Armed with a paint brush and palette, the late Maqbool Fida Husain went wherever his fancy took him. Born in 1913 in Pandharpur, a tiny hamlet of Maharashtra, Husain studied at a school in Indore before he arrived in Mumbai in the mid-1930s, carrying with him dreams of becoming an artist. Then 19, Husain lived on pavements of the notorious Peela House, and earned a living making billboards.
Later, he moved to the nearby Badar Bagh, where he lived for 15 years with a family of six in a tiny room. In the 1960s, he changed his address from Mahim to Mumbai Central.
In 1972, the residence moved further south to the plush Cuffe Parade; the same residence that was reportedly attacked by Bajrang Dal members in 1998.
A series of cases alleging the obscene depiction of Hindu goddesses in his paintings resulted in a non-bailable warrant after he failed to respond to summons. From 2006, the artist, who was living in self-imposed exile, shuttled between Dubai and London before he settled for a Qatari citizenship in 2010, for “practical purposes”, as he said in interviews.
But it was Mumbai that he considered home, and often expressed the desire to return. That didn’t happen. The 97-year-old passed away in London last year. It’s a guilt Mumbai will have to live with. But there are traces that he has left behind. Khalid Mohamed, who is working on Husain’s authorised biography, helps chart the self-taught artist’s trail.
► Akash Ganga, Bhulabhai Desai Road
Our first stop was Akash Ganga — the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) hub — on Bhulabhai Desai Road. In 1947, Husain, along with artists Manishi Dey, S K Bakre, Akbar Padamsee, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, joined the PAG that was founded by fellow contemporaries F N Souza and S H Raza.
Although greatly influenced by European art, the aim of PAG was to give a voice to work that was reflective of the newly-independent India. Besides, this revolutionary organisation in the post-independence art scene, wished to break away from revivalist nationalism established by the Bengal school of art.
Today, the first floor of the building that housed PAG, is home to hair and beauty salons. The little library that once stood on the ground floor is now a porcelain and marble curio shop called Heritage.
► Alfred Talkies’ pavement and photo studio, Peela House
The next stop — Peela House — stands not too far away from Badar Bagh. Once the heart of Mumbai’s red light district, it was Husain’s first address in the city.
He slept on the pavement outside Alfred Talkies on most nights, and painted cinema hoardings by day. He is said to have sketched the portrait of a restaurant owner in the area, in exchange for free meals for a whole month.
Around the corner of the road stand two photo-studios that once carried fabric scenery backgrounds painted by him. Mohamed agreed to pose in one of the booths.
► Badar Bagh, Grant Road
Removed from the fancy air that spins at Bhulabhai Desai Road, Badar Bagh is more reminiscent of Husain. Residents are eager to share stories of their old neighbour from the 1930s-40s. The shed (right) where he painted cinema hoardings still stands, although now dilapidated.
Husain shared the Badar Bagh room with three men, until he met Fazila Bibi. “Whenever Fazila Bibi was alone and wanted him to come over, she would keep a soap dish outside the window as a signal,” Mohamed shares.
The tiny room where they lived after marriage and had their children (Shamshad, Shafad, Mustafa, Raisa, Aqeela), barring Owais, is now occupied by his relative Khadija Mohammed Nasir.
► Goorishina, Mumbai Central
Husain moved to the Mumbai Central two-bedroom apartment in 1967. This is where he worked on his film, Through the Eyes of a Painter and started work on his first series of graphics, Passage into the Human Space, and the famous oil on canvas, Mithuna.
Artists Bal Chhabda and Tyeb Mehta were frequent visitors here. The house, apparently, still belongs to the family, although it stands locked. Neighbours are full of stories of Husain’s flamboyance.
Sushilabai, a domestic help, who works next door at the Tinwalas, invites us into the living room, pointing to a large painting. “He gifted it to my employer when she got married. Husain didn’t have money to buy them a present, so he painted this for her,” she says.