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VANISHING ACT

The unpredictable artist

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The one M F Husain trait that all those who knew him fondly recall was his unpredictability. He was capable of anything, including naughty pranks, vanishing acts and impromptu meals that he cooked.

Playwright Meher Pestonji recalls being stood up at a press conference that Husain himself had called. It was the 1980s. Husain had taken over two rooms of the Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai to mount Shwetambari, the city's first art installation. "He had strewn crushed and torn newspapers and draped the walls with white cloth that ran around in folds, " she says. "And he had created different moods and played with light and shadow. " This was at a time, Pestonji says, when his artistic experiments got him more critics than friends. The press conference was at five. But Husain had left at 4. 30pm. "We thought maybe he's gone home for a cup of tea, " she says. "But he didn't turn up. He was always a maverick. He played pranks a lot of the time. " Later that evening Pestonji got a call from Dadiba Pundole who said that Husain wanted to meet her. At the interview, he explained his installation. "He had made the whole gallery into the space of a painting, " she says. "It was like entering a painting. Feeling sounds and different moods. You actually felt the space. "

Photographer Rafeeq Ellias got a taste of the artist's impetuousness when he photographed him over two days in Hyderabad ten years ago. "I was warned, " Ellias says. "With MF you never knew what to expect. He could be at Hyderabad airport to receive you or he could have left a few hours earlier for Delhi or Paris. We had chai on a pavement (he with his long paint brush, Stetson hat and bare feet) and later the most spectacular Hyderabadi dinner at (the home of) a 'nawab' friend whose home could have been out of Mughal-e-Azam. "

Forewarned, Ellias took pictures whenever he could. It was a good idea as the next day, the appointed day of the shoot, the artist disappeared, reappearing in Berlin a few days later. "The passing away of MF is like that, " Ellias says. "Just when we were beginning to get used to the idea of his being immortal, he decided to do a last vanishing act. One person will be happy to have his company again somewhere above, Tyeb Mehta, as reclusive as MF was public;two great artists whose legendary friendship is truly eternal. "

Husain was famously fond of food and cooking. A good friend of Behram 'Busybee' Contractor, Husain would often drop in at the office of Afternoon Despatch & Courier, the paper Busybee edited, and his home. Busybee's wife, Farzana Contractor, remembers the artist arriving at their home one morning to cook keema. Contractor handed him a white apron. Husain found the apron too plain and drew a cockerel on it. When the keema was ready, he called his children and grandchildren over. "So we had a whole party of children and grandchildren sitting on the table, on the floor, on the chopping board, " Contractor says.

One of her dearest memories is of Husain visiting her three days after Busybee died on April 9, 2001. After silently watching Contractor for 15 minutes, Husain asked for a sheet of paper. On it he drew "a very elegant hand" and a horse with a rose in its mouth and wrote the date of Contractor's death. The hand symbolised Busybee, the horse was Husain. "He said, 'I wonder what his column would be today', " she says.

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