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Four hip shakes and a muse called Madhuri

NOTEBOOK: The obsession of toweringly eccentric Indian artist M F Husain with the `oomph queen' of Bollywood has been captured on film
I know Maqbool Fida Husain well enough to know that the best time to raise him on the phone is at 8 o'clock in the morning. Sure enough, India's most famous living painter was wide awake and full of fizz when I called him early on Friday, and sounding amazingly youthful for a man who recently cele- brated his 84th birthday.

Nor did he sound as if he had just been bereaved, as if the light had gone out of his life or as if his reason for living had suddenly been removed. Yet those are the terms in which, rather sadly, sotto voce, Mr Husain is being discussed in Delhi and Bombay this week. And all on account of a woman called Madhuri.

Madhuri Dixit has got married: secretly, in a family ceremony in Los Angeles on 17 October, to a non-resident Indian doctor called Shriram Nene. The news has gone around the world now: Bollywood's "oomph queen", the sweetest and most wholesome sex symbol of the 1990s and perhaps the only film actress of her generation to match her male co-stars in popularity and staying power, has, at 33, taken the Indian actress's traditional way out.

In keeping with her docile, middle-class persona, the marriage was arranged, the lucky guy being, like her, a Maharashtrian Brahmin (born in London), with a complementary horoscope.

So far so tragic for Madhuri's hundreds of millions of subcontinental fans; as the Times of India put it in an editorial, "at least half of India must surely have greeted the news ... with disbelief, dismay and ... despondency". But Maqbool Husain has particular reason to lament.

M F Husain (as Indians know him) is a figure of towering eccentricity on the Indian scene. He started as a painter of those fabulous film hoardings for which India was once famous - now sadly replaced in most cities by printed posters. He went on to become a celebrated figurative painter and dedicated Bohemian: always barefoot, walking with a slender cane which proves on examination to be a very long paintbrush.

Bohemianism extends to his subject matter. Despite his Muslim background, he rejoices in painting Hindu gods and goddesses with nothing on, to the fury of fanatics in both Hindu and Muslim communities. Within the past two years his studio has been trashed by Hindu nationalist thugs and his life has been threatened. Last year Delhi's Hindu nationalist BJP government started criminal proceedings against him - an unprecedented attack on a popular and highly esteemed artist.

Mr Husain tends to shrug off such difficulties. In any case, he has other fish to fry. In the past few years he has developed what it is fair to call an obsession with Madhuri Dixit. He saw her 1994 hit film, Hum Aapke Hain Koun (the biggest-grossing Hindi film ever) 74 times. Of one particular dance sequence in the film he speaks of "the four steps" - four Madhuri hip shakes - that changed his life.

Declaring her the essence of Indian womanhood, he resolved to devote the rest of his life to painting her. And that's what he has done: in sketch after sketch, canvas after canvas, striving to capture the ambiguities of the star: buxom, fresh-faced, sensual, winsome, seductive, virginal...

The culmination to date of this grand obsession is a feature film, the first Mr Husain has ever directed, which stars and revolves around Madhuri Dixit. Called Gaja Gamini, it is officially described thus: "A kaleidoscopic journey through the palette of human emotions and the aesthetics of feminine beauty as expressed by characters from Indian art, history, music and poetry."

Gaja Gamini was supposed to premiere this month at the London Film Festival, where it was entered in the experimental section. But it has been pulled from screening. The official reason is that post-production work has not been finished; that's Mr Husain's explanation too. But unattributed Bollywood insiders are saying that that is merely window-dressing. The real reason, they say, is because Madhuri has got married. And now it may never be released.

"Bombay film distributors and financiers vanish as soon as they hear the leading lady is a married woman," one said. "In Bollywood, a heroine's career ends the day she gets married." Mr Husain denies the suggestion vehemently. "It's nothing at all to do with Madhuri's marriage," he told me. "Post-production work has held things up. We'll be showing the film in London first, some time in January, then later at Cannes."

If and when it arrives, the film promises to be quite unlike anything that has ever emerged from Bombay before. It will either be the most incoherent piece of lunacy ever to escape from a can or mesmerisingly beautiful; perhaps both.

The sets are made of papier mache and look it. The characters include Leonardo da Vinci, various figures from mythology, and a woman called Monica Mathur, inspired by La Lewinsky. Monica is played by Madhuri, who also takes the parts of a blind singer and the title role, the "essence of Indian womanhood". It's fair to assume there will be a whole lot of hip-shaking going on. As well as the film itself there will be the film of the film, some kind of installation, an exhibition of specially executed paintings. "It will stretch over three days," Mr Husain explains, "like an extended performance."

As for Madhuri's marriage, Mr Husain claims to be enthusiastic. "She's met the right man. It's tremendous! She's such a lucky girl. It's very difficult for a superstar to find a genuine person. But she's kept herself perfect with such dignity through many years in the movie business, she's so steeped in Indian culture and values - the way she has combined both is remarkable... She is the perfect metaphor for Indian womanhood. This is not the end of my work on Madhuri Dixit."