SAFFRON is a shade often seen in Maqbool Fida Husain's paintings. And yet saffron is a word that brings nightmares to the legendary painter.
In 2006, Husain's painting Mother India - it shows a nude woman, the depiction of a Hindu goddess, kneeling on the ground to create the shape of the Indian map - led to protests and threats by saffron outfits (Hindu radicals who associate themselves with that shade).
Fearing for his safety, the artist left India and has been living in Dubai and London for the past three years.
Numerous cases were filed against him across India. Last year the Delhi High Court quashed some of them, saying his paintings are an expression of creativity.
But some cases are still pending and the 94-year-old is worried about his safety.
He yearns to return to India, knowing well that time is not on his side.
"I crave to come back. After all, how can anyone forget the lap of the mother that nurtured them? I hope the powers that be allow India to be my final resting place, whenever that happens. But I am not bitter. It is the ignorance of the learned that has put me in this situation," he told The Times Of India recently.
In another interview, he told the Indian Express: "I'm dying to come back but the decision is not in my hands. It is up to the state, government and law."
The powers that be are said to be paving the way for his return. It was reported widely in the media that the central government plans to approach the Supreme Court and request that all pending cases be speeded up.
A home ministry official was quoted as saying that the government had taken an in-principle decision that the harassment Husain has been facing should end and was exploring ways in which this condition could be achieved.
"We have set a target of December- end," said the official who did not want to be identified.
Husain was delighted to hear this bit of news.
"If right now I get a call from Mr Chidambaram (home minister), I will take the first flight to India and congratulate him that the government has done really good," he told the Press Trust of India in a phone call from Dubai. Soon after the controversy erupted in 2006, Husain publicly apologised for his painting and promised to withdraw it from a charity auction, but extremist elements were not satisfied. The government had been silent till now and very few voices were heard supporting Husain. Diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor was one of them.
In an article published in June 2007 titled Why Is India's Picasso Staying Away?, Mr Tharoor wrote: "It is a disgrace that our democracy has allowed the most intolerant elements of our society to derail the life and work of such a great Indian artist. These so-called Hindus have clearly never seen the inside of any of our ancient temples, have never marvelled at Khajuraho or seen a sunset at Konarak. Worse, Husain is far more steeped in the Hindu sensibility than they are. Theirs is a notion of "Bharatiya Sanskriti" that is profoundly inauthentic, because it can be traced back no further than the Puritanism that accompanied the Jihadi conquests.
"Will they next attack the explicitly detailed couplings of Khajuraho, far more scandalous than anything Husain has ever painted? What about the of the Krishna Leela? are they all un-Indian now, or even un-Hindu?"
As expected, Mr Tharoor was criticised in Web postings by Hindu hardliners. He did not budge.
Sadly, there were few like him and, even now, there are only a few voices calling for Husain's return.
Chennai-based artist Parvathi Nayar, who is well-known in Singapore art circles, tells tabla!: "India was once famous for the tolerance it showed to people of different faiths and opinions. In a world torn apart by terrorism and violence, it is that attitude we should recapture and reiterate in all fields, and not least, in the arts.
"The purpose of the arts is to question and push the boundaries as well as offer aesthetic enjoyment; in this context it is a skewed state of affairs that an artist who has contributed so much to the development of art in India cannot find a home in his own country."
Ms Suman Aggarwal, director of Indigo Blue Art gallery in Singapore, has this to tell tabla!: "Husain's contribution to India and its art is unquestionable.
No artist has successfully painted Indian icons whether religious, political or of a celebratory status, and documented historical events in his/her art as consistently as Husain has done in his painting career.
He is a product of India and should be entitled to the rights of an Indian citizen."
Veteran artist Jhupu Adhikari is another who has called for Husain's return. He wrote in the Financial Chronicle: "At 94 years, Husain does not have age on his side. So, we can only hope that the "few" that have forced him to move away will rise to the occasion and create a better ambience for him to return to India. I am sure that all my artist friends will join me in hoping that this happens soon."
Urdu activist Kamna Prasad and founder of Jiya Prakashan has launched M F Husain - Untitled, an autobiographical e-book of the artist, to campaign for the artist's return.
"This e-book is just the beginning. We will take this campaign to every part of India and all over the world," she said in a press release before the launch.
Husain has been responsible in a big way for raising the profile of Indian art and culture worldwide.
His works sell at astonishing prices. Last March, his Battle Of Ganga And Jamuna (panel 12 in the series of paintings based on the Mahabharata he painted in the early 1970s) was snapped up by an anonymous bidder for US$1.6 million at a Christie's auction in New York... more than twice its appraised value.
Husain may have offended many with his depiction of deities in the nude but he has since apologised.
And it is time he is permitted to return to India.
After all, Indians take pride in the achievements of fellow Indians even if they happen to be citizens of another country. Recently, India- born Nobel Prize winner Venkataraman Ramakrishnan was flooded
with e-mail messages from Indians... even though he now holds an American passport. He said he needed two hours every day to clean up his inbox.
Mr Ramakrishnan, while acknowledging the greetings from Indians, said that the Nobel was a "much bigger deal" in India than in the Cambridge institute where he works.
"In India, I'm seen as the first in my field. In my institute, I'm just the 15th Nobel laureate," he said.
There is only one M.F. Husain and, like his art, he is precious. It will be a shame for a nation that prides itself as a rising economic power to let one of its geniuses spend the last years of his life in a foreign land.