Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Master in His Absurd Exile

By: Shoma Chaudhary

On 19 January, 2008, the day twenty men with hockey sticks smashed NDTV’s office in Ahmedabad, and beat two of the staff, for running an SMS poll on whether MF Husain should be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the master himself sat quietly on the floor of his home in faraway Dubai, rapt in a sketch of two ceremonial horses — a wedding card for Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s son. A meditative silence enveloped the room, heightened by the rhythmic sound of his sketching pen. Nothing could touch him, immune in his concentration. The sun set outside on a brilliant skyline. The beautiful room acquired a sense of prayer. Husain had just spent hours outlining his love for Hindu philosophy and culture, a life lived in its worship. Eight years spent painting the Ramayana, as many painting the Mahabharata. Hundreds of canvases of Ganesha and Shiva and Parvati and Hanuman, the ragas, the natyas and Benaras. Seventy years spent as “Chobi Das”, a devotee of the image. Seventy years spent roaming the earth, seeking to enrich its understanding of India. And now, they were smashing offices in his name. Declaring him an apostate.

“It is just a moment in history,” says Husain. “Kya kar sakte hain (what can one do)?”

Exile, however, is not a dark experience for the 93-year-old. Not for him the stereotype of the bitter and the hunted. That would be a terrible defeat. His statement is to live in celebration. In Dubai, plush, ordered, but as he says with a laugh, “like a Hollywood set, a façade with nothing behind”, he has bought apartments for each of his children, and two giant 21st century apartments facing a quay for himself. In one, he lives in an affectionate nucleus with his nephew, Fida and his family, and two valets, Hasan and Imraan. The other, he has converted into a “Red Light Museum” — a name designed, he chuckles, “to make people sit up”. Three rooms are dedicated to his art: one room houses 88 canvases from the late 1950s; another houses a series of paintings he calls Husain Decoded; the third has a series on Mughal-e-Azam. In between these two apartments, Husain lives his life, in an ever-widening flurry of excitement and action that people a third his age cannot keep up with. “When chacha is at home, there is no time to breathe,” laughs niece Sabiha, Fida’s wife. Husain is in constant, infectious, prodigious motion, his fingers drumming restlessly to an imaginary tabla. One day in Abu Dhabi, the next in Qatar. Each summer in London. He is currently learning Arabic and working on four simultaneous projects: a series of 99 canvases on the Arab Civilisation, commissioned by the Queen of Qatar; a series of similar scale on Indian Civilisation, commissioned by Lakshmi Mittal; a series on the history of Indian cinema; and a series on Mughal-e-Azam. For all this, for all his Kubla Khan-like wealth, he sleeps on a mattress in the drawing room, as he has always done, and everywhere, he travels alone. A man of 93. Fluid, unfaltering, possessed of a mysterious joie de vivre — an embrace of life — that borders almost on the divine.

Husain, the dramatic, flamboyant persona, associated more with the pursuit of wealth than the work, will never admit to a sense of betrayal in finding himself, at 93, hounded out of the country he has loved and promoted for close to a century. “Why is there no anguish, no political statement in Husain’s work?” asks Anwar Siddiqi, a close friend and admirer of Husain. “I really feel no bitterness,” Husain responds. “My life’s work is my statement. I reached my peak as an artist in the late 1950s. All my other work is a manifestation of that. I do not feel called to make any other statement. I lost my mother when I was one-and-a-half. I lost my first child, Shabir, when he was three. I lifted his body out of a gutter. What is loss after that?” There is a kind of wisdom in his stance. He makes it look easy, so it is easy to mistake it for something shallow.

Yet, cast even a cursory eye over the span of Husain’s prodigious life, and the sad absurdity of his exile comes through with unnerving force. Here is a man who has borne witness — enshrined — every facet of Indian life for close to a century. By 1955, he was one of India’s leading artists and had been awarded the Padma Shri. By 1971, he was being invited to Sao Paulo Biennial with Pablo Picasso. He was Rajya Sabha Member in 1986. And these are merely surface things: cast your eye over the work: more than 10,000 paintings in celebration of India, and the absurdities gather greater and greater force.

MF Husain is a kind of living history, a national heritage site. And what do we do? We drive him out.

Husain had left India for good in 2006, when an increasingly violent right-wing mood had precipitated a non-bailable arrest warrant against him by a Haridwar court, directing the attachment of all his properties in India. Though the Supreme Court stayed the order, the past year alone has seen several incidents of violence against Husain and his work. An exhibition at Asia House, London, was stalled and vandalised by a Hindu right wing group in 2006. Ditto for the Peabody Essex Museum in the US, which was exhibiting his Mahabharata series, Epic India. The same show was broken into at the India International Centre in Delhi, late last year. The attack on the NDTV office is only the latest in the line.

This does not comprise even a decimal percent of India’s population. The pity is, this decimal percent — intolerant, disinterested in dialogue, brazen violators of law — has come to dictate our public life. And no arrests have been made in any of these incidents, though as Sibal says, the State, courts and police have not only the power but an obligation to intervene when any violation of law and order is brought to their knowledge.

In being the most high profile of its kind, Husain’s case, in a sense, has become a litmus test for the country. Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Mridula Garg, Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, Deepa Mehta… the list of artists and writers vandalised by intolerant Hindu, and Muslim, fringes runs painfully long. Artists censored not by dialogue but by coercion. TEHELKA itself is facing a criminal case in Bombay for publishing photographs of nude women by reputed photographer Raghu Rai. Every time the hearing comes up, the editor-in-chief has to appear in court to take bail.

Four big civilisational questions underlie all these cases. What is the definition of “obscenity”? What is the threshold of “religious sentiment” — today an easily hurt thing — that should not be crossed? What is the role of the writer and artist in society? And, how will we conduct our dissent in a civilised society?

MF Husain came most vigorously into the line of fire in 2006, when an untitled painting, a depiction of the country as a naked woman was auctioned by Sharon Apparao’s Saffronart. Some Hindu groups took great umbrage to this.

Husain's other work, which gets the conservatives in a twist, is a Saraswati painted way back in ’88, sold privately, and published only in a limited edition of a book produced by Tata Steel. Its publication details are significant because one of the crucial questions in any consideration of obscenity is: how public was the act? In Husain’s case — in the case of any artist — they are not thrusting their work on you, they are not splashing their work on giant hoardings that you must look at every day. Common sense would say, if you don’t like their work, don’t look at it. Don’t go to gallery, don’t buy book. Publish scathing counter articles in some sympathetic media. That would be a civilised response.

Hearteningly, the Supreme Court has been fairly nuanced in its considerations of what constitutes“obscenity” in public life. In several seminal cases like the Ranjit D. Udeshi vs State of Maharashtra (1965), Ajay Gosw ami vs Union of India (2005), Samaresh Bose vs Amal Mitra (1985), the court has ruled that sex and nudity in art, per se, cannot be deemed obscene. Only if there is an intention to deprave and corrupt, or arouse the lascivious and prurient instincts of the viewer can something be deemed obscene. Further, the Court has ruled that it will not use the“standard of a hypersensitive person” in defining what is obscene. Intention counts for much.

Given this, the cases against Husain can never stand in court.Barely three paintings, out of a body of over 10,000 canvases, are in dispute. Did he mean to insult? On the contrary, the entire body of his work has been a testimony of devotion.

Husain himself will not speak. He lives by a dictum. “Never explain. Never complain.” Disraeli’s advice to Queen Victoria.


MF Husain tells Shoma Chaudhury
why his faith in India’s secular and tolerant traditions remains undiminished

Husain saheb, what do you feel about the fundamentalist attacks against you?
I’m not really perturbed by all this. India is a democracy, everyone is entitled to their views. I only wish people would air their views through debate rather than violence.The media comes to me looking — almost hoping — for strong statements, but I am actually very optimistic about India. I see this as just a moment in time. For 5,000 years, our work has been going on with such force, this is just a minor hiccough. I am certain the younger generation will get fed up of the fundamentalist, conservative mood in the country and change things. I didn’t want to leave my home. At the same time, it’s not even as if I want the conservative element to be pushed out of society. We are all part of a large family and when a child breaks something at home, you don’t throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai. (This is a family matter.) Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it.

Why don’t you come back to India and take on the fight?
As things stand, I cannot come back. No one has exiled me; I came away myself because I am an old man and vulnerable to physical danger. It’s not just the cases. If I came back, given the mood they have created, someone could just push or assault me on the street, and I would not be able to defend myself. The only way I can come back to India, perhaps, is if the BJP comes to power at the Centre. Or maybe, Mayawati. This government has no spine. Their hands are tied. They think if they speak out or take action, they will be accused of appeasement. The irony is, out of power, the BJP uses issues like this to fan its votebank. In power, they would probably control their extreme brigades to look respectable and secular! (laughs) These are the ironies of India. Actually, it is for the courts to sort this out. The allegation that my work is obscene or hurts religious sentiment can never stand merit in a court.

Why did you apologise for your art? You know more about Hindu iconography and the shastras than the goons who deface your work.Never.
I have never apologised for my art. I stand by it totally. What I said was that I have painted my canvases — including those of gods and goddesses— with deep love and conviction, and in celebration. If in doing that, I have hurt anyone’s feelings, I am sorry. That is all. I do not love art less, I love humanity more. India is a completely unique country. Liberal. Diverse. There is nothing like it in the world. This mood in the country is just a historical process. For me, India means a celebration of life. You cannot find that same quality anywhere in the world.

Could you talk about how your exposure and love for Hindu iconography and culture began?
In Hyderabad, in 1968, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia suggested I paint the Ramayana. I was completely broke, but I painted 150 canvases over eight years. I read both the Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana and invited priests from Benaras to clarify and discuss the nuances with me. When I was doing this, some conservative Muslims told me, why don’t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen. I’ve painted hundreds of Ganeshas in my lifetime — it is such a delightful form. I always paint a Ganesha before I begin on any large work. I also love the iconography of Shiva. The Nataraj — one of the most complex forms in the world — has evolved over thousands of years and, almost like an Einstein equation, it is the result of deep philosophical and mathematical calculations about the nature of the cosmos and physical reality. When my daughter, Raeesa wanted to get married, she did not want any ceremonies, so I drew a card announcing her marriage. On the card, I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to?

(Condensed from the article in Tehelka magazine, 2-Feb-2008)
(Visit to read the original)

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