It’s been a week since artist M.F. Husain sent that facsimile to N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu and an old friend of his. Carefully chosen words spelt out that he was honoured on being conferred Qatari nationality. It came with a sketch of a horse, the leitmotif of much of his works. The act was an artistic flourish, the painter’s last stroke.
Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari promptly issued statements about how saddened he was to hear that Husain was “even thinking of adopting an alternative nationality”. But now that Husain is set to surrender his Indian passport, now that we know this wasn’t a circus act to jolt the Indian judicial and political system, we can ask ourselves: What has changed?
We didn’t lose Husain to Qatar last week. In 2006, when our government and our citizens failed to alleviate the conditions that forced one of our greatest living artists into self-imposed exile, after 10 years of living in fear, it is then that we lost our claim to him.
It is not uncommon for artists to seek exile. And this is very much a function of an artist’s role in society—to think differently from others in his time; to push boundaries. For this, they have paid a price in fascist and military regimes, in Hitler’s Germany and in General Franco’s Spain. But if in India, a proud democracy, we can create a milieu so intolerant and so hostile that even someone who holds the country’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, can be forced to flee, it is a frightening conundrum.
The weakly worded assurances of state protection that sprung up after this news was made public change nothing. While heightened security can safeguard Husain from the mob threats he faces, including an $11.5 million reward for his head, it cannot do a thing for the tangible possibility of arrest for any of the 900-odd cases registered against him. In theory, the apex court could bunch related cases together and issue a stay order on his arrest. But considering the volume and breadth of the charges, this is a near-impossible task. The May 2008 judgement by the Delhi high court, which gave Husain a reprieve in three of the seven live cases against him, sketched hope. That’s minuscule progress, though, and at 94, Husain doesn’t have time on his side. The irony is that none of these vexatious litigations changes with the change in nationality. If Husain were to land in India, he could still be arrested on grounds of inquiry. This is why the passport change is merely paperwork.
A defence of Husain’s art is another argument altogether, one that is too late to make in his case. But this argument is an important one for the sake of what art we will produce as a country hereafter. Contemporary art in India is already beginning to get sterile. Now how will young artists even begin to practise their craft with the required abandon? Husain had a bank of art and wealth to fall back on when trouble came knocking. Emerging artists do not have this, and they will not be prepared to take any risks.
Other than expressing their deep regret and signing petitions, the art fraternity has done little in the way of concrete protests. An independent free-speech advocacy group, the Delhi-based Sahmat, has been a lone trooper. The India Art summit in its first two years of existence excluded Husain’s works in fear of vandalism. And barring some murmur, the show went on, recorded phenomenal sales, celebrating India’s booming contemporary art market in its wake; a market that upheld Husain as its poster boy before forsaking him.
The biggest travesty is that through their philistinism, Hindu extremists have reduced the artist’s oeuvre to two naked goddesses. That is all they can see, and sadly, that is all we will remember.
It’s too late to have a funeral for something we buried four years ago.
Anindita Ghose is a features writer at Mint. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org