In early June M.F. Husain died as an exile in London at 95 years of age, but during his life he was a brilliant artist of expressionism. Known to many as “The Picasso of India”, Husain began his career painting billboards and posters for Bollywood films in the 1940s. Over the decades, the scope of his ambitions extended beyond the canvas, becoming involved in photography and film. Directing “Gaja Gamini” in 2000, age was no obstacle for this man and the multiple uses of his talents are a testament to the dedication and passion he had for India.
But in one of those ironies in which our recent times are replete, Husain would eventually see his work condemned, decades after their unveiling, and his life threatened. Facing increasing legal pressure, there eventually would be little option but to leave the country he dedicated his life to. An exile at the end, M.F. Husain was but one more tragic example of a worrying trend: The religious privilege to censor all that is “offensive”.
The beginning of Husain’s troubles emerged in 1996 when the Hindi monthly, ‘Vichar Mimansa’, reprinted a selection of his paintings in an article named “M.F. Husain: A painter or a butcher?”. The paintings shown were of a selection composed in the 1970s, depicting the goddess Durga in union with a Tiger, the goddess Saraswati nude, and the goddess Lakshmi perched naked upon the head of the elephant god, Ganesh.
A Muslim by upbringing, Husain had little interest in religion or politics, and treated the Hindu gods as spiritual manifestations of India and as visual stimuli, rather than supernatural beings. This however seemed inconsequential to many and in a response to the article, a total of eight lawsuits were filed for “promoting enmity between different groups”, namely Hindus and Muslims.
In light of these allegations, Husain acted with pragmatism and allowed a concession to be made. With a panel composed to review his work, he stated that if any work were deemed “offensive”, he would cast the said piece into a fire. But the damage was done, and the bead was drawn. Eventually Husain fled India in 2006 after his painting “Bharatama” which depicted Mother India nude, earned him yet more vitriol and intimidation from hard line Hindu groups, such as the Barjang Dal, who were also responsible for ransacking Husain’s home in 1998. As the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an international Hindu council, it would be incorrect and irresponsible to dismiss these actions as the sole work of a mere “fringe”, as some might expect. Even the lawsuits and intimidation failed to quell the artist’s enthusiasm, stating in 2008 “They can put me in a jungle…Still, I can create”.
This is not to say he was only hounded by the harmed sentiments of many Hindus. One of Husain’s film projects, “Meenaxi: A tale of three cities”, was withdrawn from Indian cinemas after even more outrage came. This time the venom directed at Husain came from Muslim organizations, over a song performed by the protagonist of the film, which dared to feature Quranic quotes. In regards to the song’s title of “noor-un-ala-noor”, the Secretary of the All-India Ulema Council, Maulana Abdul Quddus Kashmiri, said “For us, the term ‘noor-un-ala-noor’ is very sacred. It shouldn’t be used to describe the physical beauty of a heroine”. Unsurprisingly, he further admitted he had not actually seen the film in question.
Shamefully, the case of Husain is not unique anymore. One needs only to look at the cases of Salman Rushdie, Theo van Gogh, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Many countries throughout the world now are allowing religious censorship (upon fear of reprisal) to permeate not only art, but also other spheres of the public domain.
Following a similar theme to the Meenaxi controversy, the Playstation 3 game “LittleBigPlanet” had to delay its release worldwide in 2008 after it was pointed out that one of the background music tracks contained two expressions that can be found in the Quran. In a statement by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, it was announced with great haste that they had “taken immediate action to rectify this and we sincerely apologise for any offence that this may have caused”.
Indeed, it seems that rather than take a stand against any form of religious bigotry or intimidation, many are only too willing to accommodate such sentiments to avoid being regarded as “disrespectful”, or worse. To get your way, it looks as though all that is required is to claim to be a member of a sensitive faith in urgent need of respect, even from unbelievers. If respect is not given to a sufficient degree, further action can be taken, sometimes proving to be fatal. As a result, intolerance appears to have been tolerated.
To a considerable extent, this has been allowed to blossom in the United Kingdom, as M.F. Husain himself was to discover in 2006. Crumbling under pressure from the British Hindu Forum, demonstrations by so called “Hindu Human Rights” Campaigners and following two acts of vandalism on artwork, the Asia House Gallery shut down an exhibition of Husain’s celebrated work. It was also disturbing to find that the National Hindu Students Forum UK welcomed the removal of the exhibition as “a positive step taken” whilst urging members to continue writing complaints to Asia house for not issuing a public apology. Thankfully, British based Indian academics such as NSS honorary associate Lord Meghnad Desai reacted admirably to the news, denouncing the Hindu Forum of Britain and the Hindu Human rights campaign, stating:
“Hindu goddesses can be seen in a variety of poses which many may find erotic in the temples of Khajuraho and Tirupati and many others. Hindu society and religion are remarkably relaxed and tolerant about sexual practices of human beings as well as of their gods and goddesses. What we are witnessing is the import into the UK of a group, which under the guise of Hindu human rights is practising censorship for which there is no sanction in Hindu religion. It is the duty of all citizens to stop this evil before it spreads too far into our body politic.”
Offering a change of tune, great appreciation has been credited to Husain upon news of his death. Returning to India, a “mega tribute” to the artist was organised for early July. The socio-cultural forum, SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust), hosted the event to give a “send-off to the artist whom most of his compatriots, fellow painters and thousands of fans in India could not meet before his death in London or attend his funeral”, said Husain’s long-time friend, fellow artist and coordinator of the event, Ram Rahman.
In an interview for NDTV in March of last year, Husain’s dedication to the country that inspired his career held steadfast, stating, “My heart will always be in India…it is my beloved land”. If we are to hold the value of art and expression sacrosanct and avoid tragedies such as these to become the status quo, we should heed the words of Lord Desai with alarm. If not, we may one day find ourselves living in a social order where all forms of artistic expression are filtered under the benign language of “respect”, for which the religious will award themselves a front row seat, and governments will be all too eager to oblige.