Face impassive, eyes hidden behind deep russet glasses, Maqbool Fida Husain sat with a hand thrown over the top of the sofa.
He was holding court Tuesday before the media at the opening of a new exhibition at Tamarind Art, a gallery in New York, fielding off standard questions about art and the cases against him for painting Mother India in the nude with resigned patience, the ones he liked more with sudden vim - as happened when he said there were many young painters, but no artists.
Husain's wrinkled khaki pants and a white full-sleeved cotton shirt under a tan woollen vest - with checks of moss green, dun and maroon lines and black buttons decorated with golden horse heads bestowed on him a certain rakish elegance.
And yes, shoes. Brown suede ones that their maker intended to say something, even though the information was lost in translation.
The sleeves were unbuttoned and on the left inside arm was two tiny dark flecks of what appeared to be blood - possible legacy of a medical test. Husain's figure has grown sparer over the years but his hair still is not much thinner than it used to be.
Only his wrinkled, dappled index finger tapping a rhythm on the black leather reflected what he felt at various times - impatience, attention, animation…
I will only speak on art, he announced at intervals but did respond obliquely to the other questions raised.
Husain has been living in Dubai and London for over a year after cases were filed against him for depicting Hindu gods in an offensive manner in his paintings. Recently, a court in Haridwar ordered Husain's properties in Mumbai attached on a case filed by advocate Arvind Shrivastava, before the Supreme Court stepped in and stayed the order.
'I may be living in London, but I am extremely homesick. I long to walk through the streets of Grant Road and Byculla (areas in Mumbai) where I have spent some of the best years of my life,' he had told the Hindustan Times.
But in New York, he denied there was anything stopping from sending him back. "There are no restrictions on me," he said.
Did the attack on artistic freedom sadden him?
"Nothing has happened. I don't feel sad. Because it is modern art; it takes time. When the Impressionists came after the Renaissance, the whole society revolted against [them]. I'm taking [what I do] as a work of art. People can interpret it anyway. They're all free. It's a democracy in India."
Did he miss India, he was asked.
"Where am I missing India? I keep going and coming. I used to work in New York, in the 1950s, ’60s, in Paris. [There's no cause to miss India] … It has just been a year."
In that case, when did he plan to return to India? Husain replied that he could do it anytime he wished.
"There is no restriction. In the last 50 years I worked in New York, I worked in Paris, London. At the moment I'm working in Dubai. I'm building a museum there. And now I'm building a museum in London, also," he said.
Asked if his experience was a commentary of the state of freedom of art India, he replied, "No freedom is curbed anywhere. For 5,000 years...nobody...has stopped it."
But he had earlier told the DNA newspaper in Mumbai, 'The truth is that I'm missing my country. I'll accept whatever the law decides.'
Husain was bullish about the international response to Indian art but apparently not about the talent and/or dedication of artists.
Asked what he thought of Indian-American artists, he responded, "Young painters...I discourage them...If you're taking art to earn your living, there's nothing wrong...You can become a painter, not an artist. To become an artist requires a life's dedication. [Once] you work for 40, 50, 60 years, then something will happen. [In many young painters] the spark is there, but that is not enough."
Image: Husain leaves a reception hosted by Tamarind Art Gallery in Manhattan on July 10
Text: P Rajendran
'I have always been the master of my art'