M F Hussain died yesterday in a London hospital. He was 96. An artist of high standing in international art circles, he was probably the first Indian artist to get recognized beyond our boundaries.
I first remember seeing Hussain on TV in the 80s. He was painting a canvas live, on Dusshera or something like that. I was maybe 7-8 years old. What I do remember is the commentators talking less about his art or his calibre than the fact that he painted with a four feet long brush and that he walked barefoot. His idiosyncrasies outshone his art to many. Outside the rarified circles of art, he was mainly know for his eccentric habits. Becoming infatuated with Madhuri Dixit in his 80s, then Tabu and so on. The last part of his life was spent defending himself and his art against a concerted attack from the Hindu right wing in India. It led to his self-imposed exile and eventual surrender of Indian citizenship to become a Qatari national. He often talked about his fervent wish to return to his homeland and he called himself an Indian till his death.
I was never a fan of his art, but then I was never a fan of any post-Impressionist phase. His work was highly valued internationally and in India (after it got world-wide approval, I’m sure). But I am saddened by his death. He lived a long and fruitful life I know, and got accolades aplenty, but he deserved to die in India. It had been his home for most of his life and he should have breathed his last here.
He had to leave the country following the furore over some of his paintings depicting various Hindu goddesses nude. He had painted those canvasses in the 70s but apparently the RSS etc found out about then much later. Anyway, many demonstrations, attacks on galleries, incidents of vandalism and court cases later, Hussain left India and spent the remainder of his life shuttling between the UK and Dubai.
One question a lot of Hindus ask when they are told by liberalists to take the work in their stride (Hussain himself often stated that he didn’t mean to insult any deity in his works) is that would they (the liberalists) be so understanding if another religion’s god was depicted in the same way? More to the point, would any artist including Hussain have dared paint Jesus or Muhammed in the same way? Would the art world have supported him if he had? Why do tolerance and freedom of expression come into the equation only when Hindu religious sentiments are involved? Why is something perceived as an unforgivable insult to any other religion suddenly morph into a question of the basic Right of Expression when it comes to Hinduism? When a danish cartoonist gets death threats for drawing cartoons of the prophet, why can’t Hindus demonstrate against what they perceive as insults to their religion?
They are quite right to raise these questions, of course. I also feel that Hinduism is taken for granted a lot more than other religions are (and I hate to agree with right wing extremists), and despite being an atheist, I do find this discrimination uncalled for and wrong.
But where I feel the Hindu Right takes a wrong step is in jumping from this bias against Hinduism to protesting in kind. Whatever other people and religions are doing, it is incumbent upon us to find our own responses to similar challenges. I don’t think violence against a person’s expression is the right answer, and certainly in this case, it is not. Whether Hussain meant the paintings as an insult or not (I don’t think he did, but that is irrelevant in this case), he should have the right to display his views in the medium of his choosing. Art is highly subjective and different people interpret the same piece differently. In any case, just because some people display their intolerance and love for violence does in no way make it right for us to follow suit. We as Indians should have shown a more mature attitude. Unfortunately, we didn’t.