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Profile: Maqbool Fida Husain

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-06

"I started painting as a very young man, and the first thing I learned was that a truly successful artist must also be able to market himself intelligently," Maqbool Fida Husain, India's most celebrated painter, said at lunch. "Art needs to be appreciated - but for that to happen, an artist has to sell it first. From the very beginning of my career, I concerned myself with the sale of my work."

Mr. Husain, who turns 90 on September 17, has done well by his sales. His large paintings typically fetch up to $1 million; most other Husains go for anywhere between $120,000 and $500,000.

"Creating a work of art is one thing - but how to present it to the world, that's also an art form," Mr. Husain said.

He told the New York Sun that since his earliest show at the 1947annual exhibition of the Bombay Art Society -- where his painting Sunhera Sansaar was displayed - he's done more than 60,000 paintings, or about half of Pablo Picasso's output. (He met Picasso at the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1971, two years before his death.)

Mr. Husain said that he's sold all but 2,000 of his paintings; he doesn't use an agent, preferring to handle transactions himself. The paintings that he's kept are housed in four museums that Mr. Husain built with his own money in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and New Delhi.

"And now I'm creating new museums for my work in New York and London," Mr. Husain said. "Indian culture, and talent in the sciences and professions, is being welcomed in the West, particularly in America - but American museums are yet to fully open their doors to modern Indian art. The kind of breakthrough that Indian literature has made in the West hasn't happened with Indian art yet."

So who splurges on Husains?

"Mostly Indians in India itself," Mr. Husain said, alluding to the fact that possession of a Husain is inevitably considered a mark of not only of wealth but of good taste. Indians living overseas - known in their native land as NRIs, or nonresident Indians - also hanker for Husains. Indians in America - of whom there are around 2 million - are said to be the wealthiest ethnic community.

Mr. Husain's work is offered in New York and other Western cultural capitals such as London, Paris, and Berlin, by Christie's and Sotheby's; just a few days ago, in fact, Christie's sold a relatively modest-sized Husain for $130,000.

Mr. Husain is a prestidigitator. How so?

"I express the diversity of India, a 5,000-year-old culture," he said. "If there's any magic in my work it's because I blend folk, tribal and mythological imagery."

That magic flows not only from spontaneous creativity. Mr. Husain accepts commissions, much in manner of Renaissance artists who produced masterpieces at the behest of medieval patrons. Thus, Mr. Husain is currently working on a set of 100 paintings for a wealthy Indian. He's also been commissioned by Pierre Cardin, the Parisian haute couturer.

He's also producing his biggest painting ever, a 45-feet-by-11-feet canvas, which he's titled "My Life 90." The painting will be part of the permanent collection of his friend Kent Charugundla, who manages Tamarind Art in Manhattan. Today, in fact, Mr. Husain has invited people - including the media - to watch him work on what will clearly be an autobiographical painting.

It will most certainly portray a lonely childhood in Pandharpur, a small Hindu pilgrimage town in India's western state of Maharashtra. Mr. Husain, a Muslim, was the only child of Fida and Zainab Husain. His mother, Zainab, died when he was one-and-a-half years old.

"Nothing can ever replace the loss of a mother," Mr. Husain said. "And all my life I've been searching for my mother. That search is what drives my art."

Did he ever come close to "finding" the spirit of his mother in anyone he met?

Mr. Husain reflected on the question.

"I suppose Mother Teresa was such a person," he said. "Perhaps that's why she appears in so many of my works."

Another person who Mr. Husain said "comes close" to the concept of his mother is the Indian film star Madhuri Dixit. Indeed, he produced a controversial film, Gajagamini, based on Ms. Dixit, who was reported to be less than pleased by the obsession that Mr. Husain publicly admitted. The film was exhibited in Manhattan last night.

Among those at the screening was Aroon Shivdasani, one of the artist's biggest fans. A Husain collector herself, Ms. Shivdasani is executive director of the Indo-American Arts Council. "There are many great Indian artists today, but Husain is the only one who's widely recognized all over the world, a man who almost single-handedly popularized Indian art globally since 1964, when he first came to New York," Ms. Shivdasani said. She said that even though Mr. Husain is "quintessentially Indian," he's also portrayed scenes from Berlin, London, and Paris in his works.

Ms. Shivdasani also noted that Gajagamini wasn't Mr. Husain's maiden effort in filmmaking. In 1967 he made his first film, "Through the Eyes of a Painter." It was shown at the Berlin Festival and won a Golden Bear. Not long ago, he made another film, "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities."

Does he fancy himself as an auteur?

"I've always wanted to be a filmmaker, I've always felt it's an even higher art form than painting," Mr. Husain said. "I've reached my pinnacle as an artist, perhaps I may have even reached my limitations. After one's paintings sell for $1 million, what more can one want? So one day soon I'm going to stop painting and devote myself entirely to making films."

If he does that, it would constitute a strange irony. Mr. Husain, in fact, began his career painting billboards for films, traditionally the most popular form of entertainment in India. (Indeed, India typically produces more than 1,000 feature films in a dozen languages, the world's highest output.)

The reporter asked: What would be his legacy, his films or his paintings?

"I don't believe in legacies," Mr. Husain said, tartly. "When I'm gone, it's over. It's the process of creating that's more exciting for me. After you've created something, you become a commodity."

The reporter granted him the point. But hadn't he become a commodity beyond his wildest expectations?

"Yes," Mr. Husain said. "I wake up every morning and say to myself, 'Where am I? How did I get here? Did all of it really happen?' I still don't know. Maybe there was a divine hand in all this; it's a mystery. I take my success in stride. Believe me, when you reach my age, it's very easy to be humble about what you've done in your life."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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