I first met Husain sometime in the ’40s, when I moved from Nagpur to Bombay. We were both unknown as artists and also didn’t know each other. We were two young men, like several others, struggling to be artists in a big city.
While he painted cinema hoardings, I worked in a block-making company. We had exhibitions together and went on to establish the Bombay Progressive Artists Group (PAG) in 1947. The moving spirit behind and the eloquent idealogue of this group was FN Souza. We were unhappy with the state of art in the country but also looked critically at the Western Modern. We shared the unhappiness, the dissatisfaction, the anxieties. Each one us in the PAG had a different style, a different aesthetic vision. We cherished our plurality and celebrated it. Our staying places were small and narrow and could hardly accommodate more than one person, but we often met in Irani cafes over tea and furiously discussed the various issues, from politics of freedom to our works, the direction art was taking and the possibilities of the Modern in India.
I left for France in 1950 but we kept in touch and wrote to each other often. In fact, in the book Geysers released by Vadehra Art Gallery, some of the letters between us have been reproduced. In the early phase of my stay in Paris, we met at times. But Husain was a roamer — he liked to walk around almost aimlessly. He would sometimes promise to come and meet me in Paris and then forget about it!
He was a prolific painter and in spite of the unfortunate phase of the last years of his glorious career and life, he was hugely popular as a painter. He painted all kinds of themes. I recall his iconic work The Spider and the Lamp (1956), also the way he painted Mother Teresa. Then the painting Zameen (1955). I have no works of Husain, but he and Bal Chhabra had jointly acquired one of my large paintings Maa Lautkar Jab Aaunga in 1980s. It is now in possession of Amrita Jhaveri in London, I understand.
I met him in New York when Saffronart mounted a retrospective of mine in 2005. In 2009, we had a joint exhibition in London. We met at the opening and decided to meet the next day as well, but he never showed up.
As told to Vandana Kalra