This poem was written in 1982. I was fresh out of college, and had started writing for newspapers and magazines in India. I worked for the magazine Celebrity, then edited by my dear friend, Shobha De.
She is an expert on Husain, knows his art well, and knew him personally. I wanted to understand his art, and write about him. But doing a straight-forward interview with him seemed boring – many had done it – so I suggested to Shobha that I’d spend a week with Husain in Bombay, hanging out with him, and write about it. In return, maybe he could sketch the story of his life for us? She loved the idea; he loved the idea.
So I spent nearly a week with him. We talked about Bollywood, politics, cricket, women, art, literature, music. I got to know some of his family. I saw him playing with his grand-daughter.
At the end of the week, he produced those sketches.
And instead of writing a piece, I wrote a poem about his art. My aim – to capture his entire life, and not remain fixated on a few nude sketches of Hindu deities. (And so what?)
Here’s that poem.
By Salil Tripathi (Aug 1982)
That have walked miles –
Across the frontiers, beyond the black waters.
That have trodden
The slushy roads of Manhattan
When the eyes visualized a celestial Mahabharata
In the skies – which became the canvas.
That have marched
On the scorching tar of the roads of Madras
While the right finger
Pressed the shutter
Dwarfed by the big breasts of the nautch girl.
That have sunk deep
Into the soft sand of Rajasthan
While Airavata descended from the skies
And a gallant Rajput galloped away with a Moghul beauty
In the mind’s eye.
On the seashore of Kerala
As the sun played naughty games
With the glistening bronze bosoms
And under the erect coconut trees
Women endlessly combed their long tresses.
The frenzied hand moved faster,
The beard grew longer,
The hair silvern,
The dress white,
The mane unruly,
The glasses quainter,
And on the gleaming canvas
Bodies lost shape amidst rough, stark lines.
That refused to walk
Into the muddy cesspool
Where wind didn’t remain wind
But came unannounced with a senseless fury
To wipe out towns, erase names, snuff out villages, raze crops
And the hands couldn’t paint –
The canvas was bare –
Speaking more angrily through that silence.
That climbed never-ending steps
To the beat of conch shells
And the ghant-naad of Varanasi.
The brush-strokes caught
The reflection of twilight
Of women washing down their sins
Of floating diyaas looking like fireflies
Of the flight of crows.
That twitched at the thought of a mother never seen
Because like a Reverend Mother she had refused to get herself photographed.
And felt at home
As tears rolled down that face, sculpted by wind,
When a white sari with a blue border
Wiped tear after tear
And more tears kept emerging.
Covered by a gigantic canopy – the sky –
When it rained needlessly.
And water overflowed from open gutters.
The hands etched a homage to the common man
That tattered piece of black cloth
That thumped the ground
To the beat of different ragas
And as the aalaap turned into jhala
The strokes became more rhythmic
And the ragamala was resurrected.
That were put on a stool
And the mind wandered afar
Into the mystic world of Sufi thought
And the fingers scratched rough marks from nowhere
And Sufi characters pointed skywards
Looking like the fingers that gave them shape.
That dance merrily
As horses trot, canter and gallop
On the beach of his mind
Trrp trrp trrp trrp Tabdak Tabdak tabdak trrp trrp trrp
And a cavalcade of equus, steeds, ponies, chargers, thoroughbreds, fillies,
Prance, prowl, race and spur on and on and on and onandonandonandon……..
* * * *
The walls are white
The hands play with the child.
The beard rests on the chest
The mane hides the ears.
The eyes are moist with memories.
The hand sketches on
Fragments of life.
The body is straight,
But at the slightest touch of wind, the mane leaps. He gets up,
Looking like a fluttering flag.
The feet – not bare – in slippers –
But only for the moment.
Wait for sundown
Wait for twilight
Wait for the dark night to plant new thoughts
In tempestuous dreams……..
And as the first ray of sunlight
Cracks the city enveloped by Durga’s hair
And makes a hole through the curtains,
The bare feet
will rise once again
And gallop away
Because the tale is still unfinished.