Maqbool Fida Hussain aka M.F. Hussain may have spoken volumes with his strokes, but the celebrated artist was left speechless during a meeting with the legendary Hindi film actress Meena Kumari, the author of a new book recalls.
Hussain, who would have turned 102 yesterday, was taken to meet the actress in a hospital in 1967, when he was visiting the infant son of student and fellow artist Ila Pal.
Meena Kumari, who was also in the hospital recovering from an ailment, looked “absolutely bewitching”, Pal writes in her book on the barefoot artist. “Her husky mellifluous voice could really hold people in thrall, and that day she was determined to leave Hussain devastated,” she writes. And Hussain, visibly smitten, was tongue-tied.
The Pakeezah actress held a silver betel-leaf box in her lap, her eyes subtly shaded with kohl, her long hair loose, fragrant and lustrous. When she offered Hussain a paan, he “could barely speak”, Pal writes. “He ate whatever she offered and nodded to whatever she said,” the book ‘Hussain: Portrait of an artist’ reveals. “What could I do? The moment I parted my lips to speak, kambakht ne is andaaz se meri taraf dekha, meri to zabaan hi kat gai! (she looked at me in such a way that I lost my voice),” Hussain told Pal when she remonstrated with him later on his uncharacteristic silence.
The biography is full of little nuggets about a man whose life many thought was an open book. What is known is that he was born in Pandharpur in Madhya Pradesh to a Sulaymani Bohra family, on September 17, and his initial years were a veritable struggle.
“He had brothers and sisters to play with, but all he wanted to do was to paint,” Pal writes. He won a gold medal at a state annual art exhibition while in school, ranked second in his second year examination conducted by the J J School of Art, but came closest to art when he started working as a billboard painter in 1936 -sleeping on footpaths, barely managing two square meals a day.
“Hussain was nineteen or twenty, and six annas was a pittance … Yet, with that amount, Hussain could still buy two cheap meals,” Pal, now 78 and based in Mumbai, writes. During his first stint as a billboard painter, Hussain learnt carpentry, the techniques of priming, stretching jute cloth and mixing colours.
His greatest takeaway from the job, however, was that it helped him learn how to paint large hoardings and posters, paving the way to eventual stardom. But his mastery over his art did not prevent him from putting his “sprightly mischief” to use.
Pal, who first met him when she was studying art in what was then Bombay, writes about the time she walked into a tabla performance in an old haveli in Udaipur with Hussain. The host mistook the artist for a tabla maestro, thanks to his “flowing beard, burning eyes and his fingers keeping time on his knees”. And Hussain made no effort to dispel the impression. “No, please … please continue,” he said with a benevolent smile on his face when the musicians urged him to take over.
“This went on and on. Unnerved by the presence of a ‘great tabla wizard’ amongst them, they finally wound up quite abruptly,” she wrote, recalling how he didn’t say a word even when they began to touch his feet. When Pal asked why he fooled them, Hussain replied nonchalantly, “I was wearing my beard, my very own beard, and I was tapping my fingers on my knees the way I always do when I am impatient to leave. What wrong did I do?”
The book also talks about the women in Hussain’s life, including his wife Fazila, whom he married when he was a young billboard painter, and Maria, a linguist and Hussain’s official interpreter during a 1956 Prague visit with whom he was “infatuated”.
The artist developed a “beautiful rapport with Maria, the kind he had never enjoyed with any woman,” Pal writes.
So much so, that after his return to India, he began writing letters to her, almost everyday, not only “expressing what he felt, but more significantly, sharing with her his thoughts on art, theatre and cinema, expanding his own
horizons; crystallizing his own thoughts”.
Maria went on to marry an Icelander, and Hussain gifted her 83 of his paintings as her dowry. Years later, she returned all the work that he had gifted her. Hussain had called up Pal to express his surprise at Maria’s decision.
“Can you believe, Ila, that in the twenty-first century someone would return all the eighty-three paintings I gifted her forty-five years ago?”
Hussain took custody of the works, which are now housed in the Maria Zukova museum in Dubai. Hussain, who died of cardiac arrest on June 9, 2011, in London, became one of the highest selling painters in India with one of his artworks fetching $1.6 million at a 2008 Christie’s auction.
His depiction of the Bharat Mata as a nude woman posed across the Indian map, provoked protests in parts of the country, compelling him to live in self-imposed exile from 2006.