Did M F Husain offend Hindus and Why ?

via By Dr. Vijaya Rajiva published on March 2, 2010

On NDTV a program entitled Did India Let Husain Down ? was aired with the well known liberal anchor Barkha Dutt moderating the debate. Many stars of the liberal elite firmament were present and it would seem from the audience’s comments that they too endorsed the prevalent liberal view that Husain was a hero who had been victimised by Hindus who protested his scurrilous paintings of Hindu goddesses. The view in that debate was that India should bring him back from Qatar where he has presently accepted citizenship.India does not have provision for dual citizenship and hence Husain has automatically relinquished his Indian citizenship. The endorsement of the liberals , applies only to that part of the audience that was vocal. Many were silent listeners.

Much was made that night by the liberal elite of the contrasting way in which Husain was feted and welcomed in international capitals(unlike in India). What seemed to have escaped the attention of Husain’s liberal acolytes is that international capitals would not have lionized him had he painted a nude Virgin Mary engaged in compromising poses. One can only imagine the uproar that this would have produced. And Qatar would most certainly not have conferred citizenship on him had he produced cartoons of their Prophet! Even the devout women followers of the painter seem not to have noticed that these paintings were actually anti women ! Their unquestioning servitude to certain
misplaced liberal ideas has prevented them from seeing this dimension to the scurrilous paintings !

There were two prominent dissenting voices on the NDTV program, one being well known journalist Swapan Das Gupta and the other Dr. Chandan Mitra ,editor of The Pioneer. A lone young woman from the audience who began to speak on behalf of Hindu India was quickly sidelined by the anchor, who is often uncomfortable when dealing with
an unexpected Hindu comment.

The anchor and the liberal jamboree went on apace till it culminated with a social commentator calling for awarding the Bharata Ratna(India’s highest honour) to the painter and a woman artist (a close friend of the painter, by her own admission) suggesting that he be granted dual citizenship by India.

Both Das Gupta and Mitra gave spirited arguments as to why Husain let India down by accepting citizenship in a non democratic country like Qatar and giving up his Indian citizenship. There were some nuanced differences between the two, with ChandanMitra valiantly stating that in his opinion it was okay to have religion play
a role in judging Husain’s scurrilous paintings of the Hindu goddesses. Mitra also suggested it was better to let Husain stay where he is, since
he seems to be happy in Qatar and likes his roaring commercial success there.That was Mitra’s sincere opinion. Many outside the NDTV studio were less polite and simply said, Amen, thank god, good riddance and so on !

So one turns to the question : did Husain offend Hindus by his nude paintings of goddesses , in questionable poses ? The answer clearly is yes. Temple art and sculpture do show goddesses nude from the waist up. Often there is also a light ornamental band on their upper bodies. They are not completely nude. Further this art was in the ancient temples and it catered to a certain tradition at the time of stone carvings.In modern India gods and goddesses are depicted as clothed, as in the works of famed artist Raja Ravi Varma. The ancient temple at Khajuraho showed sexual poses but these concerned ordinary figures not gods and goddesses.

The completely nude figure of Goddess Sarasvati does not appear anywhere in India,nor does the completely naked figure of Sita sitting on the tail of a monkey, appear anywhere in India (as Husain depicted them in his paintings). This is Husain’s invention. One of the most serene and beautiful sculptures of Goddess Sarasvati is from the Brihadisvara temple near Tanjore, South India (1025 A.D.).

Her she is depicted as the emobodiment of serene wisdom, beauty and peace, unlike the grotesque and scurrilous caricature by Husain. There is also a fine girdle at her waist and a fine drapery around her upper body. Goddess Sarasvati has always been depicted in Hindu art as serene, composed and carrying the emblems of music, art, learning and wisdom. She has never been depicted as a sexual object for the voyeur or the philanderer.

Hence, Husain’s followers are simply being dishonest in claiming that his paintings are
part of Hindu tradition. Husain himself tried to get out of hot water by claiming that he thought of nudity as purity .This was a contradiction since earlier on, when asked as to why he showed Hitler naked in a painting where the other 3 figures, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and
Mao Tse Tung were shown clothed he replied that he hated Hitler and wanted to humiliate him. Does Husain think of nudity as purity or as an expression of his hatred?

Clearly this was a contradiction and clearly Hindus were offended. The silent majority registered their protest intermittently. Many, fearing liberal chastisement , were muted in their criticism. The everyday Hindu (on whose backs the liberal elite are happy to ride whenever it comes to the rural economy or the service jobs provided by the less affluent) this everyday Hindu,was too busy to protest, concerned as she /he was with the exigencies of living.

If they knew about the shenanigans of the painter and his followers then they would surely have protested because Husain had struck at their faith which they had followed with deep devotion for several millennia. Those who were vocal about their protest were those who had been radicalized by the increasing trend of liberal elites to mock at the Hindu tradition and
make a career out of writing scurrilous accounts of Hindu gods, goddesses and saints in the Hindu calendar. The most recent offenders are Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal.

Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, should be read by all Indians, not just Hindus ,to get to the depths of the abuse of Hinduism camouflaged as history. Doniger’s work has been replied to and criticized by competent critics. Sanskritists have questioned her competence in translation from the Hindu classics. Still others have pointed out that she has created artificial distinctions in Hindu society. Most are disgusted by her transferring her own sexual life and anxieties onto the mythology and traditions of Hinduism. Most of her work is quite vulgar in the most ordinary meaning of the word.

One scholar asserted wryly that most Indologists and scholars in the area avoid her.

Jeffrey Kripal’s scurrilous book Kali’s Child is a complete distortion of the life and work
of Bhagavan Ramakrishna, 19th century Bengali mystic and saint, whom Mahatma Gandhi called the embodiment of godliness.

Then there are the pastors and preachers of Christian evangelical churches that
routinely denigrade Hindu gods and goddesses. In such a situation is it any surprise
that Hindus are offended? The more pertinent question would be : why are not all Hindus offended ? Why do some at least continue to pedal the line that it is a question of freedom of expression, and not an insult to their faith or tradition ? Why do they ignore what even that most ardent champion of individual liberties, the British political philosopher John Stuart Mill, had said about untrammeled liberties (On Liberty). And what every reasonable adult knows to be true : there are limits to freedom. Artistic freedom is circumscribed by the hurt caused to individuals in society. At present the debate now has moved into the realm of hate literature.

This brings one to the serious question of WHY the painter chose to defy Hindu sentiment ? Ignorance ? Obviously not, since he was born and raised in India.

He was fully familiar with Hindu society, its mores and customs.

Was it an act of defiance ? The selective nudity of his paintings has led many viewers
to believe that this was a deliberate insult to Hindu society, coming as it did from some
one who was Muslim. He has painted only Hindu goddesses (and Hitler) in the nude. Husain’s motivations will always remain opaque and known
only to himself and his conscience. Perhaps not even that !

Savarkar ‘s nephew had suggested years earlier that Husain simply put out a statement saying that he apologises for hurting Hindu sentiment and he was not fully aware that his painting of Saravati would be construed as an affront. That would be the end of the controversy. This fact is mentioned in Ashok Chowgle’s lucid article on the topic( Alienation of Some Intellectuals, http://hvk.org/Publications/exposing.html).

Husain did apologise, much to the disapproval of his liberal acolytes, but as further offensive paintings came to light he dug his heels in and refused to apologise.

Shri Mohan Bhagavat, leader of the RSS has publicly and generously stated that there is no problem about Husain returning to India (this was prior to Husain accepting Qatar citizenship), as long as he does not continue to hurt Hindu sentiment. As an important Hindu leader this was sending a definite signal to the thousands of Hindus who are angry with Husain.

The present writer has recommended that in addition to doing a mea culpa Husain should embark on a painting of Durga slaying the dragon of Terrorism, and name it Vande Mataram! Orthodox mullahs and maulvis cannot complain, since he is not worshipping Durga, he is simply depicting her as victorous over evil. It woul be a companion piece to his Bharat Mata painting done after 26/ll where Bharat Mata is shown fully clothed and being attacked by the monster of Terrorism ( His earlier painting of Bharat Mata showed her completedly nude and offended many Indians, not just Hindus!). Most certainly the Western capitals that Indian liberals hail, would be livid with anger if their nations had been personified as naked women !

This would not make up wholly for the hurt he caused Hindu society, but it will be the beginning of something new for the artist, an acknowledgment of the debt of gratitude that he owes the country that nurtured him and nourished him in his art, and which he repaid with such contempt and disrespect for its long civilisational history.

Wendy Doniger is not Indian, and Jeffrey Kripal, well he is in a class by himself, but Husain is an Indian, born and raised all his 95 years in the subcontinent. It is most likely too that his ancestors were converts from Hinduism to Islam, as most of the Muslim population in India is.

Indian liberals are well advised to reflect on the tolerance of Hindu India towards people like Husain, and that there comes a point when that tolerance is being openly abused. India will always be Hindu. This is a ground reality. The everyday Indian’s religion must be respected and not abused.

(The writer taught Political Philosophy at a Canadian university).

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