There is a gigantic, vibrant, awe-inspiring painting on the dome-like ceiling on the ninth floor of the DLF Centre in New Delhi. Visitors to the DLF corporate headquarters are struck by the sheer grandeur of the unique work of art, which is called the “The Enchanting Damsel of Delhi”, depicting the evolution of the historic city of Delhi into a modern metropolis and bears the unmistakable style and signature of the greatest artist of modem India – by M. F. Husain. After months of agonizing on the theme, it took him just four days of frenzied work to complete the masterpiece in the late eighties. All he asked for was a huge canvas, copious supplies of paints, loud music playing in the background and naan and chicken for lunch.
I have always been fascinated by both his creations and his persona. Indeed, if the most striking feature of Husain’s works of art is their sheer vitality, the most endearing aspect of his personality was his zest for life, his energy, passion and the often surprising simplicity of his tastes.
I first met him purely by chance at a railway station in the early sixties. I was traveling by train from Hyderabad to Delhi when a scraggy looking man with an unkempt beard and dressed in pyjama kurta, rushed up and asked if he could enter the air-conditioned coupe. I reluctantly let him in. He said he painted hoardings for a living in Hyderabad. He started sketching me while we were chatting. He handed it to me but I was not impressed. Before reaching Delhi, he took my address. I never expected to see him again but there was something about him that had intrigued me, a vibrancy and self-confidence that belied his bedraggled appearance.
A few years later, a young Indian Foreign Service officer, K. Natwar Singh was my house guest. He had a visitor and it turned out be the same bearded painter. A few days later, the painter retumed and asked if I could loan him Rs. 600. I gave him the money. A few months later, he was back, asking for another loan. At this point, I offered him a job at DLF to do some paintings. He agreed. We would provide him the paint and materials he wanted and he would paint when he felt like it.
He had simple tastes and was happy with the monthly salary of Rs. 800. He lived in a small barsati in Jangpura in New Delhi where I used to often visit him as I had started to admire his work. He created some of his finest paintings in that barsati. He produced some stunning, priceless works for me between the mid sixties to the late eighties. The testimonies to his genius are all over my home and office. One is an exquisite portrait of Indira (my wife).
Our relationship went beyond patron and artist. He was a simple soul who loved the basic things of life. Food from roadside dhabas was preferable any day to a five star hotel meal. He was also delightfully disorganized. I once asked him if he wanted help from the DLF office to file his tax returns. ‘What is a tax return?’ he asked innocently. When I told him, he laughed saying that the taxman would never come calling as he did not make that kind of money.
I got him a small residential apartment in Gole Market so that he was more comfortable. In May 1986, we elevated him to the position of Art Advisor at DLF at a salary of Rs. 2,500 a month plus accommodation. He had not asked for a raise but I felt he deserved it since he was producing such wonderful paintings. He remained with DLF till September 1993.
Just an occasional phone call illuminates the memories of time we spent together. Towards the end of 2010, I was lucky to meet him in Dubai. He came all the way from Qatar just to meet me, picked me up from my hotel in his Bentley and drove me to his museum in Dubai that houses some of his recent work. They are truly magnificent and worth all the millions of rupees his paintings command.
He turned 100 on December 7, 2010, according to the lunar calendar and we spent an entire afternoon talking of how we had first met, his days at DLF and how he had become an international celebrity. I kidded him about his wealth, asking who kept track of it. He laughed and replied that he recorded all transactions in a pocket diary and somewhere in his head. Fate takes care of everything, was his philosophy. He was as animated as ever and full of life and passion. ‘What is the secret of your youthfulness,’ I was tempted to ask. He said that for many years now, he only ate half of what he felt like eating.
I “Consider myself twice blessed to be surrounded by wonderful paintings at home and office and to have enjoyed a close friendship and lifelong relationship with a man of such sheer genius. His passing is a loss not just to me, my family and my company but also to humanity. The only consolation is that, like all great legends, Husain leaves behind a legacy that will be enduring and inspiring to generations to come.
By Dr. K.P. Singh, Chairman, DLF Ltd.
Source: DLF Annual Report: 2010-11