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From Khichri to Korma, a long journey



M.F. Husain tries out some Kashmiri food at the Ashok Hotel's Kashmir Club in New Delhi. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

`MUJHE CHAI banana aata hai,' those two seasoned eyes, which have seen 40 years of hardship and plenty of rewards, still search for a word of appreciation for his `cooking skills'. This is Maqbool Fida Husain at Ashok Hotel's Kashmiri Club - exclusive Kashmiri cuisine restaurant in New Delhi. He is ready for special meal from the State - seekh kabab, lal chicken, mirchi korma, dhanisal korma, rista, al yakhni, haq, rajmash, kahwa, phirni and more.

The ambience of Kashmiri Club tries to bring the Valley to its furniture, pictures of early 1930s adorning the wall, showing the State and its people in moods varied, DVD projectors reflecting Kashmir's flowers, landscapes and lakes create a perfect ambience for a nostalgic trip that Husain undertakes while enjoying the meal.

"There was a time when I would depend only on `khichri' for two meals a day," he recalls as he sips his Coke as the starter.

Then Husain was 19. But his struggle had begun much earlier. "When I was one-and-a-half-year-old, my mother died. So I don't remember her face. When I turned six, my father remarried the daughter of a Paish-e-Imam. She was very religious. She made me learn and read the Quran, Hadith etc." But Husain's heart beat for paintings. He would keep painting the whole day. "I was not close to my new mother, so I would keep away from home. I would go there to eat and sleep only."

He actually wanted to be a film-maker. But his paintings made him famous. "It was just what happened to Mirza Ghalib. He loved only Persian, he would write Urdu only in margins. But his Urdu poetry shot him to fame. For me filmmaking was the passion, painting was in margin. But I am known for my paintings and my films bomb at the box office," Husain laughs as he readies his buffet.

"One fine morning, I went to my father and said, I don't want to study. I want to paint only. Mera school churva dijiye. I will earn my living by my art." His father noticed a passion in his eyes and agreed. He rushed to Mumbai with a passion for film making igniting in his heart. He went to his relative but they sent him away.

In Mumbai, his new friend told him that no one will buy his modern paintings, he should make some realistic stuff. He started making Naseem Bano's portraits. It clicked. He met `Bhire', V. Shantaram's assistant who invited him to the film-maker's New Theatres. He started making film posters. "I was never treated with respect for I was a poster painter."

Husain stayed in Mumbai for 18 years but never held any exhibition here. The reason, "I did not know English and all buyers spoke English. I could never muster up courage to talk to them." It was only in 1950 that one of his paintings sold for Rs.50. "After this, I never looked back."

"Arre bhai, thodi dahi korma aur lana, " he breaks the concentration. He enjoys his rice and Dhanisal korma. He cares nothing at all about soiling his hands and happily keeps his forks and knife aside.

The food reminds him, "My friend in Mumbai, `Husaini Khichri wala' asked me to make a portrait of his mother who would not agree to get photographed. But warned me `she should not get to know'. For my payment, he would serve me khichri for lunch and dinner that his mother cooked. Today no hotel in the world can equal the taste of that `Ma ke hath ki khichri' and no portrait of mine, however costly, can parallel that portrait of the mother."

You barely want him to stop his tale. But he is through with his meal. Phirni and fruit cream is served for desserts. He takes a spoonful. "Mazedar hai." With all praise for Dhaniwal korma prepared by Chef Fayaz Ahamd, Husain makes an exit.

RANA A. SIDDIQUI

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