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Freedom To Offend

The consternation over M.F. Husain’s acceptance of Qatari citizenship has rekindled debate on artistic freedom and responsibility in India.

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For several decades, the wiry white-haired Maqbool Fida Husain has pranced barefoot across India and across the Indian art landscape in a more metaphoric sense, brandishing his giant-sized brush with characteristic panache and antagonizing the hell out of some people. Along the way, the former tailoring apprentice and painter of Bollywood marquee-boards has earned for himself the iconic status implicit in sobriquets like “The Barefoot Picasso of India” — as well as a financial fortune that remains the envy of his less flamboyant peers.

My philistine radar first caught him off the media spotlight in the 1970s. Of course, one had heard and read about him cursorily as a leading painter in the pantheon of the country’s top-notch artists. But I recall being quite taken in by the news story about a five-star hotel throwing Husain off the premises because he’d entered its lobby wearing no footwear. Was this man just another publicity-seeker? Or was he a true-blue iconoclast — masquerading as a cheery anorexic Santa Claus, if you will — who dared, even if symbolically, to highlight the country’s rich-poor divide by a simple act of civil disobedience? Whatever the answer, he had managed to tickle my curiosity about his art.

M. F. Husain stands against one of his paintings titled “Last
Supper” at the National Art Gallery in Mumbai in 2004.
For those like me, utterly ignorant of the intricacies of art — and especially, of modern art — his personality was a good enough key to pry open the Husain ouvre for our low-brow art appreciation. Some traits were unmistakable even if you were no aesthete. His broad strokes were bold and confident — even muscular — in piquant contrast to his own physique. And there was something riveting in his choice of stark non-pastel colors, as if the propagandist in him was yelling out for the world’s attention. That’s how one has come to decode Husain’s works — as top-of-the-line poster art, always but always making a clear and preferably provocative statement.

I say “works” advisedly. Because he sometimes kept aside his canvas and opted for unconventional media. Who can forget Husain’s experiment of using the sides of his car and the flanks of a real-life horse as surfaces for his line drawings? Or the time he stuffed a Mumbai gallery with old newspapers, so visitors to the “exhibit” ended up stepping on and swishing their way across reams of carelessly strewn newsprint? Or his quirky and personalized documentary film — aptly titled Through the Eyes of A Painter — which won him a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Was he, in the first instance, drawing temporally removed yet similar parallels between modes of transport and mediums of artistic expression? And making a sharp editorial comment, through the second, on the ever-increasing and ultimately meaningless information-overload that modern media outlets are subjecting us to? The art critics tore their hair out in frustration. There was no way to categorize these upstart antics from a seasoned veteran. Worse, there was no verbal explanation forthcoming from the master himself — except for that grin and that twinkle in his eyes.

Many in my generation loved this approach. To hell with the stuffy notions of art theory that rendered the contents of art galleries elitist and inscrutable. Unlike his contemporaries whose works looked opaque, esoteric and distant to the uninitiated, here was an artist who succeeded thoroughly in connecting his Muse to the common-man’s consciousness. Who was making millions selling his paintings to the filthy rich without losing touch with the grime of everyday living. Who had made Art so much a part of Life — and vice versa.

Bolstered by his reportedly bohemian lifestyle and his ever-youthful demeanour despite his advancing age, Husain’s public persona meanwhile grew angelic wings. He was metamorphosing into a Sufiana artist of sorts, a man for whom painting seemed a chhand (a most fitting Indian word for sublime artistic passion that brooks no ties with mundane worldly commitments) rather than a money-making craft or vocation.

Over the years, other stories grew as well. Husain as prolific, almost assembly-line, creator (his output is said to have crossed the 10,000-mark); Husain as billionaire (his mere signature is said to bring in millions); and finally, Husain as closet-renegade and communalist.

The last was disturbing stuff. Who ever imagined that this chhand-driven maverick rebel-artist could so easily worm his way into the good books of fascist Emergency authorities by painting glowing portraits of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga — and not, as I recall, in the nude — at a time when several crusaders of free speech and artistic freedom were languishing in her jails? The Sufiana sheen was wearing off.

And how many people in a Hindu-majority nation like India would take kindly to a Suleimani Bohra — born into a Shia Muslim sect with close links to Hindu philosophy and rituals, and hailing from the Hindu temple town of Pandharpur in Maharashtra state — who depicts their gods and goddesses in the nude, with the latter copulating with animals? Hadn’t his background sensitized Husain to the spiritual core and depth of Hindu mythology? Had the artist vitiated his chhand by over-stepping into the realm of malicious mischief?

A sizable number of Indians believed he had. Between 1996 (when a Hindi magazine Vichar Mimansa first published a set of Husain paintings) and 2006 (when the Supreme Court of India consolidated and transferred all the cases to a Delhi court for adjudication), nearly 900 civil and criminal cases were filed against M.F. Husain in courts throughout the country. The more hot-headed among his detractors — notably those affiliated with the right-wing extremist Bajrang Dal group — vandalized an Ahmedabad studio exhibiting Husain paintings, while others even broke into the painter’s Mumbai residence.

Delhi High Court: The nudity in the depiction of Mother India had purely metaphoric overtones.
Curiously, the decade (1996-2006) saw the advent of Hindu fundamentalism in India paralleling the rise of Islamic terrorism across the world. The Husain saga served to highlight both trends, and also showed up the competing communalism that resulted. Soon after a Muslim politician in Uttar Pradesh offered Rs 5.1 million to any person who would assassinate the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard for planting a bomb-shaped turban atop an imaginary Prophet Mohammad, a Hindu reactionary came up with a Rs 10.1 million offer for killing Husain.

Fearing for his life, Husain fled to the Middle East and has remained there ever since, venturing out occasionally to London for his summer vacations. Earlier this year, Husain was conferred Qatari citizenship by the Emirate. It has led to some soul-searching among those concerned with artistic freedom and its limits, and stirred up a debate among those who believe in varying degrees that art must be responsive — even subservient — to the social order. More pointedly, what do the events involving Husain and other artists (see sidebar) portend for the future?

There are obvious reasons why that debate centres primarily on M.F. Husain, why l’affaire Husain has become a test-case of India’s religious tolerance and artistic liberty. For one, he is the most visible, recognizable and durable symbol of modern Indian art. Any fetters on the man — who many believe is beyond doubt a national treasure and an institution — are bound to create a flutter well beyond the local art community. For another, no other Indian artist in living memory has tested the limits of creative freedom by taking on the task of depicting — in the most controversial manner possible — the deities of the country’s majority religion. And finally, at least to some extent, because he is a Muslim. Let’s face it. Husain may have pushed the frontiers of artistic gumption much too hard, but Indian-Hindu artists down the centuries and in the modern era too have tested the waters of mythological interpretation through the visual arts. They may be lesser known, but their work — although much less daring or brazen — is no secret.

The debate also stirs up interesting counter-points. Whereas an ostensibly beleaguered Husain chose self-imposed exile in the authoritarian regime of Qatar, citing rising intolerance from the Hindu fundamentalists in the land of his birth, Taslima Nasreen — a Bangladeshi writer and, like Husain, a Muslim — preferred that same land as a refuge from Muslim fundamentalists back home. She now faces a backlash from the Muslim orthodoxy in India. Nasreen’s predicament serves as a neat foil, mirroring the tribulations faced by Husain for taking artistic liberties with religious beliefs. She has been hounded for critiquing the tenets of the Holy Quran and for denouncing Islamic practices like the burqa which, in her opinion, objectifies and debases Muslim women. If a Husain exhibition in Gujarat state invited vandalism, a Nasreen article in a Karnataka publication sparked riots that killed two.

But, unlike Husain who was conferred with the “honor” of Qatari citizenship by the Emir himself and today sits ensconced in the lap of material comfort and luxury, Nasreen, a trained doctor and social activist, has been on the run since the publication of her first major work — travelling to and hiding in various cities within India as well as in Europe and USA — without adequate security or any assurance from the Indian Government which has cruelly kept her on tenterhooks with virtual house-arrest and time-bound extensions of her resident permit.

The crucial difference however is that Nasreen has shown her pluck in storming the citadel of her own co-religionists who have responded with fatwas against her and worse: she was all but assaulted and manhandled by a mob of Islamic fundamentalists in Hyderabad. Contrast this with Husain. When he undertook in 1968 to paint 150 canvases of Ramayana stories at the behest of socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, conservative Muslims from that same city approached the painter to work on Islamic themes. Husain backed out with the defence: “Does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down the entire screen.”

So, has India really failed M.F.Husain? To be sure, the Indian executive branch’s performance has been abysmal. You’d think that the currently ruling Congress Party — with its long history of avowed sensitivity toward Muslims — would fight to protect an artiste of international renown and stature who hails from a minority community. Quite the opposite has happened, as Husain himself observed in a media interview in which the 95-year-old painter said he actually felt safer under a BJP government.

Events bear him out. The Congress-led federal government has at no point pressured state administrations to prosecute the rioters who vandalized his house and paintings. Instead, reports now reveal that it issued a secret internal-advisory based on the Law Ministry’s review of Husain’s paintings that “appropriate action” should be taken against the artist — whom it had nominated to a prestigious parliamentary seat in 1987, but who is now a political hot-potato —to fend off potential communal trouble.

The two-faced policy continues: Hours after news of the Qatari offer and its acceptance trickled in, India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram promised Husain “full security” if he returned home. Will these politically correct offers sway his decision? Extremely doubtful. Husain is hardly the sort to feel comfortable with stern-looking Black Cat commandos shadowing him round the clock.

In contrast, the country’s judiciary has been bolder. In May 2008, the Delhi High Court quashed most of the frivolous suits against Husain in what has been widely trumpeted as a “landmark” judgment. In truth, the judgment is not quite as sweeping. Confronted with the task of adjudicating on the “alleged obscenity” of a Husain painting titled Mother India Nude Goddess, the Court’s decision had, by its very nature, a necessarily limited scope and focus.

Husain’s supposed denigration of Hindu gods and goddesses by their “obscene” depiction in various paintings — the main bone of contention against the artist — was never made an issue by the anti-Husain litigants. Instead, the case revolved around a single painting where the painter’s intent on hurting the feelings of Indians by an “obscene” representation of Mother India became the sole matter of adjudication. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul ruled — in a 74-page judgment which recounted the legal history of obscenity cases across continents — that there was no deliberate intention on the artist’s part to hurt the feelings of his fellow citizens and that the nudity in the depiction of Mother India had purely metaphoric overtones. Moreover, since only nationalistic feelings — and not religious feelings — were involved, the second charge of hurting religious sentiments was rejected, as was the third claim of defemation.

Instead, Justice Kaul denounced Husain’s critics: “It is most unfortunate that India’s new ‘puritanism’ is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and ignorant people vandalise art,” adding that “a painter at 90 deserves to be in his home — painting his canvas.” The judgment reassured Indian artists and assuaged their immediate fears: it held that the criminal justice system should not be invoked to harass them. Kaul’s advice to Husian’s critics: if you’re offended, simply shrug it off or, at most, protest peacefully.

The bigots who attacked Husain are hardly likely to to persuaded of Kaul’s sage counsel. That they agitated violently against his “objectionable” paintings decades after they were first exhibited shows their protest has more to do with realpolitik than good-faith grievances. The Kaul judgment does not cover threats to art galleries who anticipate vandalism from the religio-moral police and invariably prefer the peaceful way out by withdrawing the controversial works. Truth be told, this potentially has a far more invidious and withering — if indirect — impact on artists who, faced with the prospect of an endangered livelihood, are forced to resort to a chilling self-censorship. India’s civil society, in turn, faces the question: Do we really want our artists to keep looking furtively over their shoulder before every brush stroke, and then submit their works to an extra-constitutional politically motivated censor before every exhibition?

The answer would — and should — be an emphatic no. I am sure that a commitment to artistic freedom is shared by all but the most regressive and lunatic fringe of any civilized society. I’m equally sure that a civilized people will embrace readily the concept of artistic responsibility, and so allow anyone genuinely aggrieved by a piece of creative art to turn to a court for redressal. That is what the Constitution and the laws provide. And to reassure those who fear a shower of harassment suits, let me reassure them that Indian courts are well-equipped to discourage frivolous litigation.

The real problem however arises when it comes to apportioning this right of artistic freedom. Why do some of us make it available so readily to a painter who sketches nude Hindu goddesses, and then deny it to a cartoonist who caricatures Prophet Mohammad or to a writer who decries anachronistic Islamic practices? Shame on this motley mob of pseudo-liberal secularists which blindly endorses, celebrates and deifies M.F. Husain, while denouncing the likes of Nasreen and the European cartoonists Kurt Westergaard and Lar Vilks.

Here is a telling example of this hypocrisy. What did the Chennai-based newspaper baron-editor of The Hindu, who lets his leftist leanings hang out in his editorials, do when Husain was summoned to Court for a suit against his paintings? He accompanied the painter, in a touching display of moral support. What did he do when informed of Husain’s Qatari citizenship? He wrote a remorseful piece on the “tragedy of Indian secularism.” Yet how did The Hindu editorialize the plight of Nasreen and the Prophet cartoonists living under a perennial death-threat? “Freedom of expression is supremely important. But surely it does not require its champions crassly to cause offence to the faith and belief of an identifiable group.”

What blinds these opinion-leaders to the obvious realities surrounding them? Can they ever reconcile this profound moral contradiction?

I really have no grouse against Husain merrily sketching a nude Hindu goddess. I understand, but can never accept, the ire of my fellow-Hindus who are provoked and even offended by the artist’s audacity of scribbling alongside the goddess’ name, as if to rub in the point. Simply because I believe Hinduism is just too resilient and all-inclusive a philosophy to be dented by real or imagined slights from any artist who might want to caricature its deities out of love or spite. A religion that willingly accepts atheists into its fold, that assimilates and therefore validates so many diverse streams of thought and belief, whose mythology is peopled by gods and goddesses with human frailties can surely laugh at itself. And that may well be the secret of its longevity.

Which is why I share some of the loss on M.F. Husain becoming a Qatari citizen. A Husain residing permanently in India, painting nude Hindu deities, and still trotting jauntily along Mumbai’s Marine Drive without any fear or care in the world would be the ideal antidote to our growing culture of narrow-minded prudery, and the ultimate living symbol of our traditional tolerance and freedom.

Artistry in chains

Some other examples of artistic freedom that faced the shackles of India’s religio-moral police.

Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhade (1970) and Ghashiram Kotwal (1972) were targeted by Shiv Sena for their sexual and political content.

Vadodara art student Chandramohan spent several days in jail in May 2007 after being charged for exhibiting works within his art school that “promoted enmity between different groups on grounds of religion.”

Parzania, a 2005 film portraying the story of a family caught in the vortex of violence during the Gujarat riots of 2002, was banned in Gujarat following pressure from right-wing Hindu activists.

Shiv Sena goons objected and nearly stopped the Mumbai performance early this year of a Pakistani play Sara, where the heroine defies conventional sexual morality.

In 2004, group calling itself Sambhaji Brigade attacked Pune’s Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute and destroyed irreplaceable and unique objects of historical and literary importance because part of the research for a controversial biography by historian James W. Laine titled Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India was conducted there.

Film-maker Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, with the city’s 1992 riots as its backdrop, was released in 1995 only after it was seen and approved by Shiv Sena honcho Bal Thackeray.

Sangh Parivar activists in August 2003 disrupted the performance of Habib Tanvir’s play Ponga Pandit, which critiques the caste system.

Activists from the same group forced Canada-based Indian film director Deepa Mehta to abandon the 2000 shooting of Water in India because it discussed the lives of widows under Hindu orthodoxy.

South Indian actress Khushboo was slapped with 22 cases from various complainants after she endorsed pre-marital sex in a media interview in 2005. The Indian Supreme Court dismissed all the cases in March 2010.


Subscribe to comments feed Comments (1 posted)

Voce May 24, 2010 at 1:46 PM
A criticism of Husain is that he only draws important religious figures of Hinduism naked. None in Islam drawn naked. There is a sense of hypocrisy and that just because he is an artist doesn\'t mean he is not a religious bigot. He drew India as a naked woman. Will he now draw Qatar as a naked woman?
May 20th was Draw Mohammed Day - this being a battle over free speech and artistic expression. How many of you would support this?
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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | May 2010

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