IT is amusing to observe so many ardent nationalists, who once made modest professional careers by proclaiming sympathy for Hindu interests, lining up to celebrate the departed Maqbool Fida Husain’s highly provocative depiction of venerated Hindu goddesses. None of them are evidently qualified to judge artistic merit, but are trotting out the tired repudiation of critics with the implied solemn query ‘when did you last beat your wife’, as a defense of Husain’s license to do as he pleased.
They do not hesitate to excoriate what one described as Internet Hindus, as if the appellation had explanatory power beyond the mundane fact that practising Hindus, irrespective of qualification, are rarely allowed a voice in India’s purchased print media and television channels. One journalist with elevated connections to Hindutva nationalism insinuated on NDTV that the Hindutva brigade ‘hounding’ Husain was akin to Nazism of the 1930s (only seeking legal opinion in the courts as it happens and occasionally disrupting exhibitions). He is apparently in need of education on what transpired in mid-1930s Germany.
The implication that artistic freedom is an absolute right and has ever been anywhere merely exposes the illogic of these venerable gentlemen.
Artistic freedoms are, in principle, bounded by written and unwritten convention and social consensus. It is not acceptable in most societies to depict the rape of a child or grossly provocative images of sexual congress or indeed celebrate grotesque violence. The boundaries may differ in time and space, but they exist and artists themselves conform, though some may childishly proclaim they should be allowed complete freedom to flout them. As it happens, they don’t or only very rarely and face legal or social sanctions if they do, even if they allegedly sup with the gods to justify demanding exemption from all restraint. Artistic freedom is not an absolute except in the minds of overwrought journalists unable to see the wood for the trees. When artistic freedom is defended in a specific case what is actually being argued is that a particular portrayal or expression is within prevailing conventions of societal restraint. Imperious claims otherwise regarding artistic license, etc. betray disingenuousness.
The terrain limiting artistic license imposed by convention and social consensus has been somewhat fluid in independent India. Offending Islam and Christianity was considered in poor taste since they were minority faiths and the adherents of the former were also able to enforce their notions of probity by recourse to murder and mayhem, if necessary. Hence, the banning of Salman Rushdie’s admittedly mediocre books and the incarceration and subsequent expulsion from India of the incredibly courageous Taslima Nasrin. But Hindus have always been fair game. The most vicious and tasteless mockery of all things Hindu have occurred with official complicity. In the past two decades, the most egregious examples of calumny (Ramakrishna sexually abusing Vivekananda, etc. etc.) have emanated from belligerently Christian, America and its hallowed Ivy League academic portals, supported by treasonous Leftist, Indians fattened on their payrolls, whether it is the US Congress library or universities. Much of this project to demonise and de-legitimise India and its civilizational claims originated in an Anglo-American Cold War attempt to offer succour to a Pakistan that proved so very difficult to sell. Now it also has the wholesale imprimatur of India’s ruling family, open season in other words on a scale unknown since the iconoclastic Ghaznavid and Aurangzeb cataclysms.
The argument is that either Husain painting the venerated divinities of the Hindu pantheon in the most offensive manner possible is legitimate or that is not what he had intended to convey. Of course there is, in addition, an unspoken undertone that Husain towers over all artistic achievement in the history of India and mere unwashed Hindus have no right to complain in any case. Indeed Indian journalists have taken to comparing him to Picasso, highlighting their impoverished education and of course an oriental penchant for hyperbole that invariably causes mirth around the world. I suspend aesthetic judgement for the moment on all Husain’s paintings of various Hindu goddesses, but two of them seem poignantly unambiguous in intent. The one of a naked Sita sitting on Ravan’s lap depicts the aftermath of rape. Would such a portrayal for public viewing of even an actual occurrence be reasonable if the victim were a close relative, leave aside a revered deity unless the purpose is to mock?
The one of a naked Brahmin alongside a clothed Muslim potentate highlights utter powerlessness (which is the usual situational meaning of nakedness in this context) with the Brahmin deprived of all humanity because he is unclothed. The Nazis routinely stripped completely naked Jewish victims (of both sexes and all ages) captured at random in streets before piling them into the backs of lorries en route to death camps. It was done to eliminate all possibility of protest, resistance or escape because in one stroke the person had already been dehumanised, murdered socially, in effect and could only contemplate suicide (the victims included women in their seventies alongside their grandchildren)
Historically, Renaissance painters have depicted the divine in the nude, but the context is important. In the case of Husain there is absence of a fully ‘fleshed’ humanised torso in his paintings and he merely sketches outlines. It may indicate lack of skill to depict the complexity of a fully formed human body, which could embody multiple meanings. Or Husain is deliberately displaying deities in humiliating sexual poses in outline because he is afraid of going beyond venal suggestion. Bear in mind insinuation of bestial copulation was not a motif in the anti-clerical rebellion of Renaissance painters showing Greek gods in nude poses. It is also relevant that some account need be taken of profound Hindu sensibilities, which, in his case, as a sectarian Muslim, is clearly one of complete disregard and utter contempt for the Hindu universe. But the devout Hindu need not be unduly dispirited by Husain’s shameful insults to his revered deities since the Lord Krishna proclaims in the fourth discourse of the Bhagavadgita: “Nor do actions pollute Me, nor is the fruit of action desired by me.”
In the final analysis, Husain should be allowed the last word on his own intentions before aspersions are hastily cast on his Islamic credentials and religiously sanctioned hostility to pagan worship. Nehurvian secularists in Rajat Sharma’s ‘Aap ki Adalat’(on 4.9. 2004) audience clapped when Husain explained that he’d painted Hitler in the nude because Hitler was a “shaitan” (evil exposed? nakedly evil?). But they didn’t insist he answer when someone asked whether the goddesses he painted naked were therefore evil too? This is the same Husain who promptly withdrew a film because Ulema had claimed a song in it was blasphemous. He also revealed to the audience that actually it was an alim attempting to extort money and paintings from him. But his Nehruvian-secular admirers in the audience who defended his aesthetic right to paint Hindu goddesses naked did not leap to his defence by attacking the alim who’d dared to blackmail him? Because the alim is a Mussulman gentleman?”
In conclusion, it might be noted that Husain paintings sold for paltry sums until he achieved notoriety in the wake of the fortuitous controversy over his depictions of nude Hindu goddesses engaged in bestiality. Recent buyers paying high prices for his paintings, the mundane reason for the sudden elevation of his artistic reputation and imbecilic comparisons to Picasso, are invariably Indian businessmen. Someone needs to explain how the likes of the businessman who recently built a billion dollar monstrosity in Mumbai to live in are bestowed with capacity for judging works of art. Their familiar nouveau riche interest in decorating their homes with expensive objects, preferably from abroad, is the universal pining of the arriviste, i.e. keeping up with the Joneses, er, Mehtas. Much more interestingly, the training manual of a major international bank has a section on compliance that alerts employees to black money, originating in over-invoiced sales abroad, being used by Indian businessmen to purchase works of art from fellow citizens at foreign auction houses. The proceeds of the arbitrarily inflated price paid for the object purchased is then donated tax-free by the grateful artist to an Indian domiciled charity of the businessman’s choice. In exchange the artist earns a handsome fee and an enhanced reputation that leads to an overall rise in prices paid for future creations of the hitherto obscure genius. This is why it would be pertinent to know how many major international collectors have paid good money for a Husain creation.