June 15, 2021
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M.F. Husain: FAQ

M.F. Husain: FAQ

As usual various issues are getting confused in the never-ending saga of the controversy over M.F. Husain. Let's address some of the questions that seem to be cropping up regularly:

So has the Indian government driven Husain out of India and forced him to take up Qatari citizenship?

On this, the most balanced and nuanced commentary so far has been from Vir Sanghvi. After his first article last week, he has another one out now where he takes up the issue of Husain's various TV interviews, pointing out that the problem is less with Husain and more with those who claim to speak for him: 

Many of his defenders act as though he is an asylum seeker, fleeing an oppressive state. It is no longer possible for him to remain a citizen of India, they say, because of the manner in which we have behaved. He would have accepted the citizenship of any country, had it been offered to him, one such defender declared on television.

So, the conflict is over two views of his decision to accept Qatari citizenship. If he has done it for reasons of convenience and commerce, then this is an entirely different motivation from those that his defenders are suggesting...

No sensible person can deny that the vandalism and harassment that Husain was subjected to just before he left India was a disgrace. But the secular lobby wants to go further. It wants to use his renunciation of Indian citizenship to caricature India as a soft state where bigots run free, terrorising great artists and vandalising works of art.

The problem with this caricature is that, in the Husain case at least, the facts are considerably more complicated. Husain is not really an asylum seeker. And even he is willing to admit that his motives are partly commercial.

My worry in all this is that the battle over Husain has now become the battle of the stereotypes. It is Hindu fundamentalists vs secular fundamentalists. Both twist facts, make absurd statements and overstate their case. 

But why is he always painting Hindu deities in such objectionable manner? Isn't that why Hindus are upset with him and filed so many cases against him?

The first set of controversial paintings in question were created in 1970s, but did not become an issue until 1996, when they were published in a Hindi magazine, Vichar Mimansa. A considerable effort seems to have gone into finding a total of two "sacrilegious" paintings -- Sita and Saraswati -- in a corpus of over ten thousand  paintings, drawings etc in private galleries.

In 2004, Delhi High Court dismissed these complaints of "promoting enmity between different groups ... by painting Hindu goddesses in an uncharitable manner hurting the sentiments of Hindus".

This campaign got a fillip in February 2006 after the controversy over Prophet cartoons found its reverbrations in India as well. In UP a Samajwadi Party minister offered  Rs 51 crores to anyone who would chop off the hands of the Danish cartoonist and yet no legal action was taken against him.  The Hindutva group perhaps felt slighted that despite their best efforts, they were not able to mobilise enough people in favour of their campaign against Husain and seem to have got into a competitive communalism mode.

As Omair Ahmed reported:

In Gujarat, a local leader offered a kilo of gold to anybody willing to gouge out Husain's eyes. In 2006, a fringe organisation calling itself the Hindu Personal Law Board offered Rs 51 crore for his head. Shortly after that, Madhya Pradesh Congress minority cell vice-chairman Akhtar Baig offered Rs 11 lakh to anybody who would chop off Husain's hands.

No action was taken against any of these worthies.

Coincidentally, just when the Prophet cartoon controversy was playing itself out, in its February 6, 2006 issue, India Today published an advertisement titled "Art For Mission Kashmir" which contained a painting of Bharatmata (named thus not by the artist -- he had not titled the Sita painting either -- but the gallery) for an auction organised by Nafisa Ali of Action India (NGO) and Apparao Art Gallery. The proceeds of this auction were to go towards earthquake relief in Pakistan. That was pounced upon and the campaign was relaunched, as if in competition with the Muslim campaign against the Prophet cartoons. And like the earlier controversial paintings, this one too had been done a long time -- decades -- back and came to notice only because of this advertisement fortuitously timed around then. 

Hindu Jagriti Samiti (HJS) filed a case with Mumbai and Thane police and appealed to President A P J Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take action against such "anti-national and perverse attitude of the great artist".

I don't understand why he didn't just apologize for the paintings and withdraw them. This was what he did when some Muslim clerics objected to some songs in his film Meenaxi

Actually, this is what he did on February 7, 2006 -- he apologised and promised to withdraw the painting from the auction.


Incidentally, he had done the same in October 11, 1996 when Bajrang Dal destroyed his paintings in Herwitz Gallery in Ahmedabad's Husain-Doshi gufa 

Husain had then suggested that a panel of national and international experts, including scholars, historians and "people who are experts in this", could pronounce a judgment on whether his paintings were objectionable. "If it is possible that such a panel... finds my paintings objectionable, I will be the first person to light a bonfire and burn everything," he said.

As also in 1998 when on May 1, 1998 Bajrang Dal activists forced their way into his South Mumbai home:

"Yes, I have offered to face an agni pariksha. I have made the suggestion earlier." His suggestion envisages the setting up of a committee of three persons - an art critic, a lawyer and a representative of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - which could go through his entire collection. Husain said that he was prepared to destroy immediately any work that the committee found objectionable.

I think the crux of the argument has been that those protesting against him -- and it actually was a very well-orchestrated campaign --  were not so much against him but at the "secular hypocrisy" in choosing what art was worth defending and on what grounds, and what was condemned to be banned. It would seem as if they objected not as much to the Hindu deities being painted nude, but to the fact that he hadn't painted Islamic figures likewise.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta had put it then:

The real object of attack does not seem to be Husain or a concern for Bharat Mata. The occasion is being used to bait an assortment of people, from secularists to Muslims. Commentators seem more troubled by the fact that so-called secularists do not denounce Husain than they are by the plight of Bharat Mata. Or l'affaire Husain is being converted into yet another occasion to benchmark Muslim loyalty. Surely, the argument goes, you Muslims and secularists, who denounced the Danish cartoons, now show your true colours. Will you also denounce Husain or will your double standards be exposed? Once again, the purported issue, poor Bharat Mata, got lost in the din, just like freedom of expression or religious piety.

What was the role of the political parties in the controversy?

This was also seen as a political issue on which masses could be mobilised before the elections that were due in 2008. The BJP strategists might be making very liberal noises now, but way back then, the now BJP president Nitin Gadkari, who was then the Maharashtra BJP president , had also extended support to the demand for Husain's arrest. Others were not so restrained and demanded physical assault and worse. Newspapers reported that Congress home minister, a man of immaculate misconceptions, Shri Shivraj Patil, had instructed the police chiefs of Delhi and Mumbai to take “appropriate action” against Husain. It was claimed that there was "intelligence input" that anger against Husain's paintings could incite communal trouble. When questioned, he claimed it was in response to the opposition leader's demand for action against the painter. He did not have an answer as to why his ministry  did not act against all those who were openly declaring prize money for chopping off the hands of Husain -- or the Danish cartoonists, or Taslima Nasreen, or Salman Rushdie, for example. As Husain himself put it in an interview in 2008 ,

"As things stand, I cannot come back. No one has exiled me; I came away myself because I am an old man and vulnerable to physical danger. It’s not just the cases. If I came back, given the mood they have created, someone could just push or assault me on the street, and I would not be able to defend myself. The only way I can come back to India, perhaps, is if the BJP comes to power at the Centre. Or maybe, Mayawati. This government has no spine. Their hands are tied. They think if they speak out or take action, they will be accused of appeasement. The irony is, out of power, the BJP uses issues like this to fan its votebank. In power, they would probably control their extreme brigades to look respectable and secular! (laughs) These are the ironies of India. Actually, it is for the courts to sort this out. The allegation that my work is obscene or hurts religious sentiment can never stand merit in a court. Perhaps, if someone filed a counter public interest litigation… It is not my place to do so."

That is when first the Delhi High Court and then the Supreme Court stepped in and quashed the four cases against Husain. However, Husain chose not to return to India. The UPA, incidentally, had already been under fire on the hounding of Taslima Nasrin in West Bengal.  Interestingly, while Husain had left the country on his own, Taslima insists she was pressured to leave the country just before the elections.

But aren't these paintings insulting and obscene and liable to hurt the sentiments of Hindus?

Well, ask any art-critic and historian and they would be able to place it in perspective. Delhi High Court in May 2008 clearly stated the obvious: "A painter has his own perspective of looking at things and it cannot be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him...In India, new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalizing art and pushing us towards a pre-renaissance era".

The Chief Justice of India K.G.Balakrishan had the best response to the question when, while upholding the Delhi HC decision, he said: “There are so many such subjects, photographs and publications. Will you file cases against all of them? It (Husain’s work) is art. If you don’t want to see it, then don’t see it. There are so many such art forms in the (Hindu) temple structures.”

The main point to note also is that these paintings were not in public places and were in private collections, rarely exhibited and that too in rarefied exhibitions attended by people who by no stretch of imagination would have been offended by them, at exclusive galleries. All of them were done many, many years back. Those who claimed to be hurt by these paintings were the ones who went about putting these paintings in public domain.

Also see, this author's 1998 defence of Husain's Sita and Hanuman

But hasn't Husain always insulted Hinduism by painting Hindu deities in the nude?

As any one who has followed his career would tell you, on the contrary Husain seems quite in love with Hindu iconography and his Ramayan and Mahabharat series are clearly a labour of love. As he told Shoma Chaudhury of Tehelka way back in 2008:

As a child, in Pandharpur, and later, Indore, I was enchanted by the Ram Lila. My friend, Mankeshwar, and I were always acting it out. The Ramayana is such a rich, powerful story, as Dr Rajagopalachari says, its myth has become a reality...I also read and discussed the Gita and Upanishads and Puranas with Mankeshwar, who had become an ascetic by then. After he left for the Himalayas, I carried on studying for years afterwards. All this made me completely calm. I have never had dreams or nightmares ever again. Later, in Hyderabad, in 1968, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia suggested I paint the Ramayana. I was completely broke, but I painted 150 canvases over eight years. I read both the Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana (the first is much more sensual) and invited priests from Benaras to clarify and discuss the nuances with me. When I was doing this, some conservative Muslims told me, why don’t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen. I’ve painted hundreds of Ganeshas in my lifetime — it is such a delightful form. I always paint a Ganesha before I begin on any large work. I also love the iconography of Shiva. The Nataraj — one of the most complex forms in the world — has evolved over thousands of years and, almost like an Einstein equation, it is the result of deep philosophical and mathematical calculations about the nature of the cosmos and physical reality. When my daughter, Raeesa wanted to get married, she did not want any ceremonies, so I drew a card announcing her marriage and sent it to relatives across the world. On the card, I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to? I come from the Suleimani community, a sub-sect of the Shias, and we have many affinities with Hindus, including the idea of reincarnation. As cultures, it is Judaism and Christianity that are emotionally more distant. But it is impossible to discuss all this with those who oppose me. Talk to them about Khajuraho, they will tell you its sculpture was built to encourage population growth and has outgrown its utility! (laughs) It is people in the villages who understand the sensual, living, evolving nature of Hindu gods. They just put orange paint on a rock, and it comes to stand for Hanuman.

But is it not true that there are legal obstacles to Husain's return to India with over 900 cases filed against him? If not, why has he decided to take up the citizenship of Qatar?

Please see the earlier post: L'affaire Husain. To repeat, as the Hindu pointed out a couple of days back, "several cases were reportedly  filed against Mr. Husain, only seven registered in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Delhi came to light through the media as the courts had summoned  Mr. Husain."

Of the seven cases, four were quashed by the Delhi High Court in May 2008 in a refreshingly worded judgement by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul which had been upheld by the Supreme Court and there are apparently only three minor cases against Husain pending in lower courts which, going by the judiciary's response, were clearly not the worrying factor.

Also, he could easily get Z+ security and safety considerations can easily be taken care of. Besides, he could have even continued staying anywhere abroad on his Indian passport, like many who value it do, such as Amartaya Sen etc.

At the same time, he is absolutely entitled to his decision to accept the Qatari citizenship, needless to say. After all, he is 95 years old. As Vir Sanghvi puts it, the problem is not with Husain, who is being refreshingly candid about his motivations and  acknowledgeing that there is a commercial and financial angle to his decision, but with those who have appointed themselves as his spokespeople. Don't listen to him yaar, they seem to be saying. Listen to us, we know better. Instead of listening to them, I would suggest you make up your own mind by checking out Husain's NDTV interview:

Barkha Dutt: Why did you surrender your Indian passport and accept Qatar citizenship? After all you have been living outside for many years, why did it come to a point where you had to give up Indian citizenship?

MF Husain: I think there is a reason for that because in 2006 I decided to work on three major projects

    * History of Indian civilization from Mohenjedaro to Manmohan Singh
    * History of other civilizations dating back to Babylon
    * And cinema which is close to my heart - it is my love - 100 years of Indian cinema, it would be completing 100 years next year

So, I wanted to do these projects in India but there are so many obstacles you know, it is not easy to work. First there is also the question of finding a sponsor. So, I was waiting, this I decided in 2004 when I came to Dubai to find some sponsor. So, in London I found a sponsor for history of Indian civilization and in Qatar, Sheikha Mozah invited me to do a history of other civilizations and Abu Dhabi will sponsor the project on Indian Cinema, I think in a big way next year. So, to do all these works I have to become an NRI because of the tax structure there (you can ask any corporate and you will know). It's not only here, it's all over the world. What's happening to Polanski, Bergmann in Sweden, he had to leave because he was hounded by tax people.

Had I been 40, I would have fought them tooth and nail but here I want to focus only on my work, I don't want any disturbance. I need all comforts and facilities to the maximum.

Still as they say Hindi hain hum watan hain, saara jahan hamara.

These boundaries are only political boundaries, especially the visual arts is a universal language, you can be anywhere in the world but the work that you do has a strong link to 5,000 years of our great Indian culture.

Barkha Dutt: But Husain sahab you make it sound like a very practical decision about how Qatar has given opportunities unavailable in India. But you were also quoted as saying that India had rejected you. Is that what has influenced your decision to take up Qatari citizenship?

MF Husain: I never said India has rejected me, whatever they do my whole vision is there as I said there were opportunities here so I came here, what is citizenship? It is only a piece of paper because when somebody has invited me with so much love and affection wouldn't I go and have dinner with them? Would I then say say no, I don't want meat; I only eat vegetable? I am not dogmatic about these things.

Woh kehte hain na "jahan bhi pyar mila main uske sath ho gaya". I am a great lover, I love people where ever I get warmth. In India of course 99 per cent Indians love me and still love me, but politics has always had in the history a detrimental effect on creativity.
Right from Galileo to Kalidas, all great artists were harassed. Even Neruda, Chaplin, there are several examples.

Because in the end all of this boils down to politics. If this were legal or a social problem it could have been solved. The courts also gave a historic judgment. But this is politics and a few people you know can spoil the broth.

Barkha Dutt: Do you not crave in a sense to be home?

MF Husain: I am already there in spirit and everything. What is this physical presence? In today's world with so much technology and communication you are everywhere and a creative person is not bound by any geography. It is immaterial where you stay. I am an original Indian painter and will remain so till my last breath

Read on for the full transcript

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