Attack on artistic freedom is our shame

We Indians have done a thousand lousy things. But near the top of the list is the hounding out of Maqbool Fida Husain, our greatest painter, who died abroad last week, aged 95. This was not an isolated incident: author Taslima Nasreen was also hounded out by communalists. These will remain terrible blots on a country claiming to have secular foundations.

Husain had humble origins. In his youth, he scraped together a living by painting film advertisements on hoardings. He and others broke from the traditional Bengal school of painting to form the Progressive Artists’ Group. This aimed at modern art that nevertheless had deep roots in Indian culture and religion. Husain painted hundreds of paintings based on epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He constantly took inspiration from rural India, tribal art and Bollywood films. His muses included Madhuri Dixit, Vidya Balan and Anushka Sharma.

But the very multiculturalism of his paintings was unacceptable to Hindu communalists, especially Shiv Sainiks. They objected to his depiction of goddesses in the nude, claiming this was an insult to Hinduism. They threatened to rip his paintings apart, making it difficult to exhibit his paintings without fear of damage.

Now, anybody visiting ancient Hindu temples at Khajuraho or Konark can seen dozens of nude sculptures of goddesses and apsaras, which are intrinsic to Indian art. Husain’s style was one of skilful distortion and smudging, so his nudes had no erotic detail or prurience. Why then did his paintings create such an uproar and not Khajuraho?

Because he was a Muslim. Had he been a Hindu, there would have been no protest. The anti-Husain campaign was always an anti-Muslim campaign, and not about art or justice.

Dozens of criminal cases were launched against Husain for his paintings, making it risky for him to stay in India. Eventually the Supreme Court bundled all the cases together and acquitted him handsomely. Yet he feared physical violence if he returned to India. The government assured him of police protection. But Husain hated the idea of spending the rest of his life surrounded by security guards. So he reluctantly settled abroad and eventually took up Qatari citizenship. India lost one of its greatest sons.

There is a silver lining. Art should have no religious barriers, and Indian art has done a great job in this. The list of top painters in independent India is utterly secular. It includes a Christian (FN Souza), four Muslims (MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, SH Raza, Akbar Padamsee), a Sikh (Manjit Bawa) and a Parsi (Jehangir Sabavala). Hindus in the top list include Ram Kumar, Satish Gujral and Ganesh Pyne.

The Sachar Committee some years ago depicted a sad picture of the low status of Indian Muslims in general. But it could not say the same about the world of art. Whether in painting, music or literature, Muslims and other minorities held their own, and India could proudly claim that its living arts were entirely secular.

Alas, these arts have now witnessed the hounding out of Husain and Taslima Nasreen. The latter, a Bangladeshi, was first hounded out her country because she graphically depicted the sufferings of Hindus in Bangladesh. But this did not ensure an unambiguous welcome for her in Kolkata.

Her writings were critical of Sharia laws and also displayed sexual liberation, making her completely unacceptable to Indian mullahs. Muslim communalists falsely accused her of defaming the Koran. She was assaulted by Muslim communalists (including legislators) at a literary event in Hyderabad in 2007, but no action was taken against the assaulters (viewed as too politically important to touch). Nor was action taken against mullahs who issued a fatwa offering huge sums for her murder in 2009.

She wanted to live in Kolkata, the home of Bengali literature. But Mamata Banerjee, to her eternal disgrace, teamed up with the Jamaat-e-Islami for a joint agitation to simultaneously remove the Tatas from Singur and Taslima from Bengal.

The CPM was historically at the very forefront of secularism. It played a heroic role in Punjab against Sikh communalism in the 1980s, at the cost of hundreds of lives of its cadres. But in Taslima’s case, the CPM decided that the Muslim vote bank was more important than artistic freedom or secularism. The Congress was equally cowardly and unprincipled. And this political consensus obliged Taslima to leave India.

Our leaders succumbed to Hindu communalism in Husain’s case, and to Muslim communalism in Taslima’s case. A political system claiming to be secular preferred to see communal groups as valuable vote banks rather than odious oppressors. For that, we need to hang our heads in shame.

9 thoughts on “Attack on artistic freedom is our shame”

  1. Not *one* of them can properly be called an artist, full stop.

    Their calculating slyness also is amply evident—via their (sometimes voluminous) outputs which they called “art.”

    To point these things out is not the same as to attack the freedom of speech.


  2. Sir, your comparison of Khajuraho’s temples and MF Hussain’s are misplaced. Its like comparing apples and oranges. I am no shivsainik nor do I belong to any Hindu Fundamentalist organization, but I do take offence at the paintings. They are totally blasphemous for the thiests. Athiests may not find fault in it, because they are not bothered. Nowhere in Khajuraho do you see Ganesha or Saraswati naked. But MFH painted it causing anguish. I may not be qualified enough to argue with you, but please consider these points before thinking about Hindu belief system. In the name of Artistic freedom, can one go to any extent? Should one accept artistic freedom even if it hurts his/her belief system?

  3. Vijay S. Jodha

    Mr. Aiyer makes some valuable points about Husain and Indian art but is factually incorrect on at least two counts. To begin with Husain did not break away from Bengal School and usher Indian art into modernity via Progressive Arts Group. That process was started much earlier by Amrita Sher Gill in northern India and the Tagore brothers in Shanti Niketan. The latter and other developments in world art influenced a group of Calcutta artists that included late Paritosh Sen and Pradosh Das Gupta (the very first director of NGMA) to start Calcutta Group in 1943. The group impressed writer and art patron Mulk Raj Anand who invited them to exhibit in Bombay. Their show and manifesto in turn inspired a group of local artists in Bombay to create their own version called the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1948. Of course, the group has no common thread running through their work and its members then quietly dispersed in different parts of the world. Rest as they say is history or rather mythology.

    The second point, about somehow holding the Indian government responsible for Husain’s problems. That our judicial system is slow and marked by many injustices is a sad reality of India and not quite a conspiracy specifically against Husain as is being repeatedly made out. For example, this system offers me the option of not writing this letter of disagreement with Mr. Aiyer and instead filing a hundred cases against him across India on various frivolous counts such that Mr. Aiyer may have little time left for writing. The obvious way ahead is therefore judicial reform. But instead of pushing for that we are demanding that one organ of the state interfere in the working of the other organ. That is recipe for disaster and a cure worse than the disease Mr. Aiyer.

  4. Kamal S Shaikh

    The article is very much in the right perspective, it is truly a stigma leftover an Indian society for loosing such a great charismatic legend getting disembark from his own land and breath his last on a foriegn soil, this shows that muslim community is still looked indifferent in eyes of secularism.

  5. Hi
    Every ART has its Artistic Value. Artistic value can be easily defined by its (ART) acceptability in “drawing room” of “Contemporary” Society.
    Hindu temples at Khajuraho or Konark can seen dozens of nude sculptures of goddesses and apsaras, which are Indian “Contemporary” art. Artistic value can be easily determined by its acceptability in “Contemporary” TEMPLES.
    Is it possible “today”, to build such temple? Will nude sculptures of goddesses and apsaras, be acceptable in today’s temples? May be it will be acceptable again after 100 years!!!!!!

    Issue is debatable. But arrogance to apologies is not debatable.

    Great Cricketer is always Great Sportsman, but it doesn’t mean that great cricketer is always great human-being or good citizen. Great Cricketer, involved in match fixing can never be good human or good citizen.

    Country is run by good citizens; not by………

  6. Secularism – also can be defined as – “Respecting religious feeling of society.” If such feelings get hurt, even by mistake, then showing arrogance to apologies is not secularism.
    Freedom of speech – very important in Democracy, but it has got limits. e.g. all comments posted here (on Swaminamics) are moderated before making it readable to all. Why Censor Board exist for screening movies?

  7. I believe that a true artist is a person who is sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of the masses around him. I am surprised that such celebrated artists of our time do not show the patience to “get down” to the level of the masses to connect with them. With all due respect to the brilliant artistic palate of MFH; I have to point out that there was a distinct fissiparous tendency in his works. If you closely examine, most of the “hindu” gods/women are depicted naked where as the Muslim characters/ his own mother,sister…et al are fully clothed and beautiful. I think the divide is too stark to be dismissed just as ” freedom of artistic expression”.

  8. Prateek Dwivedi

    HI Sir,

    I am a great fan of your writing. I usually agree to your articles. This one’s an exception. I agree that, Mr. M.F.Hussain & Taslima Nasreen have contributed a great deal in their respective field of art. But, an artist along with his art brings intellect & is sensitive. Don’t you think Hussain should have been a bit more careful while displaying his “Art”, knowing the kind of Country India is, where religion is a bond. This type of artistic expressions creates divide.

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