Here lies MF Husain, in an open grave dug beside the driveway of Lalit Kala Akademy. Titled Do Gaz Zameen Bhi Na Mili, the grave is an installation by Delhi-based Arpana Caur and dedicated to the veteran artist who died in exile in 2011. It is a part of “Forms of Activism”, an exhibition being held to mark 25 years of Sahmat, at Lalit Kala Akademi till today.
The grave holds a painting of the tricolour, with Husain’s portrait at the centre. A transparent sheet covers the work, rose petals sprinkled by visitors dry on its edges, and giant trees form an umbrella overhead. Lanterns — a favourite motif of the artist — are placed in the four corners. “Even in the grave, there is light,” says Vivan Sundaram, one of the curators of the show.
The title of the work refers to a couplet by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor of India, who died in Rangoon and was buried there. “Husain was the last emperor of India’s art world and died far away from his country,” says Caur. She conceptualised the work soon after the artist’s death but could only show it now. “I thank Sahmat for getting the permission needed to dig the grave,” she says. Fittingly, the grave is several steps away from the galleries where the rest of the artwork is displayed, creating a sense of isolation amid the hubbub.
Caur first met Husain 40 years ago when he selected three works by her for a group show. “I never had the courage to talk to him,” she says. In 1980, Caur held a solo at Mumbai’s Jahangir Art Gallery and “didn’t have an opening because I knew nobody. On the morning of the first day, I went to the gallery and was told that Husain had bought a painting,” she says. The work, titled Custodians of Law, about the rape of a young woman by policemen, still hangs in Husain’s museum in Bangalore. Caur last spoke to Husain on his birthday, a few months before he died in London, through video-conferencing arranged by Sahmat’s Ram Rahman. “I said we missed him a lot; he said he missed us a lot,” she recalls.