Last week, a few hours after the death of painter Maqbool Fida Husain in London, I sat down with Syed Haider Raza at his first floor studio near Aurobindo Market, south Delhi. Both painters were early members of the Bombay-based Progressive Artists’ Group, a set of young avant-garde artists that revolutionised and reshaped the Indian art scene and brought it to the world’s notice. Husain died at 95. Raza is 89.
Seated in a wheel chair, Raza says, “Since one week, I was aware that Husain was seriously unwell.” His voice is feeble and I have to sit very close to him to understand what he is saying. “I had last met Husain in an exhibition in London about there years ago. There was great crowd around us and we could not talk much. But we decided to meet the following day in an art gallery, the name of which I can’t remember. I waited for two hours but Husain did not turn up. This failure to keep appointments was the only thing that I didn’t like about him.”
His back turned to his canvas, Raza says, “In art, Husain’s great contribution was that he developed an expression of the 20th century India, which only he did, and he did it in his Maqbool Fida Husain way.” Husain was flamboyant and media savvy. He painted horses, goddesses, and film actresses. He liked being with Bugattis, Rolls Royces and beautiful women. Long before he became one of the most expensive painters of India (along with Raza), he used to live at a barsati in Jangpura, central Delhi. This was in the 1960s. He had a fiat car that he had painted himself. Every Sunday he drove to Karim’s restaurant in Old Delhi to have a breakfast of nihari.
The corridor at Raza’s apartment has a portrait of his French wife, artist Janine Mongillat. He too is in the frame, his arm is on her shoulder. Janine died of cancer in 2002. It was because of her that the painter had lived in Paris for decades. Returning to India late last year, he settled in Delhi.
“When we were young and in Bombay,” says Raza, “there were times when I would meet Husain and Souza daily and times when we sat together only once a month.” Francis Newton Souza had founded the Progressive Artists’ Group with Raza. Husain had joined the club a little later. By 1950, Souza and Raza left Bombay for abroad. The group disbanded in 1954. Husain stayed in India.
“In Bombay, we discussed nothing serious, just life and painting, though Husain was rarely talkative,” says Raza. “I called him Maqbool and he addressed me as Raza. A devout Muslim, he performed namaz five times daily.” Raza, too, is an equally religious Muslim. Apart from the Holy Quran, he also regularly reads the Vedas. “The Hindu epics are part of my culture,” he says. Every Sunday Raza goes to a church. “I’ve studied other religions, but I never left my mazhab. My Islam is the one that was inculcated in me by my parents. It’s not the Islam of the terrorists.”
Raza had his first solo show in 1946 in Bombay. He later moved to France, a land that shaped him as an artist. “There you have galleries with centuries of art on display. You have Cezanne, Van Gogh. You have the impressionists. You have museums that show Indian art. The country has a wonderful climate for a young artist to work and evolve,” he says. “Whereas in the India of 30s and 40s, artists like me and Husain were hobbling in the dark.”
Those were the decades when contemporary Indian art was guided by English sensibilities, which focused on realism and emphasised at a world as seen through the eyes. “But the retina-view was never the Indian way. We see through the third eye.” Pointing to his canvas, Raza says, “I want to show something the essence of which is seen as much by the eyes as it is by the mind and heart.”
In 2005, Husain left India. Self-appointed members of the Hindu community pointed to his paintings of unclothed Hindu goddesses, calling them obscene. The artist received death threats. Lawsuits were filed against him. A non-bailable warrant was issued by a local court in Haridwar. Husain spent the last years of his life in Dubai and London.
“After living for decades in France, I moved back to my land last year,” Raza says. “Husain was not able to return. This part of his life was very sad. Some of his works offended the Hindu Right. I haven’t seen those paintings and so can’t comment but if I were in Husain’s place and if any of my ideas, actions or works had offended the Hindus, I would have apologised.” Survived by six children, Husain was buried in Surrey, near the oldest mosque in UK.
Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website (The Delhi Walla) and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.