THERE is a certain similarity between the lives of two people who were in the news recently – for wrong reasons, namely, Maqbool Fida Husain, a painter, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until recently boss of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), now under house arrest in New York. Husain died in London and was buried there, an exile from India. Kahn will also end his life in exile in America, though he is a Frenchman, and was until a few weeks ago a probable candidate for the French presidency.
I doubt whether these two gentlemen ever met or even knew about each other. Husain had spent most of his life in India, while Kahn had done so in France. But at the last moment, fate seems to have intervened, and both were prevented from visiting their countries. Kahn was actually pulled out of a plane bound for Paris, and Husain could not go home because of court cases against him.
Husain was the more colourful of the duo. He was active even when I was growing up in Bombay as a boy. Husain started off as a poster painter and used to paint large film posters in Novelty cinema in Grant Road. We used to visit Grant Road’s vegetable and fish market almost every day, and I used to see Husain perched on a big ladder painting huge portraits of actors and actresses, including a well known film actress called Madhuri, not Madhuri Dixit who later became his muse, but just Madhuri. I used to watch him from across the road as we were forbidden to go near Novelty cinema as it was too close to Bombay’s red-light district. Let us be quite clear: Husain, for all his later fame as an international artist, was essentially a product of Bombay’s red-light culture, just like Toulouse Lautrec in Paris. There must be something in that culture that produces vivid portraits of men, women and horses, which is what Husain painted all his life, and how he learnt to walk barefoot all over the city.
After the war, and after I had returned to India from London, I used to see Husain in or around Mahatma Gandhi Road in the fort area, which had a nice coffee house run by the Coffee Board. I had no idea then that he was the same Husain from Novelty cinema, until an artist friend of his told me. I have no idea what he did at the time, but he was always a busy man, and he went everywhere without chappals.
Husain used to paint horses then, and his sketches of horses were so common in Bombay that they were available for a few rupees each. I have no idea when he switched over to women, and especially nude women. Husain by then had become a darling of the secular crowd in Bombay and elsewhere, which means essentially anti-Hindu crowd that makes much of its anti-Hinduness. This crowd started raising its head after the advent of Sonia Gandhi in active politics and has prospered mightily under her patronage. If you are anti-Hindu, you are, almost by definition, secular, and therefore a certified member of the 10 Janpath crowd. I have a feeling that it was about this time, when his paintings started selling for crores of rupees, that Husain began painting nude Hindu goddesses.
Was it deliberate? It may have been, though one doesn’t know. Husain was a “smart cookie”, as they say in the United States, and he must have known what he was doing. He not only painted a nude Bharat Mata, but started painting nude Hindu goddesses, Saraswati and Durga. When he was taken to court on the serious charge of promoting enmity between religious communities for nude depiction of Hindu goddesses, he got off the hook on a technicality. Husain then realised that he was sailing too close to the wind and could not be saved by 10 Janpath, or his secular friends like Girish Karnad, Shyam Benegal and others who looked the other way as the secular crowd does when the fat is in the fire.
When Husain realised his goose was cooked, he fled the country. None of his secular friends could help him. Ramachandra Guha, a member of the secular fraternity, bemoaned the lack of support from the secular crowd close to 10 Janpath, without realising that this crowd lacks spine, as he himself put it. Husain was a victim of this crowd who first boosted him and then let him down with a thud. Husain could no longer paint or exhibit in India and none of his secular friends on whom he had relied could help him. What he did not realise, until it was too late, that the secular crowd in India is too cowardly to stand up to anybody or anything, and always looks for a getaway at the first sign of trouble. But by then it was too late.
This is also where our friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn comes in. Kahn was not an ordinary civil servant. He had been Finance Minister of France and was planning to be its next President. He was also, like Husain, a rich man. He had a lavish house in Paris and another in Washington, and his wife had been a leading TV journalist. As managing director of International Monetary Fund, he had influential friends everywhere, just like Husain. He believed that they would always come to his help and would bail him out, just as he had bailed out their countries when in trouble.
But nobody came to his help. Just as Husain’s secular friends dumped him, Kahn’s powerful international friends and associates refused to touch him when he was down. Not a single individual from the IMF accompanied him to the police station and later to court, when he was manacled and thrust into a police cell. In America, and possibly elsewhere in the West, everybody is for himself, no matter what or who you are. This is also what Husain came to find in India. Ultimately, your troubles are your own, and your friends, secular or otherwise, cannot help you.
Ramachandra Guha and others are now blaming the Congress for complete lack of spine and pusillanimity, but it is not the Congress that let down Husain but 10 Janpath. It was 10 Janpath that made much of its secularism, though all it was doing was playing vote-bank politics. Muslims like Husain come in useful if they play their part in this type of politics. If they don’t, they are expendable. The day Husain was marked as “habitual offender” his goose was cooked. He became a non-entity for the secular crowd, that is, the anti-Hindu crowd, and his usefulness a thing of the past.
There is also another thing. India is a Hindu country, and Husain should have known it, having been born in Pandharpur, the great holy city in Maharashtra. The secularists are trying their best to prove India is not Hindu, and they always fail. Husain died in exile, unsung and unwept, in a foreign country. We all feel sorry for him, but there are times when countries take their revenge on erring sons who disown their own countries, and their own culture, for the sake of a few paise.