Predatory pursuit of power

Print edition : May 23, 1998

To Hindu revanchists, artist M.F. Husain is an icon representing Islam, an icon to be deployed in a larger programme to seize power by spreading hatred.

It is not art, it is perversion.

- Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Milind Parande on M.F. Husain's 1984 Ramayana lithograph, in Frontline, May 22, 1998.

LOOK hard at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)-Bajrang Dal attack on M.F. Husain and the mask burns off, revealing the real face. Behind the Hindu Right's claims that its violent campaign against the artist is founded on concern for religious faith and morality are untruths and the lust for power.

The storming of Husain's home by Bajrang Dal activists on May 1 was not just a revolt of lumpen Mumbai against elite, liberal cosmopolitanism. Between the Shiv Sena's censorship of pop music or short skirts and the attacks on arguably India's most influential modern artist, lies a key difference. "If Husain can enter Hindustan," Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray said of the attack, "why can't we enter his house?" To Hindu revanchists, the artist is an icon representing Islam, an icon to be deployed in a larger programme to seize power by spreading hatred. This representation of Husain is crucial for the ongoing efforts by the VHP to appropriate a religious space shared by Hindus and Muslims at Dhar, an hour's drive from Indore, the town where he trained in art.

It is not coincidental that the first important attack against Husain was sought to be legitimised by claims that he had painted a "nude" image of the goddess Saraswati. The 11th century Bhojshala complex at Dhar, built as a university by Raja Bhoj, had come to house both a mosque and a temple, both of which were by custom visited by Hindus and Muslims who went there to pray. The Bhojshala housed what experts say is one of the finest examples of Hindu sculpture of the period - an idol of Saraswati, which is now part of a collection in London.

Outside the Academy of Art and Literature in New Delhi, where the Husain lithograph (produced in 1984) was exhibited. Ex-MP B.L. Sharma 'Prem' militantly holds the print, surrounded by Bajrang Dal activists. Artists Raghu Vyas (in black jacket) is with them.-RAM RAHMAN

In the early 1990s, the VHP sought to expand its constituency by stepping up efforts to Hinduise the Adivasi community around Indore. One element in this strategy was terrorism directed at Christian missionaries. A Bharatiya Janata Party upsarpanch, for example, was arrested on the charge of murdering a nun, Sister Rani Maria, on February 25, 1995. At the same time, VHP activists began efforts to install forcibly, a Hanuman idol at the Bhojshala. Local citizens mediated a truce after a first effort by the VHP to storm the Bhojshala in 1994, but a second assault on April 24, 1995, led to riots in Dhar, Indore, Ujjain and Dewas.

Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's administration came down hard on the VHP, arresting over 200 activists, including Sadhvi Rithambara and Bajrang Dal secretary Jaibhan Singh Pavaiya. The trouble did not end here, but at least two themes emerged from it. The first was that a religious dispute had been manufactured over a shrine, which, in local memory, was associated with the worship of Saraswati. The second, of longer-term consequence, was that efforts to displace the Saraswati tradition with the worship of Hanuman, a figure who bridged the space between the high-Hindu traditions of the VHP and the Adivasi population around Dhar, had also begun. But the resistance of the local community to the communalisation of the Bhojshala made one point clear to the VHP. Unless Hindu fundamentalists acquired legitimacy as the authentic representatives of the Bhojshala temple and its Saraswati tradition, their campaign would not succeed.

In September 1996, the campaign to acquire this legitimacy began. Vichar Mimansa, a Hindi journal from Madhya Pradesh, came out with an article by Om Nagpal, which asked whether Husain was "an artist or a butcher". The article pointed to a 'painting' that Vichar Mimansa's editor, V.S. Vajpayee, had come across while reading a book on the artist. The 'painting' was of a "nude" Saraswati, in fact a highly stylised sketch in which only contours, not detailed physical features, were evident. Nagpal's article made its way to Maharashtra Minister for Culture and Shiv Sena leader Pramod Navalkar. With extraordinary vigour, the Mumbai Police took cognisance of a complaint by Navalkar and filed criminal charges against Husain for promoting enmity between different groups of people on the grounds of religion and acting to insult religious feelings and beliefs. Three days after the complaint was filed, Bajrang Dal activists stormed the famous Herwitz Gallery at the Husain-Doshi gufa in Ahmedabad, damaging tapestries and paintings valued at over Rs. 1.5 crores, including representations of the Buddha, Hanuman and Ganesha.

TWO aspects of the Saraswati affair were of particular interest. The first was that it, in characteristic Sangh Parivar style, was founded on untruths. Husain had authored no "nude" painting of Saraswati, even if the stylised outline sketch could be imagined by the Bajrang Dal activists to be one. The sketch had been made in 1976, 20 years before Vichar Mimansa took notice of it, as part of a series of preparatory drawings for a painting made for the O.P. Jindal industrial family. Neither the sketch nor the final Jindal Saraswati, which is fully clothed, had drawn the VHP's attention in the many years of their existence. As significant was the point, as the noted art historian S. Settar put it, that in the Indian tradition, there was no such thing as a "Saraswati image whose torso is clothed". Frontline's November 15, 1996 issue carried illustrations of a 12th century Hoysala sculpture of Saraswati in Halebid, wearing only a belt of jewellery, and another of the third century Kushana period, Lajja Gauri, a popular fertility goddess, with no clothes on. Another one of significance is the Dhar Saraswati itself, illustrated in A.L. Basham's The Wonder That Was India, again with the torso exposed.

Hindu tradition was in fact the last thing on the Bajrang Dal-VHP's mind. On December 6, 1996, the fourth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Bajrang Dal leader Pavaiya attempted to force his way into the Bhojshala to "cleanse it with water from the Ganga as it had been desecrated by Muslims." Since the day was a Friday, Muslims had gathered to offer namaaz at the shrine, as law and custom entitled them to do. Riots broke out shortly afterwards, and although officialdom sought to attribute them to a dispute among Muslim factions, there was no doubt that the Bajrang Dal-VHP provocation had created the climate for the violence. The town remained under curfew from December 12 to 18, 1996, and by May 1997, with tensions continuing to escalate, the local administration imposed stiff restrictions on the use of the Bhojshala by both Hindus and Muslims. Slowly but certainly, the shared religious space was being transformed into a "disputed site". The local VHP now demanded the return of the Dhar Saraswati from London and promised to launch an agitation for its reinstallation at the Bhojshala. BJP Dhar unit chief Prem Khatri joined in the chorus, promising to "reinstal the idol at the same spot" after repairing it.

Interestingly, the Dhar Saraswati's "nudity" did not appear to bother Pavaiya. "Hindus are capable of worshipping the Saraswati idol, even if it is nude, with devotion," he said (Frontline, July 25, 1997). Husain's 'painting', he argued, was objectionable for its "commercial objective". This flatly contradicted what Om Nagpal had said in Vichar Mimansa on the subject when the controversy broke out. Nagpal made it plain that what was offensive about the 'painting' was its nudity. Why, he asked, could Husain not "paint his mother and sister in this modern art style?" "Why does he paint a Hindu goddess in such a disrespectful manner? Why doesn't he paint Allah?"

Clearly, understanding of or concern for tradition had nothing to do with the intellectual assault on Husain and the physical violence that followed it. Both were designed to create a climate in which the VHP-Bajrang Dal could reinvent the Bhojshala as a second Babri Masjid. The campaign was designed to spur the BJP's political prospects in Madhya Pradesh, a region where it had suffered a humiliating electoral defeat after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1993.

WITH the end of the first phase of the Bhojshala agitation, nothing more was heard about the Dhar Saraswati. But from early 1998, the icon of Husain again acquired importance. The background events driving this development were obvious. First and foremost was the rise of Kushabhau Thakre, an Indore-based politician, as BJP president. Madhya Pradesh now acquired critical importance in the party's agenda. With elections to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly on the horizon, aggressive communal mobilisation was essential, and the attack on Husain was renewed.

This time, the ostensible provocation was even more blatantly manufactured than in 1996-97. A Husain lithograph displayed at an exhibition curated by art critic Suneet Chopra at the Academy of Art and Literature, New Delhi, was deployed to generate tension. Titled 'Sita Rescued', the lithograph had been produced in 1984 and was part of similar prints Husain had created for the Ramlila programmes run by socialist groups that were loyal to Ram Manohar Lohia in the 1970s. The display has been reportedly brought to the notice of the VHP by artist Raghu Vyas, who, curiously, had participated in the pro-Husain protests that followed the Saraswati affair. Attacks on the lithograph began soon after the exhibition opened in February this year.

The thrust of the VHP attack, led by B.L. Sharma 'Prem', former member of Parliament from East Delhi, was that the "painting" of Hanuman and Sita portrayed both in the "nude". Sharma expressed his opinion by leading a physical assault on artist Jatin Das and by holding out threats against Arpana Caur, along with eminent author Ajit Caur, at the Academy. But his charge was in fact meaningless. Sita's figure was represented by a dark-gray outline form, bereft of distinguishing features of any kind. Although the contours of a body were visible, these are by no means vulgar. Masterpiece representations of Sita, for example, the sculpture in the Chola-period gallery of the National Museum in New Delhi, have a bare torso, considerably more offensive to the prudish than anything in Husain's lithograph. Other pro-VHP commentators have suggested that the fact that Sita was perched on Hanuman's tail had a phallic resonance, but the simple fact that both face opposite directions make allegations that Husain's lithograph contains sexual innuendo somewhat mystifying.

M.F. Husain.-VIVEK BENDRE

It is hard to explain how anyone could have arrived at the conclusion that Sita and Hanuman were in a state of undress. "The fact that Sita was shown without features or contours," explains Chopra, "is very much part of the representational idiom for gods in Hindu tradition." But aware of the potential for trouble, the organisers of the exhibition attempted to end the controversy. "First," says Chopra, "we renamed the lithograph 'Epic Forms', instead of 'Sita Rescued', and then replaced it with another work that Husain had done for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust." But the threats continued, with Sharma 'Prem' vowing to burn down the gallery.

Five weeks after the exhibition in New Delhi closed down, Husain's home in Mumbai was targeted by the Bajrang Dal. What was most curious about the attack on Husain was that his representation of Hanuman and Sita was anything but radical. Indeed, the lithograph had been shown several times over the years, not only in New Delhi but at peasant gatherings nation-wide, without creating a controversy. The Ramayana lithographs, housed in the Badri Vishal Pitti collection, were made for a Lohiaite-socialist political mobilisation opposed to atheism, Communism and Nehruvian modernity. "Husain's iconography," points out eminent art critic Gita Kapur, "is founded on the notion of an unbroken continuum between Indian tradition and modernism. Mythological subjects have been dealt with since the beginning of Indian modernism, in often strongly interventionist ways. But unlike many other artists, whose use of traditional iconography was ironic or satirical, Husain's work is suffused with affection for his themes." Thus, what was in fact a conservative representation of the Ramayana iconography was singled out for attack by the VHP.

HUSAIN'S non-existent "naked Sita", like his "naked Saraswati", is certain to be deployed by the VHP in the coming Madhya Pradesh elections to attack Muslims at large. In this enterprise, a large section of the media has been a willing collaborator, choosing to cast the attack on Husain as only a freedom of speech issue, without questioning whether his imagined insults to Hindu tradition in fact existed in the first place. Curiously, the VHP's lines of attack on Husain are themselves insults to the tradition it claims to represent. As Pavaiya unwittingly acknowledged, Hindu tradition has always celebrated the body. "In Hindu tradition, there is no such thing as a nude, in the European classical sense," argues Chopra. "Rather, the body has, in several traditions, including the Jain, been associated with divinity." Important epic figures in Indian tradition have always been a part of the lives of people, and thus open to reinvention. In vesting figures such as Hanuman and Sita with the status of immutable Semitic gods, the VHP is in fact, assaulting their traditional epic role.

The VHP's attacks on Indian tradition, and its efforts to restructure Hinduism, unite it with fundamentalists of all hues. In West Bengal, Islamic fundamentalists have been threatening to boycott the Patuas, painters who for generations have made their living by painting Manasa - goddess miniatures. The VHP-Bajrang Dal's objection to a Muslim "denigrating" Hindu beliefs stems from exactly the same mentality. The real tradition of India is one where the Mughal nobleman Abdul Rahim Khankhanan commissioned some of the most famous miniatures of the Ramayana; where the Mughal court stored the Razam Namah, a translation of the Ramayana into the Persian language, in its treasury. But the VHP-Bajrang Dal, with the backing of the Shiv Sena, assault Husain not because he assaults Hindu tradition. The artist's crime is that he is a Muslim with a profound concern for Hindu tradition, a Muslim who believes passionately in India's composite culture and civilisational heritage, and a Muslim from a State where communal mobilisation offers the Hindu right its sole opportunity to take power.

Images of predatory Muslims defiling Hindu faith and womanhood are integral to the far-Right's mythology - the Shiv Sena's latest threat is to "strip" Husain should he proceed with making his film starring actress Madhuri Dixit. The images of Saraswati and Sita were images invented to affirm this mythology. But if the truth be told, the only thing that is naked is the fundamentalists' predatory pursuit of power.

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