Hounded out

Print edition : July 01, 2011

M.F. Husain remained a victim of attacks and hate campaigns by Hindutva groups in the last 15 years.

in Mumbai

Copies of paintings of Husain lie vandalised in New Delhi in August 2008. The exhibition was put up parallel to the India Art Summit 2008 fair, which had excluded the works of Husain.-V.V. KRISHNAN

I have already apologised, if I have hurt the feelings of a section of people. Because I care more for the human being art comes next. So I don't want to hurt anybody's feeling.

To become an international artist you cannot leave your roots.

I am a part of India's 5,000-year-old culture and I am so fortunate to be born in India.

THIS is how Maqbool Fida Husain reacted in 1996, when for the first time, a gallery in Ahmedabad displaying his paintings was attacked by Bajrang Dal activists on the grounds that his works offended Hindus.

For 15 years since that first assault, Husain remained a victim of persecution and a hate campaign, which forced him to leave the country he loved. During this time the celebrated artist battled court cases (99 in all), faced death threats and mob terror, lived in constant fear of arrest, was subjected to virulent abuse and faced the ignominy of galleries refusing to exhibit his paintings. His works survived several attacks.

His passing away once again brings up the unfortunate issue of freedom of expression and the state's complete failure to protect this fundamental right. Husain was among the first to become the target of intolerance by Hindutva groups. Over time, mainly because of bad politics and the lack of proactive action by the ruling dispensation, many more artists in different fields have been subjected to attacks by the so-called moral police.

Sadly, the damage done is huge. Owing to the lack of protection and the growing intolerance, many artists today curb their creative expression. Clearly, nobody wants to go through what Husain did. What is even sadder is that the intelligentsia, which rose in protest against the attacks on Husain's paintings in 1996, is today resigned to the immaturity of India's politics. Although Hindutva organisations have lost some of their virulence, an apathy has set in, which allow intolerance to breed.

What went wrong with Husain? Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury, who has repeatedly brought up Husain's case over the past decade, said, Indian politics failed him. Husain became an easy tool for political manipulations. Once the saffron brigade found an easy target, it had no intention of giving up as the campaign gained it much publicity.

The attacks on Husain began when Hindutva organisations came to the conclusion that he was hurting the sentiments of Hindus by painting gods and goddesses in an offensive manner. Instances cited were the painting of a nude Saraswati and a painting called Bharat Mata (Mother India), which had a nude woman merging with an outline of the map of India. Husain's legal battles are believed to have started with an incident surrounding this painting.

The first assault on Husain's paintings, in 1996, coincided with the emergence of Hindutva groups as a formidable force. The attack began soon after an article published in a Hindi journal Vichar Mimansa unleashed a tirade against Husain and his work.

As an example of Husain's seemingly offensive work, the article reproduced a sketch of a nude Saraswati done by Husain in the 1970s.

A copy of the article was sent to Pramod Navalkar, a Shiv Sena leader and Maharashtra's then Minister for Culture. After reading the article, Navalkar asked the Mumbai Police Commissioner to be on alert because, he said, it would kindle religious sentiments. The police registered a case on October 8, 1996, under Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on account of religion, etc.) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class) of the Indian Penal Code.

Encouraged by the case, Bajrang Dal activists barged into the Herwitz Gallery in Ahmedabad's Husain-Doshi Gufa art complex and destroyed several of Husain's works that were on exhibit there. This was to become the first of the many acts of violence against the pioneer of Indian contemporary art.

A vandalised picture of Husain sitting in front of the National Gallery of Modern Art.-V. KRISHNAN

The artist community and intelligentsia protested. Solidarity demonstrations were led by other notable artists and writers such as Akbar Padamsee and Mulk Raj Anand. The ruling dispensation paid little attention and instead allowed the saffron brigade to go on with its vandalism. Unfortunately for Husain, the protests by fellow artists, which began with a roar, died down gradually.

In spite of an apology tendered by Husain and the argument by several historians, artists and writers that the Hoysala temples had images of Saraswati in the nude, the case was not dropped. Husain even suggested that a three-member panel of experts be set up to judge his work. He even said that on their recommendation he would destroy whatever work of his was considered objectionable. Some of the artists thought it was a sign of weakness on the part of Husain and that this would set a precedent where rules would be set on the freedom of expression.

Husain was perhaps only buying peace. To a question about how he responded to the Bajrang Dal's call to destroy his work, he told Frontline in 1996: It is crude. I have issued a statement just today which contains an idea that has been in my mind for the last four or five years. It is called On the Eve of Dussehra'. The joy of creating a painting is greater than its possession. As I look back and ponder over the massive body of my work, I begin to utter the words Neti, Neti, Neti,' these icons and images seem to have lived their lives in full, and now should be given the last rites or resurgence. This act of sacred ritual is meant to purify, not to destroy.

The second violent and physical assault on Husain came in 1998. Provoked by a painting that depicted a nude Sita sitting on Hanuman's tail, Bajrang Dal activists attacked his home in South Mumbai. Once again Husain apologised and suggested setting up a panel, which could include a member from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the organisation spearheading the hate campaign.

For some time after this event, there was a lull. But Husain, who was then in his 80s, was frequently appearing at court hearings and this was taking a toll on his health.

Another jolt came in 2006. India Today, an English weekly, published an advertisement titled Art For Mission Kashmir. This advertisement had a Husain painting of a nude woman merging with the map of India. The exhibition and charity auction that was advertised was organised by the actor-politician Nafisa Ali of Action India (a non-governmental organisation) and the Apparao Art Gallery of Chennai.

Husain had not given the painting a title. The auctioneers called it Bharat Mata (Mother India) because it depicted a woman and the map of India. Husain was immediately accused of obscenity and of being anti-national. He apologised and withdrew the painting.

For some inexplicable reason, the then Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, decided that these controversial paintings could cause communal trouble and sent out an advisory. It made the case against him even stronger.

A shocked artists' community appealed to withdraw the advisory, but the government held firm. The artists said Husain had made a significant contribution to Indian art and had even been made a Rajya Sabha member. They vouched for his spirit of secularism and non-religious mind, pointing out that he had done several paintings celebrating Indian culture and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The government did not budge and nobody paid any attention.

The Bharat Mata painting resulted in court cases in Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Pandharpur (Maharashtra) and in Bihar. A complaint was registered in a lower court in Pandharpur, incidentally Husain's birthplace. A non-bailable warrant was issued against him. In fact, the court directed the Kerala government to present him in the Pandharpur court when he arrived in that State to receive the Raja Ravi Varma Award for 2007.

Meanwhile, hate-mongers continued to hound and persecute the artist. News reports from that decade show that a rabid right-winger offered Rs.101 crore to kill Husain. Another Hindutva fundamentalist offered one kilogram of gold to anyone who gouged out the eyes of Husain and cut off his right thumb so he would never be able to paint again. In 2008, the artist's works were again attacked when the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi exhibited some of his archival prints. Security was tight at the venue owing to the threats the IIC had received for exhibiting Husain's works. However, two Sainiks managed to sneak past the guards and began destroying the prints.

Although the IIC braved the wrath of the saffron parties, they eventually had to close the show before time. By this time it had become clear that if galleries exhibited Husain's work they could invite trouble. Galleries across the country began excluding his paintings from shows.

In 2006, Husain managed, through the Supreme Court, to get all the cases filed against him in various cities transferred to the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate in Delhi as it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to travel to various courts. Several irrelevant people had filed petitions in various States and as such there were several cases across the country. For instance, when a magistrate issued summons to Husain in three cases, he filed a revision petition in the Delhi High Court to quash it. The Delhi High Court quashed it, but Husain still had three similar cases in a Sessions Court in Delhi's Patiala House.

Eventually, Justice Sanjay Kaul of the Delhi High Court, in a landmark judgment, cleared Husain of all the charges regarding the Bharat Mata painting. In a poignant statement the judge said a painter at 90 deserves to be in his home painting his canvas.

Upholding the right to free speech and expression, Justice Kaul agreed with Husain's contention that there was no deliberate intention on his part to hurt anybody's religious feelings as the figure actually represented an anthropomorphic depiction of a nation in the form of a distressed woman.

No doubt, the concept of nation has had a long association with the idea of motherhood, but just because the artist has expressed it in nude does not make the painting obscene per se, the court said. If the painting is seen as a whole, the revulsion referred to by patriotic nationals' would not arise for the reason that except the fact that it is in nude, there is nothing which can be considered as pinching to the eye. The judge said the painting was neither lascivious nor appealing to prurient interests.

In spite of Justice Kaul's ruling, the other cases were not dropped. Husain knew he could still be arrested or harassed if he returned to India. Therefore, although he wanted to come back to the country, he stayed away.


Like many other well-known people, Husain had his share of controversies some of them self-created. Once he walked barefoot into a tony club in South Mumbai. The club threw him out, saying not wearing footwear was against its rules. It made headlines the next day, but Husain never apologised, and since he had a good sense of humour he was probably amused by the incident.

When he made the film Meenaxi (a tale of three cities), Muslim groups led by the All India Ulema Council complained that the Qawali song Noor-un-Ala-Noor was blasphemous as it contained words directly taken from the Quran. Husain withdrew the film although it went on to win awards on the global stage.

Critics would point out that Husain loved the attention and would often create controversial situations. In 1991, for instance, he painted an exhibition hall he rented in Jehangir Art Gallery white, threw torn up newspapers around, and called the show Shwetambari. Some critics said he had not completed his work for the exhibition, others said it was probably the first example of site-specific installation art.

Another controversy erupted in September 2004 when a businessman, Guru Swarup Srivastava, said he would pay Husain Rs.101 crore for 100 paintings. Husain signed the deal, but it turned sour because Srivastava got entangled in debt problems.

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