“Maara dayar e ghair mein mujhko watan se door

Rakh li mere khuda ne meri bekasi ki sharm!”

(I breathed my last in alien lands, My god protected me from disgrace at home)

–  Mirza Ghalib

There are no instruments to gauge the pain Maqbool Fida Hussain must have experienced in abandoning for good the country he strode, barefoot (he was averse to wearing footwear) like a colossus among artists. But pained he was. This was clear from the manner in which he avoided conversation on his exile.

I knew him since the 60s but never well enough which remains one of my regrets. In those days, Sapru House was New Delhi’s only rendezvous.  Standing applause for a superb rendering of Tilak Kamod by Vilayat Khan accompanied brilliantly by Shamta Prasad on the tabla had barely subsided when a bearded man, tall and very upright, walked up the side staircase to embrace a cross-legged Sitar Maestro.  It made for an awkward arch, leaning across Shanta Prasad. It was then I noticed that Hussain, wore no footwear.  It was the image of a barefoot artist which remained etched in my mind as a sort of motif for Hussain.  This eccentricity of his occasionally created problems, as in the instance when a Mumbai club asked him to leave for being inadequately dressed.

In my impressionable 20s, I found his iconic figure compelling except for a slight squeamishness  I experienced when I saw him walk past the filth of Jama Masjid’s fish and chicken market, greeted by senior Imam Bukhari, in his booming voice and by Delhi Congress Chief, Mir Mustaq Ahmad, drunk as a sailor, leaning from the balcony of his house, just above the paan shop at the corner of the street that leads to Karim’s: “Jootey pahen lo, mian, sardi hai” (wear shoes, dear man, it’s cold), he would yell.  Hussain, never a great one for quips or repartees, would mumble a greeting and walk the grimy path leading to Naaz hotel where he lived.  This was much before his paintings began to sell for millions. From Naaz he graduated to the Taj.

One of life’s unwholesome realizations is the invasion of personal jealousies in the world of art.  It is a long list. They even pitted Zauq as Ghalib’s equal simply because he (Zauq) was the Mughul Emperor’s “ustad”.  History is replete with Mozart-Salieri sequences.

Hussain always towered above his peers in every sense of the term. Being particularly deficient in appreciating painting and sculpture, I am hesitant to compare his works with those of his contemporaries. But in his earlier phase, I found his horses compelling because I saw them as “Ablaq” or “Surang”, the Arab steed Mir Anis sketched in his “Musaddas” or “sestet”, the style of epics in which Marsias were written, describing every detail of the battle of Karbala, including the horses of Imam Hussain and his brother, Abbas.  He liked the comparison.

Hussain enjoyed these recitations. He had a sense of poetry but of a lighter, less complex variety. This made for a kind of balance: he knew just a little more about poetry than I did of painting.

He dismissed with a shrug my simple thesis that muslims, even from culturally emancipated backgrounds, knew little about painting or sculpture because of the Islamic taboo on visual representations of reality as the thin end of the wedge towards idolatry.  Hussain was not the world’s most articulate man, but in his grunts and mumbles, interspersed with a jab of his elbow in your ribs to seek appreciation for the mischievous point he had made, he would say: “yeh bakwas hai”, or “This is non-sense”.  He thought I was imposing my Lucknow parochialism on a vastly varied country.

After all, many of his contemporaries like Raza, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Sadeqain, were all from muslim backgrounds. In fact Raza never stops talking about the “high class” Brahmins who influenced him, his tantric interests, his preoccupation with the “bindu” or the dot.

Indeed, Hussain himself had painted Bharat Mata in the 70s. He painted Indira Gandhi as Durga after Bangladesh. His Mother Theresa series is steeped in universal devotion. After a poetry session, Pavan Varma had organized at London’s Nehru Centre, he asked for a line that would describe Madhuri Dixit. Here was a sweet adolescence resident in a man in his late 80s.

That devotional painting of Bharat Mata and goddesses were, in the highest Hindu tradition, painted with pure intent which later political mischief makers distorted as irreverent nudity.  Hussain was pained not so much by the lumpen demonstration as by the silence of the majority and its elite.

The intolerant streak evident from Salman Rushdie to Lelyveld’s Gandhi had never really been met head on by the elite which showed itself as cowering and bogus once again in the Bhandarkar institute case.

And the media, which builds up a national movement around a boy in a well or Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev – where was it when Hussain was being hounded? During the Gujarat riots, mobs razed to the ground the grave of Wali Dakkhini, just outside Ahmedabad’s main police station. One of Wali’s poems says:

“kooch a e yaar ain Kashi hai,

Jogia dil wahan ka baasi hai.”

(The street where my beloved lives is like the holy city of Varanasi. And the yogi of my heart has made his house there!)

Where is the movement to restore the grave, indeed, build a tomb right there?

Hussain, who lived his life on an epic scale, was pained by his own exile, but he never allowed himself to be cast in a tragic mould.

“In life’s tavern, they sat frozen, holding their cups. I came, drank, spilt and left.”

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)