New Delhi: The plight of M.F. Husain is raising alarms among the country’s artists, who say the government is doing little to protect him from Hindu extremist groups, who insist his work is obscene and promotes religious enmity.
Since early last year, Maqbool Fida Husain, 91, has lived in self-imposed exile, mainly in Dubai, wary of returning to his homeland in the face of death threats and attacks on his paintings. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against him by rightist groups that declare themselves outraged that Husain, a Muslim, should have painted pictures of Hindu goddesses in the nude.
In recent months, one Hindu extremist placed a bounty on Husain’s head and the leader of the northern wing of the hard-line Hindu Shiv Sena offered Rs5 lakh to anyone who would cut off one of Husain’s arms. Last week, police began legal proceedings to seize property belonging to the artist in Mumbai after he failed to appear in court to answer obscenity charges, but the process was stopped by a higher court in Delhi.
“What kind of government is this if it doesn’t protect him against this kind of harassment?” asked painter Krishen Khanna, a friend of Husain’s and a fellow member of the Progressive Group artists’ collective. “There has been a systematic campaign against him. To be doing this to a person of 91 is pretty bloody heartless. This kind of moral policing is a threat to everybody here, to all the painters, all the writers,” said Khanna.
“The government should not turn a deaf ear to this.”
Theatre director M.K. Raina, who last week helped organize a public protest meeting in support of Husain, said the artist’s situation was comparable to that of the writer, Salman Rushdie—like Husain, an Indian-born Muslim—whose depiction of the prophet Mohammed in the novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988, prompted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran to issue a fatwa for his assassination.
Raina said of Husain, “His paintings have been burned, his house has been attacked, work in his exhibitions has been destroyed.”
Asked to respond to accusations that the government was not doing enough to support Husain, Badal Das, secretary in the ministry of culture, said, “This is not a matter for the ministry of culture.”
Husain, who began work in the 1930s, painting movie advertisements on billboards, has recently seen his large oil canvases sell for as much as $2 million (Rs8,400 crore). With his idiosyncratic dress sense and preference for walking barefoot, he has become India’s most prominent celebrity artist and was, until he left the country, a regular face on the Indian party circuit. Now, he faces five legal cases that are due to be heard in the Supreme Court, with charges ranging from offending Hindu sensibilities, insulting gods and goddesses and creating “enmity between different religious groups”.
The cases relate both to paintings he did 40 years ago, showing naked images of Hindu divinities, and to a more recent canvas, called Mother India, which portrays a nude woman in the shape of the map of India.
Amrit Sharma, a spokesman for the Delhi branch of the Hindu fundamentalist organization, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which brought one of the suits against Husain, explained the nature of the perceived offence. “As far as Western minds are concerned, there is not much objectionable about nudity,” he said. “But in Hindu thinking, women’s bodies should be covered. He has done many pictures of our biggest goddesses in the nude. This is highly objectionable and it is for the courts to punish him.”
Speaking by telephone from Dubai, Husain refused to discuss details of the legal actions, on the grounds that the cases are still under consideration in court, but he insisted that he had already made a public apology. “I have apologized,” he said. “I said, ‘Whatever I have done, I have done with conviction and love. If in the process someone has been hurt, I apologize.’” Despite this statement, the controversy has followed?him?around?the?world.
An exhibition of Husain’s work at London’s Asia House last year, billed as a “collection of early masterpieces by India’s greatest living artist,” was shut a few days after its opening, when three men sprayed black paint on two of his canvases. Supporters are less willing to try to sooth tensions with conciliatory words.
“It is all nonsense,” Khanna said. “These are not obscene pictures. “Nudity was never seen as offensive in this country,” he said. “This is just an excuse to persecute the man.”
The case against Husain has also raised questions about the ease with which India’s legal system can be manipulated by fringe organizations that file headline-grabbing lawsuits against high-profile figures, less with any real expectation of a legal victory than with the aim of stirring controversy.
Although such suits are widely seen here as frivolous, they require the person named to respond, an expensive and time-consuming process. In an essay titled Harassing Husain, Rajeev Dhavan, a Delhi-based lawyer, argued that Husain has been tormented by this quirk of the legal system and urged that the law be revised.
“Increasingly, the country is under attack from a particularly persistent brigade of the moral police,” the magazine warned in an editorial. “These men and women have appointed themselves the upholders of Indian ‘culture’ and they identify and persecute those they believe have crossed the line.”
Husain’s lawyer in Delhi, Akhal Sibal, stressed that his client was “not in hiding and not evading the law.” He said he was comfortable in Dubai and was visited regularly by relatives and friends. “However, it would be fair to say that the environment in India is not conducive to a return, bearing in mind that there have been well-publicized rewards announced for mutilating him and murdering him,” he said.
“What is disquieting is that the institutions that are meant to protect individuals from this kind of harassment are standing by silently.”
The campaign against Husain also challenges India’s reputation as a secular nation that upholds tolerance of minority religions.
“Husain has brought so much prestige to Indian art, but he has a Muslim name,” said Raina, the theatre director. “This has been a single-minded campaign by Hindu organizations and we see the state not doing anything.”
In the phone interview, Husain would not comment on whether he had been targeted because of his religion. “I am an Indian and a painter and nothing else,” he insisted. “That is my identity.”
He was at pains to remain positive, saying he was in Dubai because he had undertaken several large commissions there—one commemorating the last 100 years of Indian cinema with 100 canvases, another focusing on his vision of the 20th century. “I am happy to work anywhere, even in a hotel room,” he said. “These are minor frustrations. You have to rise above them.”
But in an interview last year with The Hindustan Times, he was more critical, saying that the actions against him had turned him into an “international gypsy.” Hindustan Times is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint.
“Matters are so legally complicated that I have been advised not return home,” he said. “It is no secret that I am wandering around the world with only my art for company.”
He dismissed criticism of his paintings, with polite irritation, “nudity is a metaphor in the Indian religion. It means purity. It’s just a stylized image.”