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M.F. Husain’s Exile: Battle For Art Or Religion?

By Farzana Versey

27 February, 2010

M.F.Husain is not an Indian anymore. He has accepted to become a citizen of Qatar. Why did he do it? The general answers you get are that he was hounded out of the country with threats to his life and his art by Hindutva fundamentalists. True. But he is not the first one. Fundamentalists of all stripes force out dissenters, whether they are political, for the field of art or literature.

It is not a pleasant life. There is solitary confinement, lack of avenues to express the very words and paintings that brought them to such a pass. Closer home, think Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Ahmed Faraz. They were made prisoners but stayed with their national identity, and it is not even an ancient one.

When news reports mentioned a handwritten fax by the painter stating, “I, the Indian origin painter, M.F. Husain at 95, have been honoured by Qatar nationality”, one thought he would not agree to it. It was conferred on him by the first lady Shiekha Mozah bin Nasser al Misned, wife of Qatar ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, after commissioning him to work on a series of sculptures.

There is a sort of succumbing to power here. Will he experiment with those sculptures? Unlikely.

His supporters are consolidating the view of the artist as someone who toes the line. Lalit Kala Akademi chairman Ashok Vajpeyi said that he is “the only Indian painter in history who has extensively painted both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”. Not only is this untrue but it begs the question: why must he be protected by a government that is using the occasion to co-opt him into its own agenda? And why is it important to paint what is considered sacred by some?

The war is between art and religion, with patriotism as the undercurrent. Husain’s nationalism depends on his religion, or at least what a person of his religion can do to what belongs to another religion. In bringing this up, we assume that the dominant religion of India is also what drives its nationalism. Therefore, the ‘Save Husain’ brigade is equally culpable.

I was quite surprised to read the comment made by artist Satish Gujral: “Few have contributed to popularising Indian mythological heritage as has Husain through his paintings. I strongly condemn the government’s attitude of not helping him in the strongest of terms.”

Flashback to the early 90s when Gujral had stated, in a sense denying his own stand regarding socially-committed art, “I see only hypocrisy here”. His major grouse was that, “He painted this devi figure in Calcutta and then covered it with white paint. This only proves how much emotional link he has with what he paints. When an artist paints something he has total emotional subservience to it. If he had written Allah would he then have to destroy it? It is because Hindu society is more tolerant.”

It is not whether he used an image from Hindu mythology instead of firmans from the Quran. If anything, this sort of emphasis reveals more about the mind of the accusers. As Gujral had stated then, “Both Husain and Raza wasted talent on depicting a mythology they were not brought up on. Why did Raza have to take to Tantric art? He was trying to build up a false background.”

He had even provided a reason for it. He believed it was because in post-Partition times the patrons were essentially Hindu. Inadvertently, he answered his own question. Would Husain, who depends heavily on these patrons, dare to antagonise them?

Let us ask aloud why Husain did not tarnish an image of Allah. For one, there is no image. Besides, the dominant principle in Islamic art is to be found in the Mughal miniatures and it will be agreed that defacing those can have virtually no impact on an already deadened psyche. The all-male religions have produced no religious imagery and in fact forbidden it.

Art can never be a religion or gain that kind of legitimacy because it is an individual activity given to personal interpretation. Religious icons as art works have to bear the brunt of being mauled at museums. Is that not a slight? Is what Husain does with his interpretation worse than what the general public does with religious iconography at caves and temples? These are often people who have been brought up on the very mythology they are debasing. Where is their emotional involvement?

Whoever said that art and religion were two roads by which men escaped from circumstance to ecstasy obviously did not know the rules of the bazaar. Why could one not look at Husain’s erasing of a religious image as one more gimmick from the artist’s considerable oeuvre? Besides, why does Husain have to tread carefully where religious issues are concerned when art is, in the words of Roger Fry, “significant deformity”?

The artist cannot be expected to be a realist simply because not only does he colour the sky red as his whims dictate but he can also turn reality upside down to make a point. Likewise with religion; reality is not as it is experienced but felt. However, while religion lays down our social mores art rarely, if ever, reflects it.

Temple sculptures were not mere artistic indulgences; they were created for the purpose of reverence. Art today is created for the buyer, even if it is the artist’s peculiar vision. Therefore, it is ridiculous to equate art with religious fervour.

Once one takes a moral position, then one has to forgo the right to be a dissenter in any area. As someone once said, “The artist, like the idiot or clown, sits on the edge of the world, and a push may send him over it.”

Qatar really is not the edge of the world, so M.F.Husain made the choice to find another market. As an icon himself, he is worshipped and debased in equal measure.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based author-columnist. She can be reached at kaaghaz.kalam@gmail.com