A Chat with M.F.Husain on his 94th Birthday

MF Husain with his daughter Raeesa and the Charugundlas

MF Husain with his daughter Raeesa and the Charugundlas

M.F. Husain’s 94th birthday

Would you like to go to a birthday party? A 94-year-old’s very special birthday party?  Should I add – M.F. Husain’s 94th birthday party?

With a birthday cake decorated with his famous horses and the iconic artist himself showcasing his latest work – a grand 45 by 13 feet canvas which chronicles 9 decades of his life – it was a must-see, must-be-at event.

I was at this intimate birthday bash at the Tamarind Arts Council in Manhattan for about 65 guests by the collectors Kent and Marguerite Charugundla, and even managed to get a one-on-one chat with Husain, dapper in his trademark jacket, white gloves, holding his walking cane which is actually a giant paint brush.

The Charugundlas are avid art collectors and founders of Tamarind Art Council, a not-for-profit organization.  Their collection of contemporary Indian art includes the 60-foot painting ‘Lighting’ by M.F. Husain, and works by major artists including Raza, F.N. Souza, Bal Chabda, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, and Gaitonde. Their foundation supports diverse art initiatives including the India Now film festival at the Museum of Modern Art.

The guests included people from the art world as well as personal friends of Husain who had flown in from Dubai with his daughter Raeesa.  In the background – but always in the forefront of consciousness – was the huge canvas that Husain is painting for the Charugundlas. It’s a work in progress, covering the nine decades of his life and occupies one entire wall.

Husain has titled it Voyage of Discovery. As recently as this morning Husain had worked on it for a while – this dramatic piece has woven in the many influences of the past 90 years including his parents, Gods and Goddesses, Mahatma Gandhi, mistresses and muses and much more, a tapestry of a colorful life richly lived.

Husain working on his 45 foot canvas at Tamarind Arts Council

Husain working on his 45 foot canvas at Tamarind Art Council

In spite of all the controversy surrounding his work, the price on his work continues to rise. On the day of his birthday, at the Sotheby’s auction of contemporary Indian art, three of his works brought in a chunky $ 582,500. Nice Birthday present!

I wish we could all be as dynamic and vital as Husain is in the 94th year of his life. He is just as spirited and vocal as ever, loves his glass of red wine and enjoys connecting with people. He signed autographs, posed for photos and gave interviews and was smiling through the evening, as guests came forward for his ‘darshan’. Before the guests came in, he sat down with me for a quickie one-on-one chat. He has lived in Dubai and London for 13 years, in what many term as ‘self-exile’ but he scoffed at that notion.

On the unfinished canvas, Husain has written, ‘When I begin to paint, hold the sky in your hands as the stretch of my canvas is unknown to me.’

It will be intriguing to see how long this canvas stretches, and the stories that unfold.

Face to Face with M. F. Husain

Q: In all these 94 years which is your fondest memory, the one you cherish?

A: All the 94 years. Even each minute is important – even one minute is important – it’s not one particular time or something – it’s not that.  Because the way I’ve lived and I’ve worked – I’ve worked with an intensity. I don’t do just for the sake of doing.  I never paint every day. When I’m totally charged, then I paint. You see, there’s no such thing as up and down. Sometimes I do the work – and if it’s not, I destroy it.

Q: Have you destroyed lots of works?

A: Of course – hundreds of works.  In 1936, I did hundreds of works and I never showed them – they are all destroyed, because that was my study.  Today a student does something and immediately rushes to exhibit it. But for 18 years I was in Bombay and I never exhibited. After Independence, when I saw this enthusiasm, then I decided now I should enter the art world.

Q: But that must have been a very lonely period, to not be able to share your work?

A: Not at all – because I knew what I’m doing – I didn’t have to show it to get anyone’s opinion. I met with all the important people – I lived with them and I absorbed everything and then I came out, because you only learn when you listen.

Q: What have been the influences on your work?

The influence was universal.  When I first came here (to the US) in 1953 I saw all the modern museums and galleries but my focus was the Renaissance. My approach is classical; that is the base and on that I build the contemporary work.

Q: Then there’s the other influence – the huge hoardings you used to paint for Hindi films in the old days – that was a different life, wasn’t it?

A: That’s how I can do this, because of my 7 or 8 years of building stamina, of doing 20 or 40 feet (works).  So I’m not scared of the space.  I was doing hundreds of sketches as preparation before I even dared to go on that space – so those influences are there.

Chatting with M F Husain - - writer Lavina Melwani

Chatting with M F Husain – writer Lavina Melwani

Q: Can you tell me about life now – you are living in Dubai as well as London, everywhere?

A: Even earlier I used to do that – I used to always do that – it’s not just now, it’s nothing new. For the last 60 years I was doing that, this is nothing new. I was working in New York, in London and in Paris. This is going on. This is nothing new.

Q: Then why do people feel it’s something new?

A: Because people are ignorant – I can’t sit and tell everyone. It’s their ignorance. Let them live in their fool’s paradise.

Q: So you didn’t really leave India?

A: I’ve never left. My area of work is not only limited to one place – my vision is universal but keeping the Indian base – that was very strong.

Q: So it’s still strong, the Indian base.

 A: Yes.

Q: Do you miss India when you’re away?

A: Just few things, nothing big. In this age of technology, and communications, you’re everywhere.

Q: What’s your typical day in London or Dubai like, what do you do when you don’t paint.

A: I go and see the movies and I go to plays and music concerts – that’s all.

Q: Are you planning to make any more films?

A: The film process is going on and I’m writing scripts– but I don’t make films as conscious cinema – I choose something and it takes me ten years to make one film.

Q: So it’s a labor of love.

A: No it’s not a labor of love – it is life itself – its part of my creation.

Q: What keeps you going through tough periods, through good times and bad?

A: It’s the creative force – it is always that. Creative force doesn’t mean that you should paint or write poetry, it’s even the way you live. That is part of living – how you live, creatively.

Q: If you were to tell people how to live –

A: No, because I never dictate.

 Q: But what if someone wants to follow your path, how do you live?

A: It is already expressed in my painting – in my writing – I don’t have to say. (Laughs) It all depends then on people’s intelligence, on how much they understand.

(c) Lavina Melwani

Voyage of Discovery by M. F. Husain

Voyage of Discovery by M. F. Husain

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M.F. Husain – Death of an Icon


About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!


  1. very inspiring…how I wish I could learn basics from him…on how to hold a brush and get those beautiful colors…

  2. Lavina Melwani on

    Manjunath – don’t we all! We can’t be MF Husain, but I guess we can all bring our own unique touch to what we do.