M F Husain—I have not decided yet to sell his autograph yet

Yes Bank’s co-founder Rana Kapoor, currently cooling his heels in jail for a Rs 5000 crore fraud, has reportedly revealed to the Enforcement Directorate (ED) that he was forced to buy a M F Husain painting from Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for Rs 2 crore.

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There is no way that we can corroborate this sensational revelation. Both the close confidantes of the Gandhi family who, according to Kapoor, were aware of the deal–Murli Deora and Ahmed Patel–have joined Husain in the heaven. The full truth will not be known till we join “the great club” in paradise.

While both BJP and Congress trade charges against each other, let me recall my own memories of the maverick Husain. And the story of his autograph that is one of my prized possessions. Frankly speaking, he never gifted me a painting. Neither did I ever ask for it. And for me, buying one of Husain’s paintings was…jane bhi do yaro.

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After I moved to Mumbai in the mid-1990s from the highly politicised Delhi–when was the last time in modern history Delhi remained non-politicised–I longed to meet Husain sahab. Which sane person with even a little interest in arts and culture didn’t want to meet him? Since I had drifted into journalism and chose to become a feature writer, I knew my work would one day take me to him. Since I was the only male in the female-dominated features’ team in The Asian Age, I was asked to cover most of the events that began at dusk and ended post-midnight. There was hardly a party that happened in the city and I didn’t attend it. Often I volunteered to go also because of a reason. It gave me chance to eat sumptuous dinner free. Since I was not paid for months and had already borrowed from a few friends that I had, I grabbed every opportunity to attend film shootings, book and music launches as, apart from meeting celebs, they gave me opportunities to eat free food. I remember accompanying a female film journalist-colleague a couple of times to the Film City located in a jungle where strange “animals” were rumoured to roam around.

So, one evening I landed at a party Parmeshwar Godrej had held. Now if it was a Parmeshwar Godrej’s party, M F Husain had to be there. They were great friends and their respect was mutual. This is where I first met Husain sahab. Barefoot, a jhola slung over the shoulder, a brush in hand, piercing eyes peering through thick glasses, salt-and-pepper beard. That image of our Picasso is etched in my mind till date. There was a spring in his feet. He kept moving, greeting friends.

I tore up a blank page from a notebook I was carrying that evening. With trembling hands, I took that page to Husain sahab who was engrossed in conversation with a friend. “Aapka autograph chahiye,” I blurted out. He looked at me smiling. “Kya naam hai?” he asked. “Wajihuddin,” I replied, spelling it out. He smiled again as he wrote with a flourish in black ink, first my name, and then signed it.

My joy knew no bounds. Those inimitable strokes! That famous signature which appear on his masterpieces adorning galleries, walls of famous hotels, restaurants, palaces, villas and private homes of the high and the mighty around the globe–from Mumbai to Miami, Toronto to Timbuktu. That famous signature was with me too. I was on cloud nine.

I met Husain sahab umpteenth times subsequently. In the pre-mobile phone era, I would call on his Colaba home number. After the mobile phone came in our lives, I would catch him wherever he was on the planet, in Pune today, Paris tomorrow. And for those who are not aware of Husain’s style of living and moving, he would keep tickets to multiple destinations in his pocket—Paris, New York, London. He didn’t lack in money. Nor did in mood swings! Dil jahan, jab legaya, chala gaye.

Film journalist Ali Peter John who used to live in Andheri, not very far from Sahar International Airport, would tell a fascinating story. Husain sahab would call Ali from his Colaba residence to join him at the coffee shop of one of five-star hotels near the airport as Husain had to catch a flight for, say New York post-midnight. They would meet, eat and chat. “Once two hours or so before his scheduled flight, he changed his mind and told me he was cancelling his flight to New York and was going to London instead,” recalled Ali. That was Husain, a globe-trotter, world citizen and yet a great Indian at heart.

Much before some people thought India didn’t deserve this bohemian, progressive, great globally known artist and filed multiple cases in different cities of the country against him, forcing Husain to live abroad, we would regularly talk. Several times he asked me to join him over mutton chop or paya and naan at a restaurant in Colaba. I kept postponing. Never knew a precious thing doesn’t live forever. Never knew he would choose to die and get buried in a foreign land because life in his own motherland was made difficult.

After he designed Munna Zaver’s Joy Shoes, a store at the Taj Mahal Hotel in South Mumbai, I did a small piece in the Indian Express on its reopening. In the tongue-in-cheek piece I had said, “We don’t know what the owners gifted the barefoot badshah. Perhaps not a pair of shoes…” Many years after Husain sahab’s death in London in 2011 at 96, I met Munna Zaveri in connection with stories on Ismaili Shias and their living imam the Agha Khan. I told Munna bhai about Husain sahab’s invitations to me which, in my foolishness, I never accepted. Munna bhai recalled that he and Husain sahab had dined once at a Chinese restaurant in London. “Husain sahab is no more. If not in London, we can have Chinese food at Cricket Club of India (CCI). Come over,” Munna bhai said. Two more friends and I joined Munna bhai over the fabulous Chinese food at CCI and remembered the immensely respected artist.

As for Husain’s autograph, it is safely kept in a file at my house. Since the day my wife heard that even signatures of legendary artists like Husain fetch money, she has pestered me to auction it. “You are a fool. You never know how much it will get you. Contact your artists and art collector friends. Someone may get interested,” she keeps telling me.

So far my wife has not heard of Rana Kapoor’s story that he bought a Husain painting from Priyanka Gandhi for Rs 2 crore. I am dreading the day she will revive her old demand and tell me to try auctioning Husain’s autograph. People do part with prized possessions. I have not made up my mind ye

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