Husain stay back, all is not forgiven

via Chandan Mitra (Daily Pioneer) published on March 6, 2010

Although some of his paintings are offensive, the artist himself says he never felt victimised in India and left the country voluntarily. So what’s the row about?

India’s high-profile secular-fundamentalist partisans are highly agitated that one of their ilk — nonagerian painter MF Husain — has cocked a snook at their frenzied campaign and accepted to become a subject of the Sheikh of Qatar. So much for Husain’s alleged commitment to the cherished values of democracy, freedom of expression and born-again secularism! Qatar qualifies on none of these attributes while India does on all. Unable to digest, leave alone convincingly justify, the whimsical painter’s decision, secularists are running about like headless chicken blaming the ubiquitous Sangh Parivar for Husain’s decamping. I was amused to read a convoluted anti-Parivar tirade by Jyotirmaya Sharma in a Delhi tabloid blaming everybody except Husain himself for running away from his motherland. Sharma explains the Sangh Parivar’s unexceptionable positions on Taslima Nasreen and My Name Is Khan as a deliberate attempt to confuse people by speaking in separate tongues. The logic of this assertion eludes me, but then I have never claimed to be a secular-fundamentalist!

To begin with, it is not comprehensible why an attempt is being made to generate a controversy over Husain’s calculated decision to migrate to Qatar. It is his personal choice and the painter, being no spring chicken, knows well that acceptance of any other country’s citizenship automatically results in the termination of his Indian nationality. Interestingly, the painter has repeated described himself in recent communications as an “artist of Indian origin” not, mind you, “Indian artist”. He has further stated that he has been “honoured” by Qatar’s decision. Two things are clear: Husain, in effect, asserts that he merely “originated” in India almost by way of accident of birth and is therefore free to adopt the nationality of any country. Second, he regards Qatar’s gesture as an “honour” and is overwhelmed enough to gratefully accept it. In an interview to Mint, he categorically said “(This is) the media and those with their own interests who’re putting words in my mouth. I don’t feel victimised. I’m really happy with all I have.”

So, what’s the brouhaha all about? The man has voluntarily accepted a lavish exile (“The Sheikha here has been very nice to me,” he told Mint). Earlier he told Times Now TV that he has never felt threatened in India and thus not left its shores out of fear. So much for the argument that Hindu vandals hounded him out of this country and the poor artist is languishing in the arid, inhospitable climes of Qatar a la Bahadur Shah Zafar imprisoned in Rangoon, penning ghazals like:

“Itna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye
Do gaz zameen na mili ku-e-yaar mein.”

The most preposterous suggestions for wooing him back to India were advanced in a discussion on NDTV in which I too was a participant. While Husain’s fellow-artist, the otherwise celebrated painter Anjolie Ela Menon pleaded than an exception be made and he be bestowed dual citizenship by the Government, Lalit Kala Akademi chief, Hindi writer Ashok Vajpeyi demanded that Bharat Ratna be conferred on him by way of mitigation for the crimes of a handful of vandals. I am naming all these personalities because it is important to underline that respected intellectuals, who undoubtedly have a fan following, often put forward the most illogical and provocative arguments in their blind rage against Hindu sentiment. While it is a fact that many Hindus disapprove of the vandalisation of Husain exhibitions, very few endorse his depiction of Durga, Saraswati and Bharat Mata in the nude or the sexually explicit portrayal of Sita. Apart from social exhibitionists I cannot think of anybody seriously endorsing such paintings because they offend our deep-seated beliefs and amount to wilful affront to the Hindu faith.

Without suggesting Husain has a communal bent of mind, I believe those who dare him to depict icons of other faiths in similar light do have a point. It’s no good arguing that he has painted Guru Nanak, Christ or Mother Teresa too. Those paintings never became controversial because they were deferential, not perverted. We are told Husain is currently working on a series based on the history of Islam. Considering his faith does not allow pictorial depictions of revered personalities (even statues are, strictly speaking, taboo) it would be worth waiting to see if he actually crosses the line and how Qatar authorities react if Husain indulges in such blasphemy.

The secular-fundamentalist argument on an artist’s right to absolute freedom of expression flounders the moment Taslima Nasreen or even Salman Rushdie enter the debate. Fortunately, the politically motivated riots in Karnataka over Nasreen’s article suggesting the Prophet never favoured the veil died down after only two deaths, but the fact is that the Bangladeshi writer has been viciously hounded in India first by rampaging mobs in Kolkata and then by an insensitive vote-bank driven Government. Personally, I believe she ought to have been more sensitive to the average Muslim’s sensitivities, just as the Danish cartoonist had no business visually depicting the Prophet, that too in unflattering light knowing the implications of taking such liberties. India banned The Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh because the law and order situation could have gone out of control.

Banning may not be a desirable option in a free society but in the case of Rushdie’s works ground realities had to be taken into consideration. Similarly no respectable publication, rightly, reprinted the offensive cartoons of the Prophet. Half-a-dozen States proscribed the film version of Da Vinci Code and clearance of the Church was required to release it (with a disclaimer inserted) in the remaining States. Just a fortnight ago, widespread violence happened in some Punjab districts over a booklet whose cover depicted Jesus Christ holding a cigarette between his fingers and a can of beer in the other hand. None objected to the tough measures taken by the Government in any of these cases.

In this background I believe it would be entirely appropriate to ban public display of all Husain paintings that portray revered members of the Hindu pantheon in offensive light. This would be perfectly in order since the artist appears to have enjoyed the controversy, refused to apologise or recant (unlike Nasreen) and has not offered to withdraw those paintings from being shown in exhibitions.

There are muted whispers about some tax fiddles gone wrong in the entire escapade drama. That may or may not be true; probably we will never know because a timid Government can hardly be expected to reveal the truth in the face of secular-fundamental rabble-rousing. But it is abundantly clear that Husain has abandoned the country of his origin for greener pastures abroad and the best thing for us would be to forget that the Qatari artist once walked barefoot into various upmarket clubs with the sole intent of attracting publicity. Meanwhile, deferring to overwhelming public opinion, the Government should proscribe all further Husain exhibitions if the blasphemous portrayals are sought to be displayed yet again.

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