On Husain we don’t need to be left or right or centrist, we just need to be “right”

Ah, it’s after a long time I’m writing here. There’s no particular reason why I haven’t been writing here (sorry to my regular readers), but it also doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned this blog.

Coming to the topic. The “famous” artist MF Husain recently gave up his Indian citizenship and accepted Qatar’s offer to become its citizen. There’s been lots of breast-beating in the country — in fact I just read Barkha Dutt’s column in the HT on Husain becoming Qatar’s citizen — and they’re saying it’s perhaps one of the greatest cultural losses India has faced in the recent times.

He’s been hounded out of India, both by “religious fanatics” and the judiciary for depicting the famous Hindu gods and goddesses naked (some say he’s out only for monetary reasons because he can earn a lot more by not living in India, and it has got nothing to do with the security scenario). In his paintings he has disrobed all major divinities like Saraswati, Durga, Parvati, Sita, Mother India, etc. In one of the paintings goddess Durga is copulating with her tiger, for example.

Before proceeding further I must mention that being an Indian citizen, no matter how vulgar or outrageous depictions he created, he deserved all the security guaranteed by our constitution. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. Even if a major section of our society finds his paintings revolting, our constitution has provisions to express disagreement too. While operating under legal parameters, his paintings could have been barred from public viewings. So ransacking his studios and threatening him physically should have been dealt with severely. In fact it’s the people who threatened him who should have been on the run, not Husain.

Hasain has never been my type of painter (I like Raja Ravi Verma, Shobha Singh, etc.) — I find his paintings quite trite and immature (overhyped), but that’s another issue. Artistic freedom, sure, I’m all for it. If Husain wants to paint naked Hindu gods and goddesses and wants to create the Kamasutra comic with Ram and Sita in lead characters, in the ideal world, nobody should have a problem. In fact I’d suggest to him — seeing his love for Hindu gods — he should have first converted to Hinduism and then painted.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world replete with blatant double standards.

Many who support Husain’s freedom of expression say that Hindus should be the last ones to protest as they have all sorts of gods and goddesses depicted performing various carnal feats in many temples and caves. That’s true, but I wonder if those gods and goddesses can be named. I haven’t visited these places, but can someone point, OK, look, here’s goddess Saraswati in the nude, and here’s Sita in close naked proximity with Ram or Hanuman? I don’t think so. None of those figures have prominent temples and classics written around them. They are all unknown yakshas and mohinis indulging in sex. So equating them with major worshiped folks like Saraswati, Sita, Hanuman, etc. is totally stupid and diversionary, to put it mildly.

In every major religion there are gods that enjoy a level of sanctity. Ram and Sita are highly revered, so are Saraswati, Durga, Kali, Hanuman and Laxmi — you cannot just go on painting them nude in the name of artistic expression, even if they’re mythological (many think they are not — but they have every right to think that way, just as those who don’t think that way). Religion has been here for thousands of years and it’s going to stay for at least a couple of centuries more (even scientology is a new religion), people are often ready to kill and die for it. People quietly accept hunger and backwardness but mess with their religious sentiments and they’ll cut you in half if they can. I’m not saying this is right, but this is a reality. It needs to be changed, it is changing, but it’ll take some time.

Freedom of expression comes with sensitivity. You don’t paint Muhammad sexually cavorting with one of his wives or camels, you don’t show Guru Gobind Singh intimate with Mata Sundri: the so-called Hindu fanatics just ransacked and threatened, Muslims and Sikhs will surely decapitate you, whether someone likes it or not, and you won’t even be able to run to another country, Qatar and all. This is a reality and hopefully such reactions will mallow down (we cannot accept them to go) with time. So no matter how “evolved” a painter you are, and no matter how tolerant and civilized religion you are dealing with, on your own, you should have enough dignity to draw a line.

I don’t really care where Husain lives and paints (may he be blessed with hundred more years), but if he wanted to live in India, even if it took the entire military, he should have been made to feel save. It’s a loss that he left, but it’s not a cultural loss, it’s an indictment of our inability to evolve as a truly democratic and civilized country.

0 thoughts on “On Husain we don’t need to be left or right or centrist, we just need to be “right”

  1. Suvro Chatterjee

    I just want to suggest a point, Amrit, which our Constitution also values very highly: that of ‘reasonable restrictions’ on all rights, even ‘Fundamental’ rights. Whereas one could (and we do in the courts) debate endlessly about what is and what is not ‘reasonable’ in particular cases, anyone who, by any act of commission or willful omission gives the impression that he is not willing to accept certain reasonable restrictions on his rights, who claims some absoluteright for himself or others, is forfeiting his very right to live in a good democratic society. Now consider – is offending vast numbers of people very seriously really so passionately worth defending, in principle or in practice (‘even if it took the entire military…’!)? I am asking this with full responsibility myself: I have given some offence as a teacher to a great many people in my effort to make them see what I consider good sense, but I have never believed I have a right to say whatever I like with impunity. Some of my greatest teachers have said that rights hinge on a fine understanding of responsibilities, and we threaten the very foundations of democracy by pushing our claims on rights too far…

  2. Suvro Chatterjee

    Sorry to carry on like this, but I couldn’t help citing a certain case (I forget the details) where the Supreme Court ruled that those who burn the Constitution cannot afterwards turn around and seek protection of their Right to Free Expression enshrined under the same Constitution. I thought then that that was a very wise judgment, and I haven’t found reason to change my mind in the two decades since.

    Please notice that I haven’t said a word about Husain and his art and his motivations. I have my opinions, of course, but they are not relevant to the central issue here.

  3. HelenVaughan

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  4. Nilesh

    2 points from our constitution (not sure if they are mentioned explicitly in there)
    1) ones freedom ends where another ones nose starts.
    2) you can take every measure (even kill someone) to defend yourself

    by painting religious gods of Hindus, Husein has stepped on their nose. so they have every right to defend themselves even it means ransacking his properties and threatening him.

    if you say he is mature person, he would have known the effect of it beforehand itself. even then if he ignores it, it paramount to knowingly hurting sentiments of millions of people. if he is immature, he should have been locked in metal asylum. he could not be punished so far, this is one of cursed of democracy. i think as you said just barring his paintings from public display (and putting some some fine on him) at right time for this by our courts should have been sufficient. but again our courts/law do not act timely)

    sorry for harsh comment but there was no other way to put it.

    Note: if anybody paints Mohammad or Guru Nanak nude, i would oppose that as well.