A Portrait of India's Intolerance: The country's speech restrictions didn't allow M.F. Husain to paint in peace by Salil Tripathi (The Wall Street Journal)
“Maqbool Fida Husain was India’s most celebrated painter, and his death in London last week was front-page news across the subcontinent. However, toward the end of his life, Husain had trouble finding galleries willing to show his work. He lived in Dubai, Doha or London for most of the last two decades because he couldn’t paint in peace in his own country, even becoming a Qatari national last year.
“Husain’s story says much about modern India. The troubles started in 1996, when the magazine Vichar Mimansa (‘Discussion of Thoughts’) published a decades-old sketch that showed a nude Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. That discovery electrified Hindu activists, who began filing lawsuits against the painter for hurting their sentiments.
“These activists were able to persecute Husain by taking advantage of laws intended to prevent the incitement of religious hatred. Though the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it allows ‘reasonable restrictions’ to safeguard ‘the interests of the sovereignty and integrity’ of the country and ‘public order, decency or morality.’ The penal code makes it a crime ‘to outrage religious feelings’ and also outlaws ‘promoting enmity’ between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language—and the all-inclusive ‘etc.’
“Fringe Hindu groups claimed to have been offended by the artist's work, and pressured the authorities to initiate proceedings. Indian courts often throw such cases out, but there were multiple cases against him. When a few of them reached the Delhi High Court on appeal, it ruled in Husain’s favor. So did the Supreme Court in a similar case.
“But the court judgments did not stem the tide of vitriol. Vigilantes continued to file cases against him, attacked his works and damaged the studio of a television network that polled its readers on whether Husain should be given India’s highest civilian honor.
“An artist with weaker convictions would have stopped painting altogether, but Husain continued to portray the many colors of this pluralist democracy. Born around 1915, he got his artistic start painting cinema posters. Formally trained at the prestigious Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, he was an integral member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which brought together leading modernists soon after India’s independence in 1947. He painted horses all his life; his other recurring themes included celebration of Indian music, Sufi art and the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Since 1996, he continued to paint Hindu deities as well as paintings inspired by Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, whom he called his muse.
“But he couldn’t go on very long. At one count last decade, there were hundreds of cases pending against him across India, and some death threats too. Instead of defending Husain’s right to express his imagination, the authorities did nothing, actually adding to pressure from activists. In 2006, several state governments decided to prosecute him for outraging feelings after he painted ‘Bharat Mata’ (Mother India) in the nude. The controversy scared those who otherwise would have been happy to exhibit his work, including the organizers of the 2008 Indian Art Fair in Delhi, which had the works of 300 artists but not Husain’s.
“Exasperated by the lack of support from the Indian state and the continued harassment—both physical and legal—Husain gave up. He was living outside India anyway, and last year he publicly renounced his Indian citizenship.
“Hindu nationalists justified their attacks on Husain’s art by noting that the Indian state has allowed other faiths to block literature that has offended them. India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Muslim activists last year chopped off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a university professor in Kerala, because he gave an exam question that was deemed insulting to Muhammad. Christian groups have protested films like The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ.
“To be sure, a large number of books get published in India, hundreds of films get made and galleries hold many exhibitions without incident. But artists like Husain inhabit speech at the edge of acceptability, speech that challenges conventional thought. The controversial sketch of Saraswati, for example, is an elegant white-on-black line drawing, which makes the viewer reflect on the old Indian tradition of nirakara, or formlessness. Yet instead of questioning themselves when provoked, extremist Hindus, like extremists from other faiths, have reacted with anger.”
‘Attack on artistic freedom is our shame’ by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar (India Times, June 12, 2011):
“[T]he very multiculturalism of his paintings was unacceptable to Hindu communalists, especially Shiv Sainiks. They objected to his depiction of goddesses in the nude, claiming this was an insult to Hinduism. They threatened to rip his paintings apart, making it difficult to exhibit his paintings without fear of damage.
“Now, anybody visiting ancient Hindu temples at Khajuraho or Konark can seen dozens of nude sculptures of goddesses and apsaras, which are intrinsic to Indian art. Husain's style was one of skilful distortion and smudging, so his nudes had no erotic detail or prurience. Why then did his paintings create such an uproar and not Khajuraho?
“Because he was a Muslim. Had he been a Hindu, there would have been no protest. The anti-Husain campaign was always an anti-Muslim campaign, and not about art or justice.”
And see also:
From Artist to Victim (front-page editorial, The Telegraph (Calcutta), June 11, 2011):
“Husain’s death has left India face-to-face with one of its greatest shames — its cowardly surrender to violence that cites religion as its pretext. When politicians mouth banalities about the ‘national loss,’ they conveniently gloss over the disgraceful fact that the nation did nothing for Husain except hound him out. The persecution of the artist was a direct attack on his right to freedom of expression. His nude paintings of Saraswati and Bharat Mata were the source of Hindutva-soaked nationalist anger, and gave rise to a series of criminal cases against him. But organized thugs have never waited for the law, and they attacked his home, his exhibitions here and abroad, vandalized his paintings and threatened his person. The cases against Husain remain; the thugs go free.
“By not coming down heavily and unforgettably on the hordes of criminals who organized the attacks on Husain and his work time after time, two successive Indian governments, one of which claims a ‘secular’ tradition, have demonstrated a compliance with deep-seated religious intolerance and divisiveness that makes nonsense of India’s ‘inclusive,’ ‘tolerant’ culture. Even a hint of religious ire can tear rights and values to shreds, be it the freedom of thought or expression, the value of an artist’s work and contribution, or even the fundamental right to live. What happened to Husain can happen again; there has not been a peep from the government — it made no effort to bring him back and let him live and work in safety — to suggest that things will be different. Social pressure may have changed that, but Indian society revels in its own prejudices. In complete irrationality, it would rather see a ‘Muslim’ artist penalized for painting a nude Hindu deity than feel shame at the violent suppression of guaranteed rights. It is no wonder that intolerance and persecution have become institutionalized in India. No one is allowed the courage to express himself in ways or speak truths that cause discomfort to those in power, whether socially or politically. So Binayak Sen had to languish in jail for months at the behest of a government that wished to silence him, and M.F. Husain must die abroad because pseudo-religion and false patriotism must be appeased. What is ominous is that such an ethos perverts all institutions: law and religion become handmaidens to the agents of oppression.”