February 21, 2020
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Why Husain Quit India...Or Has India Quit Him?

The Grand Old Man of Indian art has made a new home for himself-- away from controversies-- on the Gulf shores, in Dubai. But given half a chance, he'd still prefer Mumbai

Why Husain Quit India...Or Has India Quit Him?
Why Husain Quit India...Or Has India Quit Him?
Even the Malabari chaiwallahs on Dubai’s creek know their barefoot customer is special. They rush to pull out a chair and wipe the grimy plastic clean of bird droppings when Maqbool Fida Husain drops in for a steaming ‘suleimani’, the fragrant black tea that is an Arab speciality. "I love going down there," Husain told Outlook soon after he bought an apartment in the plush Emaar Towers with a bird’s eye view of the bustling inland waterway. His Red Line gallery in the same upscale high-rise is his second. His first, the Ha Meem Qaaf gallery, features prominently on the route of the city’s tourist buses, and was initially his first home. He says he moved to the centre of the bustling commercial capital so he could meet real people. "I want to be able to walk on a street, share a moment with the chaiwallah, brush shoulders with ordinary people."

There’s no shortage of that. The boatmen repairing the ubiquitous dhows that ply the Arabian Sea are more than curious when the greying stranger sits on the crowded pier, peering at the ferries laden with his countrymen criss-crossing the creek. But they leave him alone and he wanders off through the spice and gold souks. "I just sit there, watching, absorbing," Husain said, soon after he bought the apartment.

For four years now, the quixotic painter has found refuge in Dubai from the incessant attacks on his art, enjoying a measure of anonymity. But that cloak of invisibility may be fraying. Even here, the right-wing moral police have made their presence felt. As reported by a website with links to the Hindutva brigade, three men had threatened the staff of a local gallery earlier this year for displaying Husain’s line drawing, Bharat Mata. This was the very work that drew a Haridwar lawyer’s ire. The work, incidentally, has now been donated by Husain to the Mumbai police commissioner, to be auctioned to raise money for the families of policemen who died in Mumbai’s train bombings last year.

The 92-year-old refuses to let the threats get to him. "It’s sub-judice," he says, refusing to be drawn out on the subject. Surrounded by the warmth of his family—two of his sons, Mustapha and Owais, and his favourite nephew, Fida, live here—he has thrown himself into his latest project, travelling the Gulf to put together a 75-painting collection depicting Arab history. He says history has always been written and recorded through western eyes. "This is the eastern angle."

In the meanwhile, he is doodling over design placemats for Mustapha’s newly acquired Thai Times restaurant on Jumeirah Beach Road—which clients can take away at a price. It’s been a seamless transition for him into Dubai society with its large concentration of wealthy Indians, his black Cadillac instantly recognisable at high-society lunches and dinners (where he tops the guest list). But, says Mustapha, "He misses the sights and sounds of home. Given half a chance, he’d take the next flight to Mumbai."

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