He should have died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, in the city he loved, Mumbai, at his apartment in Cuffe Parade, where the air carries the scent of the sea, the monsoon breeze reminding him that it was time to get the umbrella out.
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It did rain lightly last night in London when I was at Asia House, listening to Amitav Ghosh speaking eloquently about the Indian complicity in the Opium War, and the Chinese grace in not bringing it up, as he launched his new novel, River of Smoke. Whenever I go to Asia House I can’t help thinking of Husain, because five years earlier, as Asia House was about to open an exhibition celebrating his work, unknown assailants managed to damage some of Husain’s paintings, and the show had to be cancelled. A Hindu group in London had complained that the show was being put up—they were offended, presumably, by the images of nude Hindu deities Husain had painted, among many other things. (They hadn’t protested when the Royal Academy had put on a magnificent show of Chola bronzes, including many nude Hindu deities, at that time, but then consistency is hardly the virtue of fundamentalists.) The Indian high commissioner at the time, Kamalesh Sharma, had called Husain “India’s greatest modern artist”, adding that his career and success mirrored closely “the meteoric rise of contemporary Indian art on the international stage”, even though police officers in India were preparing arrest warrants for Husain, should he return to India.
And so he left India. We didn’t know Husain was in London, and in the twilight hours of his life, but later that night, as Ghosh and I had dinner at a Turkish restaurant on Marylebone High Street, we talked about the exceptional rise of intolerance in India. He finds the narrowing discourse dangerous; I agreed, and said it infantilised India. We thought many of the attacks were outrageous, the complaints frivolous, and recalled how Husain was driven into exile.
Bold strokes: Untitled (Lady with Veena), an oil painting by M.F. Husain.Photo Courtesy: Oxford University Press
Indeed, vigilantes have been acting with impunity and they don’t let writers write, painters paint, thinkers publish, and film-makers show their films. They force people to write less, differently, or not at all. Or, express and suffer consequences. Those consequences are not only abuse by trolls on the Internet or peaceful demonstrations, both of which have a place in a free society, but worse has happened.
Take Husain’s case—the ransacking of an art gallery, the attack on a television studio, which asked its viewers to vote on whether Husain deserved the Bharat Ratna, the verbal threats of violence should he return to Mumbai, the acquiescent police willing to prepare an arrest warrant and pursue spurious cases against him, and the unthinking judges admitting writ petitions by people who hadn’t seen his art at close quarters, but used Victorian-era laws to curb free expression on the grounds that the art offended their sensibilities. True, the courts finally ruled in Husain’s favour, but by then Husain had grown tired; he wanted to paint in peace.
The emphasis on a few paintings—such as the nude Saraswati and Bharatmata— introduced alien concepts such as blasphemy to Hinduism or Indian thought, and disregarded his vast body of other work: those galloping horses, the lament over the Andhra cyclone, the series on singers and artists, the celebration of that syncretic identity, Indian-ness. Garish, loud, huge, noisy: his canvas mirrored India.
Husain’s attackers stayed fossilised in the mind-set of Victorian Britain, considering sex to be shameful, where pomp and circumstance could not be ridiculed and you couldn’t say that the emperor had no clothes, and where laws were passed, after the 1857 War of Independence, to keep emotions of volatile elements of communities calm. It was an India where the deities were presumably so vulnerable that faithful vigilantes had to protect them.
Husain, on the other hand, was reminding India of its liberal, freer, ancient traditions, where you could laugh, sing, dance, joke, worship, or lament the rich life around you, in your own way, in your own rhythm, in your own colours—there was no one unitary view of “India”, but collectively, when you put together the mosaic, the fine image of India emerged.
Fundamentalists hated that pluralism. They wanted Husain to be more sensitive, less offensive to them, equally offensive to other faiths, and atone for his art. Instead, he left India, because it was no longer the India he knew.
Now he is gone. But we have his art.
Salil Tripathi, who writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere, is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull 2009), which deals with Hindu nationalist attacks on writers, historians and artists, including Husain.
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