Many years ago, Maqbool Fida Husain sat at the home of a mechanic – not for getting his car fixed, as most would, but to listen to the poetry the mechanic had penned.
“It was not that Husain was related to him, or that he was doing him a favour,” said photgrapher Parthiv Shah, recalling the moment. “He was genuinely interested in his work. That was the kind of man that MF Husain was.” Shah spent a few years in the 1990s getting to know Husain’s work and in the process, learning more about the artist himself.
Often described as the Picasso of India, Husain is mainly known to younger generations as the man whose paintings attracted awe and controversy alike. He received death threats for his nude portraits of Hindu goddesses and “Bharat Mata”, India as a woman with the names of various states stamped on her body. He lived the last years of his life in self-imposed exile, dividing his time between Doha and London. Husain died of cardiac arrest in 2011 at the age of 97.
Shah photographed Husain between 1992 and 1993, spending time with the artist as he went about his day. Shah was quick to clarify that the photographs were not taken while “following him around”.
“Following someone to photograph them is a very paparazzi-like concept,” said Shah. “As far as I am concerned, it was not how Shah Rukh Khan is followed by photographers, as he drinks tea, drives by in a car with his wife or whatever. In 25 years as a photographer I have rarely shot people I don’t know. While photographing Husain, I was either with him or I was just around him.”
In the time they spent together, Shah managed to capture on film the many aspects that made Husain – a man who was as comfortable sipping on tea while reading the newspaper at a hole-in-the wall shop, or walking barefoot through Nizamuddin Dargah, as he was when discussing luxury cars.
This tendency to occupy two distinct worlds with ease, according to Shah, came from the years Husain spent painting film posters, to earn his living. “There would be days where he would call me to chat over a cup of tea and that could be either at the Taj or at the neighbourhood tea shop,” said Shah. “He would hop on to my scooter and we would go.”
Around 66 of these candid photographs of Husain, are on display at The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi. In the exhibition Sadak.Sarai.Sheher.Basti: The Recurring Figure, Husain is revealed to the viewer as he merges with the crowd.
“He was very comfortable with the camera around him,” said Shah. “It was very natural for him to be in front of the camera and not be bothered by it and whenever he wanted to stay a little aloof, he would.” This lack of self-consciousness is evident: in some frames, Husain sits alone, enjoying a quiet moment, in some he is engrossed in a deep conversation with a friend, but there are times when he is actively involved with Shah and posing for the camera.
In some photographs, Husain obliges the photographer by lying flat on his back, mirroring an artwork hanging on the wall at an exhibition, or while sitting next to his painting based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, almost becoming an extension of the table occupied by Jesus and his apostles.
The images tease out the theatre of everyday life of an artist who captured India’s imagination for decades. The exhibition shows this collection of images that consists of many conversations, travels, accidental plans, and impromptu gestures.
Sadak.Sarai.Sheher.Basti: The Recurring Figure is on at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, till July 31.