M.F. Husain: victim of intolerance

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On 9 June 2011, M.F. Husain breathed his last in a London Hospital, and was later buried in a cemetery in London as per his wish, that he should be buried at the place of his death. The most celebrated painter of India, more Indian than any of his detractors died, far away from his native place, due to self imposed exile. This self imposed exile was due to the threats of Hindu fundamentalists. The renowned painter called by many as Picasso of India, met a fate similar to that of Picasso, who also went into self imposed exile in the regime of Fascist Franco of Spain.

M.F. Husain’s work spanned a long period, evolving with time and deeply rooted in the rich traditions of India’s, plural, diverse Hinduism. He was confronted as to why he did not pick up Islamic motifs for his work to which he replied that Islam has calligraphy alone and human figures are not drawn in Islamic tradition. He was more in the news from the 1980s, with the rise of sectarian politics, as the intolerant Hindutva groups started attacking his painting-exhibitions regularly. The allegation was that he is hurting the sensibilities of Hindus, and is doing it deliberately as he is a Muslim. He was abused for painting Hindu Goddesses like Sarswati, Durga, Draupadi and the one titled Bharat Mata in the nude. Interestingly some of these paintings were done in 1970s or so. With the rise of the movement for the Ram Temple the Hindu Fundamentalist forces became more assertive, intolerance grew in society, many a magazine and newspaper popularised the idea of ‘hurting our sentiments’ and that’s when the followers of VHP, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena started attacking Husain’s, exhibition, his Gufa in Ahmadabad, SAHMAT painting exhibition and so on.

Later these communal forces went on filing case after case against him to harass him. The Courts ruled in Husain’s favor saying that his paintings were not promoting enmity between communities in any way, and that he is well within the limits of his artistic freedom. Husain by this time was quite old, he was offered security by the state but he declined to be imprisoned in a cordon of security and decided to take Qatari citizenship to continue his work in his own interrupted  and unhindered way, while maintaining that the Passport is a piece of paper and he remained an Indian at heart. He also missed India but it was a difficult/strong choice, to do and carry on his work in an unhindered way or to face the physical and mental wrath of the Hindu fundamentalists. For that matter he was not spared by Muslim Fundamentalists also, who had objected to his film, Meenaxi: ‘A Tale of Three cities’ on the charge that it blasphemes the Koran.

As such Husain probably represents the best of Indian syncretic traditions and that too, with roots in Hindu mythology and culture may be much deeper than those of the people who kept attacking him. He was born in the Maharashtrian town of Pandharpur; a place of pilgrimage for the Warkari’s, the followers of the great Marathi Saint Tukaram. He belongs to Sulaimani sect of Shias, some practices of whom are like Hindus and they also believe in the theory of reincarnation. During his childhood years he was greatly impressed by the staging of Ramlila and along with his Hindu friend used to enact it. He also went to study the Valmiki and Tulsidas versions of Ramayana. His quest for understanding society led him to the study and discussion of Gita, Puranas and other spiritual texts. His rooting in liberal Hindu culture, not the Brahmanical variety, was very deep. One example we can glean from the information card which he designed for telling people about his daughter Raeesa’s marriage, who did not want any ceremonies. His card showed Parvati sitting on the thigh of Lord Shiv with Shiva’s hands on Parvati’s breast. Husain regarded this union as the first marriage in the cosmos.

When he was in Hyderabad, Ram Manohar Lohia suggested to him to paint the Ramayana. Husain was broke at that time, but he undertook this job seriously and drew 150 canvasses around Ramayana mythology over a period of eight years. He also used to discuss with the Pundits of Kashi the themes when drawing this Hindu epic. He regarded Ganesha as one of the figures with a delightful form, a brilliant subject to draw and generally before beginning work on a large painting he used to first draw Ganesha. The major criticism against him was and is definitely politically motivated. Being a Muslim and drawing these motifs so boldly was unacceptable to the offshoots of Sangh Parivar. As such the charge that nudity is an insult to Hindu Goddesses does not hold water, as Husain pointed out that Nudity is a metaphor for purity in Hindu mythology. The example of Khajuraho cannot be dismissed on the ground that people wanted to increase the population so these were drawn, and were otherwise of no consequence to Hindu culture. As such Khajuraho paintings were the expression of the prevalent culture. The painting or any other work of art has to be seen in the context of the artist and the cultural rooting of the work. Nudity can express vulgarity as well as purity, and that’s where the fundamentalists of all variety show their intolerance to the extreme.

The rise of fundamentalism for various reasons has exiled creative people, like Tasleema Nasreen, Salman Rushdi and tormented the likes of Vijay Tendulakar and Deepa Mehta in recent times. The case of Husain is a bit more unique, as here is an artist whose work on Hindu iconography is incomparable, one who is deeply rooted in the deeper spirit of broad Hindu culture, still he has been hounded by both varieties of fundamentalists. All this has taken place while the other political formations have been ineffectual in protecting him, creating an atmosphere where creative people can undertake their work without any fear or intimidation. While the Hindutva party has been the blatant opponent of his work the other parties have done precious little to protect the maestro.  (Issues in Secular Politics

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 July 2011 on page no. 13

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