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Once again ...

SANDEEP SAXENA

M.F. Husain ... the lingering image of his long brush and bare feet.

Interviewing M.F. Husain has always been a bit of an adventure. You never know if he will turn up for the appointment. He may be miles away at the appointed hour. And even if he does materialise, he may decide to play the public performer: throwing out his sensational sound bytes. This time, though, at the Pundole Art Gallery in Mumbai something is decidedly different. He wants to talk. And he does so in a rush, as if he wants to set the record straight — the artist, not the celebrity-painter comes to the fore. M.F. Husain has returned to oil painting after over three decades. We sit in the midst of his exhibition of remarkable paintings: these are not the usually hurried fare in which the painter's lines lead him, filling his vast canvases. There is a sculptural feel to the surface of these works: the conversation is between the colours and forms. Traces of the billboard painter are missing. The grand, unabashed and unselfconscious gestures are subsumed. The unconscious surfaces slowly, gradually caught in the thick swirl of colours. Impressionist/Expressionist? Who knows. Who cares. Husain has returned to oil painting — in earnest that is. It is a celebration. And, obviously, he wants this major turn — or U-turn — on the road map of his career signposted. He also wants to talk about his previous search for his own painterly vocabulary. Why did he suddenly go back to oil painting? Apparently the silent Muse this time is not a gracefully curvaceous woman but Dadiba Pundole. He just got the medium-sized canvas boards and an endless supply of tubes of paint and laid them out, waiting patiently for the creative spark. It happened earlier this year, and anybody dropping in the gallery around brunch time would see Husain sitting on the floor, the canvas board on his lap, or propped up against the wall: Husain is not an easel painter. That is when he was not eating his Bombay brune and drinking chai. Inspiration obviously didn't dry up: after finishing 20 paintings he moved to Kolkata to do another 20. And then repeated the exercise in Delhi at the Vadehra Art Gallery. At the time of writing this interview, he was planning to go to Paris for a fortnight to continue his love affair with oil painting. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with MADHU JAIN.

After Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, it's Paris. Why?

I WAS there in 1971 when I did 29 of my oil paintings of my "Mahabharta" series. I have rented a studio near St. Germain des Pres for two weeks. I am going to sit in the café — Les Deux Magots — where Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre sat, and soak in the atmosphere ... watch people going by and just paint.

I don't want to meet anybody. I just want to paint, and go to the Louvre.

Can you talk about your new work in oil? Is there a theme? Any departures?

There is no theme. The first work I did in this series is a woman. But I was only concerned with colour, with sculpted colour. I did a few oil paintings in 1994 — only five or six before going back to acrylic. Acrylic gives you flat colours. I did my first acrylic in 1956, when I was considered a poster artist. My lamp and spider painting was four feet by eight feet and sold for only Rs. 800. If it hadn't been for my horses, Gade told me, I would not have survived. My horses saved me.

Why did you want to do oils after all these years?

It was in my mind for a year and a half. I wanted to do small-scale oils.

They are sensual and wet. You have to be sure of what you are doing in oil.

With acrylic you can change. I don't use a palette; I use a knife, a pantry knife. You have to know how much pressure to use. A bit like the Chinese way of using the brush, when you use the point or the blob. I do wet on wet.

Others wait for it to dry, I don't. I mix colours on the surface itself.

This mother and child painting is like a sculpture. There are no shades, no folds. You put a line as you would chisel a stone. The other colour lies below it. There is no shading. I have not used oil to create volume.

What is the secret new ingredient in your latest work?

The old masters. My references are Velasquez, the Dutch masters — Van Dykes, and of course, Rembrandt. But they are just the starting point. I have removed the vanishing point that is prevalent in Western painting, the base of Renaissance painting. Now, it's become Eastern. There are elements of the Indian miniature — in the use of colour to build volume. There are shades of Indian sculpture here too. It's all about how you take certain things and disguise them — not cleverly, but creatively. Otherwise it becomes imitation.

Is your approach to oil painting any different from the European way?

Yes, like Indian miniatures, I have built it up by creating volume in space: it is light in front, and as you recede there is colour. Indian miniatures created one plane, but on the top they created an illusion. In the West they had the vanishing point, images are smaller in the back. But with us it is different. For example, if you have an image of Shiva and a cow, the cow might be bigger — even if it is in the foreground. Although the physical world is present in Indian miniatures, there is no need for the real. We had metaphor. Shiva is not on a human scale. He is the highest evolution of the form over thousands of years, measured as he is on the scale of the universe. In the West they are concerned with matter. They want it perfect, like Michelangelo's David. They have gone to the other extreme.

We went beyond reality — into metaphor and feeling. They spilt matter; we split the soul.

Any other aspects of your technique which are unusual?

See, this painting of the virgin girl, the lemon yellow is only from the tube. I never use a palette. The brush is sacrilegious to painters. I also used Chinese lacquer. It lends the works brilliance. Dust does not settle on it. I learned this from my hoarding painting days. We used huge drums of colours. Yeh kya bachon ka khel, people would say. They would worry about permanence: would it last, they asked.

Could you talk a little about the evolution of your work — that jump from billboard painter to painter?

I was using expressionist colours when I first went to Bombay. My start was with billboard paintings, and you did not have proper colours then.

Painters like Bhide and Baburao Painter drew their strength from colour in the late 1930s and 1940s. It was the time of Shantaram's films. My brush was colour: it gave the structure. I came from impressionism and cinema realism, but the form was not there. In the 1930s, Von Lyden first showed us the work of the Fauves (wild beasts), the painters who used wildness in their colours.

My wildness in colours came from cinema. The Germans were also using wildness in colours, again from cinema. Then I had my first show in 1949.

N.S. Bendre saw it and he told me that something was missing. He told me: "Until now you did not have shoes, now you have the shoes which you have not worn." This was my first step towards form. I took up the challenge. I went to Calcutta, Lucknow, and other cities. But I had no money. Not a single painting was sold in a show in Calcutta in 1951. They criticised the folk element in my work, saying it was a betrayal of Jamini Roy.

I had no money for my return fare. Kanwal and Devyani Krishna paid for me.

I was still hesitant about form, though confident about colour. I then took the innocence of folk art and combined it with the sophistication of the Gupta classical period.

No Western influences?

I went to Paris in 1953 and saw for the first time the intellectual structure. I realised that many things had come to us second hand. I felt suffocated with all this. Souza, Raza, Akbar, Tyeb — all these painters and friends had very high intelligence and were sophisticated. I wanted to go beyond, but I knew my capacity. Souza had a brilliant mind. I kept listening to him. Then in Delhi, I saw an exhibition of Indian classical masterpieces at Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was a turning point in my art. From here on I worked with three elements: the Gupta Classical female form, the innocence of Indian folk art and colour from Basholi miniatures. Souza was surprised when he saw my work, and kept asking me: "Where did this come from?" I went back down the epochs and centuries and then moved forward. Souza's source was Balthus and Byzantine art. He went West; I went to the East.

Why do you do performance art — painting to music to that of a clock ticking in front of the public?

I did six paintings in Triveni in Delhi in 1968 — all in an hour. It was a question of control. There were six canvases of different sizes, and I worked on all of them simultaneously. One painting was violent; the other was not. I wanted to see how I could work simultaneously at different levels of my consciousness. One or two may have been flops. But I had no inhibitions. I have weaknesses. I wanted to show that to paint you don't have to be very private and work in isolation. Look at the higher forms of art, like music. A musician performs in front of five thousand people. And here folk and tribal artists don't paint in band cameras (closed rooms).

Tribal art is so much ahead of us, and J. Swaminathan proved it. Their vision is direct. If they paint a neem tree they won't say what its attributes are, they say look at the power of the leaves. Moreover, the process of painting is so exciting. I want to share it with people. When I finish it, it becomes a commodity. The artist wants to show the pain of the birth of a work. This is not a demonstration I can do in a studio or in a living room. Then you have all that meditation and philosophy and theories about art. Paul Klee said that it was all right to know all this, but when you sit down to paint you throw out all the theories and paint like a child. The pity of it is that all painters are becoming thinkers. They are not struggling with form.

Velasquez and the Dutch masters were struggling with form. In Indian contemporary art, Souza had already arrived in the 1960s, and people did not know this.

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