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October 27, 1997


Farzana Versey

The unmaking of a maverick

Collage by Dominic Xavier M F Husain has a major problem. If we start with this premise it would be far easier to approach his persona. And the problem lies not with what he is, but what he is seeking to be.

Today, few talk of Husain as an artist -- he is either the showman, the maverick, the risk-taker and, finally and conclusively, a product. His market value is under discussion rather than his palette's wild guesses and sometimes calculated conundrums. It is very likely that he feels trapped and is now seeking to assert his independence.

No artist in his right mind would rush from one canvas to the other to show the onlookers the process of painting, as Husain claims to have tried to do. But, at this point in time, he is not in his right mind. He is on a binge to negate his art by harking to his hoarding-painter days of relative freedom. The days when he could paint the other icons of cinema, without having to worry about whether his unshod feet would gain celebrity status.

The very concept of being a celebrity can be difficult to handle, its reality even more so. Husain's position as a product has to do with his being many other things. As a showman performer, he is expected to toe the classic 'I pretend, therefore I am' line. This includes massive image-building. But the man about whom it was made shows all signs of not being at peace with himself. The result is whimsical behaviour. The charitable will call it maverick moods.

But why would a man already on the pedestal want to be a maverick? It cannot be to get attention. Not a genuine desire for experimentation either, so the possibility of his sense of boredom at being 'known for being known' cannot be ignored.

M F Husain with Madhuri Dixit To this end, the artist has begun taking risks, not so much with his work but with his reputation, which has been the cause of most of his ecstasy and all of his anguish. Kierkegaard put it beautifully when he analysed, "It lays a prodigious burden on a person to have to support the weight of everyone's eyes." Even a Husain work is merely a work of Husain. Snapping the chain with his offbeat acts, he has in effect put the ball in the court of his 'audience', the subliminal message being, "Since you have made me, you might want to unmake me. But before you can do that, I will do it myself."

Therefore, the new Husain is essentially the old one trying to come out clean, but not without attempting to kill two birds with one stone -- by hankering after his freedom and at the same time (and perhaps because of it) making sure that the public does not run after someone else. This is the hallmark of a celebrity. Or an insecure man.

Collage: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey