An Acquaintance of Picasso

Dr. Sehba Ali

Syed Fakhir Hussein, a psycho- therapist and a litterateur is particularly known for the English translation of the popular Urdu Classic ” Mashriqui Tehzeeb ka Aakhree Namoona” byAbdulHaleem”Sharar” (1860-1926),a chronicler of Lucknow, an essayist and novelist of repute. The English version is entitled “Lucknow, the Last phase of an Oriental Culture” which Syed Fakhir Hussein translated and edited with the collaboration of a former Colonel of British Indian army, E. S. Harcourt in London. This book was first published in London in 1975 and has seen several editions since then. In Lucknow, it can be found at Ram Advani’s book shop in Hazrat Gunj. Ram Advani and Fakhir Hussein were great pals.

He also wrote several books in his mother tongue Urdu such as:

1. Adab and Adeeb (literature and the writers)
2. Mazameen-e-Jamaliyaat (Essays in Esthetics),
3. RaahSaaz (TheTorchBearers),
4. Albert Camio’ (Albert Camus) and
5. Maqsadi Adab. ( Writings with a Purpose).

These books were an attempt to introduce to Urdu speakers Western thinking and writings especially French about which he was very passionate. To his disappointment, these books were not well received. The reason might have been that well- educated Indians who were interested in learning about international literatures prefer to read the English translations of foreign writings. Apart from the books, he also wrote articles on a variety of topics in English, Urdu and French.

Fakhir Hussein was born and brought up in a cultured and literary family of old Lucknow. His maternal grandfather, Syed Ali “Furquat” Lakhnavi was a well-known Urdu poet of his times, Fakhir Hussein received his early education in Jubilee College, Lucknow, and earned his M.A. and L.L.B. Degrees from Lucknow University. In 1950, he went to London, England to get a Ph.D. But first he enrolled in B.A. Honours in Philosophy -Psychology. He was advised by his mentor at the university to take a break before starting his Ph.D. So he did and after a gap, earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of London. During the break, he did not passed away his time but he went to Sorbonne University in Paris and worked for a “Doctorate” for which he wrote a thesis: “Le Judgment Esthetique” (Esthetic Judgment), discussing the psychological basis of aesthetic judgment.

At Sorbonne University, the Existentialist philosophers and prolific writers, Sartre and Madame Simone de Bauvoire were his teachers who greatly influenced his thinking.

Paris was the art capital of the world. Many great artists such as Picasso, Dali, Modigliani, Pissarro, Van Gogh had chosen to settle there. They had their mansions in the posh suburbs of Paris but their studios were in the middle-class district of Montmartre, an area where many students also lived in rented rooms. Fakhir Hussein also lived in one of those rooms. He was lucky to live near Picasso’s studio and could see the artist working hard from his window. He was very keen to make acquaintance with Picasso but did not know how? He noticed that while working, Picasso never drank anything, not even coffee to which he himself was addicted. One day he came up with an idea. He decided to take a cup of coffee for him, knocked at his door, present it to him and see what happens. He gathered courage and did that. What happened was beyond his wildest dreams. Picasso opened the door and was taken aback to find a stranger with a cup of coffee for him. He welcomed him in, thanked him profusely for his thoughtfulness and then had a little friendly chat with him about his studies and country of origin etc. From then onwards, he started taking coffee for Picasso on a daily basis. It gave the artist a break and time to the two to chat for a few minutes! Thus, an amicable relationship was established. Picasso was working on his self-portrait at that time. When he finished it, he showed it to Fakhir and asked for his opinion. Fakhir found himself at a loss for the appropriate words to comment on the work of such a great artist, so, instead of saying anything, he just threw a kiss at the portrait, which in Western culture, means a gesture of appreciation and love. Picasso right away signed the portrait for Fakhir. He could not believe his own eyes at first. It was too good to be true. Then he extended his trembling hands to receive it. Again he could not find suitable words of thanks so he did that too with some “Eastern” gestures. This painting became his most prized possession ever. Later, Picasso gave him several of his signed sketches as well, making him a proud owner of several original Picassos.

After meeting such extraordinary people like Sartre, Madame de Bauvoire and Picasso and having unusually rich experiences with them, Paris and French became Fakhir’s second love. His first love remained Lucknow and Urdu.

Whenever he met a fellow Lakhnavi, he reminisced his good old days as a student at Lucknow University. His fondest memory was of a classmate, Chitra Mulla who was the daughter of the great Urdu poet Anand Narain “Mulla” of Lucknow. Chitra was a stunning beauty and was considered “Anand Narain “Mulla” ka sab se khubsurat Sher.” (The most beautiful couplet of A.N. “Mulla”) Naturally, she was unforgettable. In the classroom, the girls were seated in the first row. Fakhir reserved his seat right behind Chitra. She had a habit of taking her sandals off and pushed them under her chair. One day the boys planned to play a prank on her, to steal one of her sandals and tuck it away from the classroom. Fakhir was the one to remove the sandal and pass it on to the boy sitting behind him and it finally reached the last row. When the professor was writing on the board, the last recipient of the celebrated sandal left the classroom with it and joined a gang waiting outside put the sandal in an appropriate place and they hung it at a prominent place in the University. Poor Chitra had to leave the classroom with only one sandal and did not come to the University for next several days. As expected, the boys were “Disciplined” the next day. Fakhir proudly narrated this heroic tale, with a twinkle in his eyes.

Soon after arrival in London from India in 1950, he married an Irish girl and they had a son. But the marriage did not last long and they separated amicably. They never divorced and neither of them re-married. His wife kept their only child, the baby boy. She did not ask him for any financial support as she herself worked and also belonged to an aristocratic family from which she received considerable inheritance. The boy grew up with his mother not knowing a word of Urdu and pronounced his father’s name “Fakhir” as ” Fakeer” (which in Urdu means, “a beggar”). Of course the son and his mother did not know the meaning of the word.

After completing his studies in Paris, Fakhir returned to London and found a job as a Senior lecturer in Psychology at Saint Mary’s College and later joined Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital as a Psychotherapist. When asked why he chose to be a Psychotherapist rather than a lawyer, his first specialization in India, he said that once he himself received psychotherapy and benefitted from it so he decided to help others in need.

On return from Paris, he showed his newly acquired treasures to his ex-wife and she fell for his most valuable possession, the self – portrait of Picasso and wanted to have it. Rather half-heartedly, he let her have it because she had never asked him for anything either for herself or for their son and it was going to go to their son later in any case. He missed living with his son very much so he brought one of his sister’s sons, Javed, who was about the same age as his own son and brought him up with loving care. He gave him very good education. Javed studied medicine and did brilliantly. He and his wife Shehnaz took very good care of him but unfortunately, Javed died when he was only in his thirties. Fakhir was absolutely devastated. His wife Shehnaz continued to take care of Fakhir by visiting him regularly and doing what was needed to be done in his house.

Fakhir was a restless soul and could not stay in one place for long so he moved again. This time he went to two African countries, Zambia and Zaire on UNESCO’s educational projects. After working there for a few years, he took retirement in London to follow his intellectual pursuits and other interests. He had a fascination for antiques so he read widely and acquired knowledge in judging a piece, if it was authentic or fake, how old it was and approximately how much it should cost. With this expertise, he became one of the consultants with England’s famous auctioneers- Christie’s. He owned many unique antique pieces himself and displayed them appropriately in his house which made his house look like a museum which he maintained very well, all by himself.

Like a typical Lakhnavi, he was a great gourmet and a good cook as well. He remained a Lakhnavi in his eating habits but became a Parisian in his drinking habits. He was a great connoisseur of French wines.

With advancing age and deteriorating health, he took a practical decision. He moved into a very small house and did not carry any of his valuables with him. What he did with them, nobody knows for sure. He never answered personal and pertinent questions seriously. Some people guessed that perhaps he auctioned them at Christie’s and put the funds in a trust, which he established in his mother’s name in London to help some relatives and others in need. At some point, he considered gifting Picasso’s original sketches and some other original paintings to India. He contacted some institutions he thought should have those paintings including the Lucknow State Museum where (Late) Mr. B.D. Sonwal, Chairman of the Board of Governors, was willing to help and actually started the process as well but in the end, Fakhir changed his mind. His problem was that he used to give too many instructions as to where and at what temperature the paintings should be kept just as the paintings were kept in London and Paris museums but those standards were difficult to be met in India. At present nobody seems to know the fate of those paintings but hopefully some day somebody will solve the mystery.

This very talented, well-read, warm- hearted and sentimental man met a very tragic end; He was found dead in his home in London in August 2013. He was in his late eighties. As one of his favourite Urdu poets, “Jigar” Moradabadi aptly put it: “Umr bher ki beqarari ko qarar aa hee gaya” (At long last the restlessness found peace).

Writer is from Rudauli. An expert in Linguistics with passion of Urdu language

(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 1 Issue 11, Dated 05 February 2015)

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