“After the movie, he walked all the way home,” says Doha resident Sujata Varma. “He must have been around 75 then, but he walked all the way home.”
Varma was sitting in a movie theatre, in her hometown in India, when an elderly man brushed past her and sat down alone in the same row. To her, it seemed odd that someone who seemed to be aged over 70 had come to watch a movie alone. Curious, she strained to make out who it was. After a few minutes, the man crossed one leg over a knee — and the mystery was solved.
“When I saw his bare feet, it clicked; I was sitting near M F Husain.
Banking on art
“My life revolves around art,” says Varma — a statement which, she admits, often arouses a certain degree of scepticism in people when they learn that she is a banker at one of Qatar’s leading financial institutions.
Any doubts about her depth of affinity for the arts, however, can be quelled by one look at her home in the Old Airport neighbourhood of Doha. The works of some of the best-known artists from India and Qatar line the walls of both floors of her house, which, if you didn’t know better, could be mistaken for an art gallery.
Describing her collection, she reels off the names of artists and their specific painting styles with an air of familiarity and respect: F N Souza, Anjaneyulu Gundu, Manu Parekh, Thota Vaikuntam, Ram Kumar, Jhupu Adhikari, Milburn Cherian, Lalu Shaw, Yashwant Shirwadkar, Sangeeta Thukral, Yousif al-Homaid and Moza al-Kuwari.
As she discusses each painting, Varma relates the artists to Maqbool Fida Husain — either as a contemporary or a protégé or a friend or an acquaintance, or simply as an admirer of Husain.
“When an art connoisseur thinks of India’s modern and contemporary art landscape, it’s the name and face of M F Husain that comes to mind,” says Varma. “Such was his image that it will be some time before the art world in India stops using his life as a timeline for anything related to modern Indian art.”
With the Qatar Foundation launching the artist’s final art installation — the Seero fi al Ardh — on Wednesday, Varma says she is reminded of the many encounters she had with the artist while growing up in Ahmedabad in Western India; a city that has always been, and still is, associated with art, design — and Husain.
Husain’s Ahmedabad — and his cave
“When you think of an Indian city steeped in art, design and architecture, you think of Ahmedabad; and when you think of Ahmedabad, you think of Husain,” says Varma.
“Husain loved the city for many reasons. For centuries, residents of the city generously supported artists and craftsmen. The fact that it’s the first city in India to be recognised by the Unesco as a World Heritage City says a lot about the history and culture of the place.
“Additionally, in the 1960s and 1970s, the city started attracting a rising wave of contemporary artists who were keen to make it their home — a trend that continues to this day.”
Husain took an instant liking to Ahmedabad’s ambience — to the extent that he decided to have a museum built in the city to house his artwork.
He teamed up with Balkrishna Doshi, a renowned Indian architect and a friend, to design a museum that still stands today — Amdavad ni Gufa, or Ahmedabad’s Cave. Varma says she met the artist often during her visits to the Gufa, as it is popularly known, in the 1990s, when she was living in Ahmedabad.
The creator and the destroyer
“Meeting him in person was both inspiring and humbling,” she says. “A down-to-earth and unassuming nature, coupled with his bold painting style, made him an unforgettable person.”
Varma ran into the artist frequently at the artist’s favourite tea shop in Ahmedabad, Lucky Tea Stall, in art galleries, and in parks.
“Once, he was painting on a canvas in the Gufa, when I visited it with my friends,” she recalls. “When he completed it and stepped back, a few of us moved forward to admire it.
“After a few minutes though, he grabbed a brush and white paint and painted over it — it was almost as if he wanted to show us that an artist was capable of both creativity and destruction.”
Varma notes that while Husain’s work has been exhibited in museums across the word, the Gufa is unique for a reason.
“Unlike other museums where Husain’s paintings were hung on the walls, his artwork in the Gufa was different,” she explains. “The walls of the museum are curved, making it impossible to hang anything flat. So he painted directly onto the walls — including on the air conditioners and doorways.”
A slice of Ahmedabad in Doha
The banker says that when the Gufa was opened to the public, it created quite a buzz. People hadn’t seen anything like it before. They said that the building reflected Husain’s persona; it was his legacy to a city he was so fond of.
“And today,” smiles Varma, “the Seero fi al Ardh has the makings of an equally memorable experience.
“Having seen and interacted with him, I know that Husain was capable of the unexpected. As with all his projects and creations, this final one is likely to surprise, delight, challenge, puzzle, and perhaps even annoy people.
“If he were alive, he would get a kick out watching the expressions on viewers’ faces — that’s exactly what he would have wanted.
“In a way, it seems appropriate that he would leave such a legacy in this city — like Ahmedabad, Doha’s art-loving ambience gave him the peace and latitude to be himself. Perhaps that’s why he had the confidence and mental space to conceive this final installation.”
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