by Aditi Bhaduri
- India -
A debate gripping much of India’s urban middle class has been the controversy surrounding renowned painter M.F. Hussain. Considered India’s Picasso, he received the country’s second highest civilian award – the Padma Vibhushan. But the 95-year-old painter recently relinquished his Indian citizenship to become a citizen of the Gulf state of Qatar. He had been living in self-imposed exile since 2006, when controversy broke out over his depictions of Hindu deities.
Born to the Muslim community – India’s largest minority community and the second largest Muslim community in the world – Hussain has been known to take a liberal view of religion, even though he professes to be an active Muslim. Growing up in the ethos of India, he was well grounded in Hindu scriptures and traditional texts like the epics Ramayana and Mahabharat, which have been themes for some of his paintings.
In the 1990s, he drew the ire of those connected with the Hindu right-wing organization the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which accused him of denigrating the Hindu religion. Though the paintings in question were painted in 1970, it became an issue when Vichar Mimansa, a Hindi monthly magazine published them in 1996. A series of court cases were filed against Hussain in a number of Indian states, though some were later dismissed. Hussain’s house was attacked, exhibitions of his paintings vandalized and in 2006 fresh cases were filed against him for hurting the “sentiments of the people”. Unresponsive to the summons, a no-bail arrest warrant was issued against him. Hussain left India because, as he says, “matters are so legally complicated that I have been advised not to return home.”
In particular, his nude portrayals of deities worshiped by Hindus are at the core of the issue, but Hussain’s supporters argue that nudity has been an integral feature of Hindu and Indian art throughout the centuries. K. Bikram Singh, author of Maqbool Fida Hussain, argues that “Every religion has its own conventions of painting iconic images…Islam does not have the tradition of painting icons at all, let alone in the nude. On the other hand, Hindu religion and culture have celebrated nudity, and even eroticism in art.”
Hussain’s supporters say an era of censorship descended on India, first with the arrival of Islam and then with the appearance of the British colonizers and their Victorian sensibilities. To this day, temples stand in India with erotic sculptures adorning the exterior walls, signifying earthly material life - in contrast to the more austere inner chamber, which houses the main deity and denotes the higher consciousness and esoteric knowledge. In an Op-ed piece in The Times of India, Gautam Adhikari writes, ”In a secular democracy, we irreligiously sensitive people need space for expressing ourselves.”
Hussain, however, chose to put a different spin on his creations. Sita, the heroine of the Indian epic Ramayana, has for centuries been considered a symbol of feminine virtuousness. Though abducted and held hostage by Ravana, a king who lusted after her, she maintained her chastity, remaining faithful to her husband Rama. Hussain not only painted Sita in the nude – something not found in Indian tradition at all – but sat her upon Ravana’s knees. Further, Parvathi, the divine Hindu female, who is usually depicted seated on a lion, has been painted lying naked on a tiger. “Such depictions are hardly aesthetic, they are obscene,” says Sanjukta Bhattacharya, a professor of International Relations in Jadavpur University. Journalist Rina Mukherjee, agrees – “It is not the nudity per se that people find offensive. It is the inaccurate, even distorted depiction of the traditions that is offensive.”
Though the resulting violence by the country’s extremists has not resonated with the moderate majority, the argument they put forth has been consistent on at least one point – the apparent double standard of India’s handling of its religious communities. India was the first country to ban the novel The Satanic Verses by Indian author Salman Rushdie because it was found offensive by many Muslim groups and countries across the world. Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen stirred up a furor for her outspoken and critical views on Islamic traditions leading the government to remove her from Kolkata, deny her citizenship, and ask her to keep a low profile. The Danish cartoons of Islam’s prophet Mohammed were never reproduced in any Indian publication – not even in liberal ones. And recently pictures of Jesus Christ smoking and drinking caused a furor in the predominantly Christian state of Mizoram. Why then, these extremists reason, does the government not take a similar approach to something that offends their own religious sentiments?
In the course of their violence and agitation, the extremists have managed to bring the paintings to light to many who were otherwise unaware of them. Circulated widely on the Internet, a largely silent, peaceful majority began to air its grievances with the artist’s choice of subjects. Here, the chorus of double standards is immediately raised. Liberals defend Hussain’s artistic license, while others point out that he has not made any similar representations of icons from the Muslim, Christian or Jewish traditions.
Ultimately, as a believing Hindu I don’t think the debate is about Hinduism versus Islam. Rather, it is about how much artistic license one - even an acclaimed painter - can take with subjects considered holy. And this resonates with believers cutting across communities. An artist can certainly paint for himself whatever he wishes in private, but when he puts his art in the public domain he should to do so in a socially responsible manner. Hussain did tender an apology for hurting the sentiments of the Hindus, but did not withdraw the paintings from public viewing.
There is also a general sentiment that because Hinduism is one of the least known religions in the world, albeit with a billion followers, Hindu symbols are not paid the same respect that symbols of other religions are. Recent examples would be pictures of Hindu deities Lakshmi and Ganesh, inscribed on everything from toilet seats to shoes in the West. Little debate was stirred up in India over this, something which some claim then paved the way for extremists to fill the vacuum and appropriate the issue.
The Government of India, a party headed by the Indian National Congress which swears by secularism, made some feeble noises about ensuring Hussain protection should he come back. However, no decisive measure to this end was taken, some feel, precisely because it gauged that public sympathy was not in his favor.
This points to the fact that there is actually a large constituency of moderate Hindus, who neither endorse the violence nor the paintings. Though there is no legal ban on his return to India, ironically he has taken up citizenship in a state not particularly known for its liberal leanings.
In a recent interview to the Qatari paper, The Peninsula, Hussain stated that he is embarking on a new project based on what Arabs have given the world. “I need a sponsor. I don’t have money to invest in such huge projects. Qatar offered me help and I accepted it,” he said.
This pursuit of big money in Qatar and continued notoriety in the press rubs some in India the wrong way. For many, therefore, it seems Hussain has willed it all on himself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist and researcher based in India. With a background in international relations, specializing in the Arab-Islamic world (specifically the Israel-Palestine conflict), Russian linguistics, displacement and gender, she began her writing career by covering the Middle East for the Indian media. Currently Aditi’s work focuses on conflict, peace, displacement and gender. She acts as a gender consultant to various NGOs and started the Human Rights for Beginners program in schools in her native city of Kolkata. Aditi is also a member of several civil society initiatives in India and was on a Rotary Goodwill Exchange Program to the USA.
Aditi’s work has been published in both Indian and foreign print and electronic media. She is currently co-editing a book on displacement in Asia-Pacific. She was awarded the UNFPA-Population First LAADLI National Media Award 2008 for gender sensitive reporting and hopes to establish her own publication dedicated solely to peace journalism.