Raj, Mother Teresa, Bollywood, Hindu epics and horses. His vibrant colors and bold brushstrokes hark back to his early days of struggle when he used to live on the pavements and painted cinema billboards for a living.”

The world is full of hurdles he realized early in his life and focused on crossing over them. Work hard and stay true to yourself, has been his motto. Even today at 94, M. F. Husain is on his toes, wanting to do something more, as he puts it. According to him, the key is to discover yourself and not finding others. Summing up his spirit as an individual and as an artist, he mentioned: “My hard work is something I am proud of. I feel 40 and feel I’ve 40 more years. It (life) has just begun... We tend to spend the life taking ourselves for granted. Each of us is blessed with the faculty; you just need to discover it.”

Controversies continue to ‘chase’ the eminent artist. Intense protests, hundreds of cases and countless arrest warrants forced him to exile in Dubai three years ago. The Supreme Court of India in September 2008 refused to initiate criminal proceedings against the artist, for allegedly hurting public sentiment through some of his ‘obscene’ paintings. His works were excluded from the India Art Summit 2009 for the second year running. M. F. Husain, though, played down the exclusion, terming it all part of a long struggle. He mentioned, “For the last 15 years my struggle has been going on, with over 800 cases. Only one of them has reached some resolution in the Supreme Court.” He is very much desperate to return to his homeland but it would take some more time.