Treat amid threats

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

MAQBOOL FIDA HUSAIN, Indias premier artist, is now living in exile in London and Dubai thanks to the 1,200 cases slapped against him by ultra-right Hindu fundamentalists. Their principal complaint is that Husain has insulted Indian culture by his depiction of Hindu gods and goddesses. Obviously, they have neither seen nor heard of the Didarganj Yakshi or the gorgeous temple erotica of Khajuraho and other places. As a result of this ban, in effect if not in law, he cannot exhibit anywhere in India without fear of reprisal.

When the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi, invited him to exhibit at their gallery (December 18-28), the works on show were archival prints on canvas, not the originals. In retrospect, it was a wise move. Within hours of the opening, the right-wingers started to call up the IICs programme office with threats to disrupt the exhibition. They continued their threats to the end.

On December 23, there was a strong possibility of an attack from one or other of the factions of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal or the Shiv Sena. The exhibition closed down for half a day amid speculation and rumour of capitulation to the demands of the ruffians. The next morning the exhibition opened amid tight security. Slowly, art aficionados and lay citizens began trickling in. Word-of-mouth publicity had obviously been useful.

The timings of the exhibition were curtailed by two hours. It had to close at 5 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. because of a somewhat eccentric request from the police, who found it easier to identify miscreants by daylight than by artificial light. Despite this inconvenience, a steady stream of visitors came to see the highly enjoyable show.

Abusive telephone calls from fundamentalists of both sexes persisted. They kept repeating that the IIC was deliberately trampling over the sentiments of millions of Hindus. Repeated requests to them from the IIC to come and see for themselves fell on deaf ears.

The callers to the IIC too were just as persistent. Husain, they kept raving, had insulted Hindu gods and goddesses by painting them naked. Somehow, they seemed to have overlooked the fact that sensuality is an integral part of the Indian religious and cultural tradition. Perhaps, these people have not seen with their own eyes the ancient temple sculpture or their photographic reproductions. These paeans in stone are a celebration of living, timeless works of the Indian artistic imagination.

On December 27, the penultimate day of the show, two seemingly innocent looking men from the Shiv Sena managed to elude the security at the gate and enter the gallery. They raised slogans and attempted to damage the paintings. They were swiftly disarmed and handed over to the police who held them in preventive custody. There was widespread speculation about people known to the IIC being actively involved in this scandalous act.

Those who took the trouble to see the show were amply rewarded, for they saw the work of a joyous, vigorous youth rather than a nonagenarian. One of the stills distributed to the press is a jaunty self-portrait of Husain. The gesture was apt and the picture signatory.

Partha Chatterjee
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