And this is how it ends. This is how India loses one of its own.
Maqbool Fida Husain, born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, before there was an independent India, is no longer ours. After a decade in which he faced arrest warrants and was threatened, his canvases defaced, his family harassed, his property attached, his personality ridiculed, art galleries showing his art attacked, and his art deliberately and disingenuously mischaracterized, he has decided that it is enough.
Husain is 94. He can no longer identify with what has become of his India.
Husain’s art has captured India’s ethos. As the nation’s chronicler, he has been a laureate, portraying the stark agony of a cyclone; a court jester, like when he painted Indira Gandhi as Durga astride a tiger; a cheerleader, celebrating the centuries of Sunil Gavaskar; an inventive exhibitionist, painting as Bhimsen Joshi sang, painting with Shah Rukh Khan, painting on the body of a woman. He revels in India’s gaudiness, its zeitgeist. He understands the philosophy of nirakara (formlessness), seeing through an idol, glimpsing what he thinks of as divine, and giving it a form that may outrage some, but which is hardly inconsistent with the Indian aesthetic.
He has now embraced Qatar—the Gulf sheikhdom floating in oil. Some self-righteous folks remind us that Qatar is not a democracy, nor does it guarantee freedom of expression. But Qatar’s record on free speech is not relevant; India’s is. And it is for Indians to reflect on why India’s most widely known painter feels safer in Doha than in Mumbai.
Did India’s robust democracy guarantee Husain’s freedom of expression? Did India protect a vulnerable, fragile, nonagenarian artist, who wanted to live in peace and paint? Did the Indian system protect him when Hindu nationalists attacked an art gallery in Ahmedabad, filed hundreds of cases against him, forced a foreign bank to withdraw credit cards displaying his art and defaced his paintings, and when a cartoonist-turned-politician threatened him?
It is useful to remember that it took decades for his paintings to offend Hindu nationalists—after the government acquiesced with leaders claiming to represent all Muslims, and acceded to their outrageous demands over the Shah Bano case by passing a law that effectively made Muslim women second-class citizens, denying them access to maintenance under Indian laws, and later by banning Salman Rushdie’s great novel, The Satanic Verses, giving India the dubious honour of being the first country in the world to do so.
Drawing the wrong lesson, some Hindu leaders decided that if the state could kowtow to bullying by Muslim leadership, Hindus mustn’t be far behind. If Muslims can be intolerant, why not Hindus, too? And so began the game of competitive intolerance, with cases filed under section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws insulting religions, and section 153A, which deals with promoting enmity between groups. Those were colonial-era provisions, and Britain wrote those laws soon after the rebellion of 1857 to keep communities separate and segregated. India kept those laws on the books, permitting bullies to terrorize artists and writers, while cowardly governments forced artists into silence, and some, to seek refuge elsewhere.
Husain felt unsafe: He spent his summers in London, winters in Dubai. He apologized; he explained; he clarified. But nothing was enough for his detractors. Indian ambassadors abroad praised him, while police officers at home prepared arrest warrants. Courts threw the cases out and defended art, but the state dragged its feet. Some officials said the state would protect him, but Husain did not feel safe—to think, imagine and create, in peace.
And so he left.
This is no longer about Husain. Last week, there were protests in Andhra Pradesh against Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad, who was honoured for his Telugu novel, Draupadi. Not a week passes before somebody, somewhere, claims being offended and seeks a ban of some sort. Artists are free, but must not offend. So India allows Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, who offends fundamentalists in Bangladesh for writing about persecution of Hindus, but once objections are raised, the government sets conditions, telling her to behave. Barbers force Shah Rukh Khan to change the name of a film; the Shiv Sena takes on Sachin Tendulkar and Mukesh Ambani, who say Mumbai belongs to all Indians; and the paper tigers in Mumbai threaten to disrupt Shah Rukh Khan’s new film, My Name Is Khan.
How would Rabindranath Tagore write that poem today?
“Where the mind is filled with fear and the head is kept low
Where vandals are free
Where the world is broken into fragments of narrow domestic walls
Where the clear stream of reason has lost its way in the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where tireless striving stretching its arms towards perfection faces obstruction
Into that hell of serfdom, my country lies: we hold the wake.”
Maqbool Fida Husain was Indian. India made him a foreigner.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org