M. F. Husain : Setting the Record Straight

published on June 11, 2011
Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

When a person dies at an advanced old age, there is a human tendency to feel sympathy even with a  criminal. Take the case of Chilean dictator Auguste Pinochet whose pictures of an old man walking hesitantly provoked some sympathy. In the case of an artist, and one widely acclaimed as M. F. Husain (who died at age 95) there is not only the above sentiment, but also a tendency to eulogise the man out of all proportion. Yes, he has been hailed as the Indian Picasso (the present writer believes that he is an imitation Picasso).He has been hailed as the greatest Indian painter, not quite accurate, since there have been many great Indian painters in the past and today. Quite amusingly one of the criteria offered for his greatness is that he has put India on the artistic map by being one of the most feted artists at Christie’s ! It is a sober reminder of how values have been distorted. Some of the world’s greatest painters were never auctioned during their lifetime at Christie’s or elsewhere. Yes, Husain was probably the wealthiest Indian artist.

Setting the record straight in the current atmosphere of hyperbolic eulogizing is essential. One can sum up what is problematic about Husain’s art as follows:

1.His excessive preoccupation with bestiality in  art.
2.His  willfuly offensive paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses.
3.His blatantly offensive paintings against the country he claims to have loved, India.

Before looking at these three problems we have to briefly take note of some of the sycophantic expressions of loyalty and allegiance to Husain’s world view. Coming from artist Anjoli Ela Menon they could be excused as that of a camp follower who was also a protégé of Husain. But coming from the charming actress Shaban Azmi and some others of India’s glitterati, it is quite another matter, it is an expression of bad faith. We shall return to this in a moment.

1.Preoccupation with bestiality in art : some of his paintings show women copulating with animals, such as elephants and tigers. Why Husain was preoccupied with this theme can only be explained by his own conscience, if even that. A psychiatrist could offer a better explanation possibly. Did Husain identify with these animals and get a high on that ?   Or was he secretly a misogynist, despite the professed admiration for beautiful women such as Madhuri Diksit who acted in one of his films. He wanted the women to be attacked by animals ?

2.Offfensive paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses. Goddess Durga is shown copulating with a tiger. Goddess Parvati is shown copulating with a bull. 
Goddess Sarasvati is shown stark naked. Goddess Lakshmi is shown stark naked sitting on an elephant’s head. 
Ravana is shown sitting naked with a naked Sita on his thigh.

Naked Hanuman looks leeringly at Sita.  In these many paintings all of which have not been listed here,  the motive is clearly an offence against Hindu sentiment.  Shabna Azmi claimed in her remarks on a Times Now show that this theme was okay because nudity was there in ancient Indian sculpture and one should also consider the erotic art of Khajuraho . Ms. Azmi presumably has not seen Khajuraho, since the erotic sculpture there pertains to ordinary mortals, not gods and goddesses . Her smooth talk can be forgiven since she is not Hindu. It does not matter a cent to her whether the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are insulted so blatanly and openly as in Husain’s paintings.

But what about the rest of the motley crew of liberal glitterati on the Times Now show, all taken up by the glamour, glitter, fame, name and yes, the big time money of the artist?
There was the redoubtable Shobha De cooing over the foods that Husain loved etc.

And ofcourse, even the intrepid Arnaub Goswami, host of the show, made dark references to Hindu intolerance towards the Husain paintings. And then, ofcourse, if nothing else works,  the old canard about freedom of expression is brought out at suitable moments, forgetting that even that great champion of individual freedoms John Stuart Mill had clearly stated in his work On Liberty, that freedom of expression is not an absolute right. A man’s freedom to move his hand around ends when it meets the other man’s jaw !

And here the  religious sentiments of millions of devout Hindus had been brazenly offended. And this was acclaimed by the glitterati and the liberals as high art !

3.Offensive paintings against the country he claims to have loved, India : The main
one is the infamous Bharata Mata painting which shows a nude woman (Bharatmata) spread out across a map of India with the name of Indian states on various parts of her body. The reader must be reminded that the painting was part of an exhibition organized by Nafisa Ali under the caption ‘Art for Mission Kashmir.’

Here again, one must perforce ask why Husain is wedded to the idea of portraying Bharat Mata (Mother India) in the nude. Any political statements he wished to make could just as easily have been conveyed with a robed Mother India. Was this an unconscious reply to the much hailed Vande Mataram of Bankimchandra  Chattopadhyaya ?  Did his much vaunted attachment to India exclude India’s national song ?  Perhaps like the fanatical mullahs he too did not like the idea of a Mother India ? His resentment found expression in this manner ? The misogyny comes out quite unexpectedly, this time transposed to Bharata Mata, who is regularly shown in Hindu depictions as fully clothed standing beside a tiger or a lion  

The present writer had previously suggested that Husain should have painted a victorious Durga (Bharat Mata) seated on a tiger or bull and slaying the asura of Terrorism. That was not to be. Instead shortly before his death he exhibited the painting The Rape of India, which shows a young scantily clad (this time) woman being attacked by ferocious animals. Clearly, an unwillingness on Husain’s part to project a victorious India.Instead, possibly some wishful thinking ! Here again his much vaunted attachment to India seems something of a myth circulated by his admirers.           

Then there is the painting where he shows 4 male figures : Mao Tse Tung fully clothed, Mahatma Gandhi in his loin cloth, Churchill fully dressed and Hitler in the nude. When asked why, he is reported to have replied that he hated Hitler and wanted to humiliate him by showing him naked. Clearly then , nakedness in the painter’s mind is associated with hatred. Earlier, when asked about the nude goddesses he had made the lame excuse that nudity is a sign of purity. Which will it be : nudity as purity or nudity as an expression of his hatred ?

Summing Up

Husain left India because of the Hindu protest ( some of it violent) at his paintings and because of the lawsuits filed against him. He took Quatari citizenship , having given up his Indian citizenship. All accounts are that he enjoyed his stay there. He lived in comfort and luxury and enjoyed driving his red Ferrari around. His hosts laid out the red carpet treatment. A chagrined Indian following tried to make out that he longed for India. He was about to embark on his mammoth depictions of Arab civilization ( a wise decision, since this was his natural constituency so to speak). He basked in the glow of international fame especially in capitals such as London where his exhibitions were lauded. Above all, he made immense quantities of money.

It is reported that he was going to start work on the Ramayana. One shudders to think what he might have done with that ! Perhaps the gods wisely took him away before Ayodhya could be desecrated once again.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).


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