Freedom of expression vs people’s sentiments in art

By Azera Rahman


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New Delhi : Whether it's the Vadodara issue of a fine arts student getting arrested for painting allegedly obscene pictures of gods or noted artist M.F. Husain getting slapped with court cases time and again over the same issue, art has become a sensitive issue these days. One never knows when the stroke of a brush may prick the sentiments of a section of people.

A constant tug-of-war between "freedom of expression" and "people's sentiments", over a considerable period of time has resulted in many a film set getting vandalised like that of filmmaker Deepa Mehta's "Water", paintings getting destroyed like that of Husain's and books being banned like that of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses".

Art and controversy have had a long history of going hand in hand. But the rising number of protests against any piece of art, be it a film, a painting or a theatrical piece, has got the artists' community sitting up and standing together for fear that their lifeline might get choked.

"Freedom of expression is the lifeline of all the forms of art. Not only that, it's the lifeline of the nation. If that is curbed, then we will be treading dangerous zones. These protests are nothing but oppression of expression," M.K. Raina, noted theatre artist, told IANS.

Referring to Husain's ordeal in the court, fellow artist Krishan Khanna said: "What had happened to Husain is not a case in isolation. It is a threat to the entire artist community. Anybody and everybody can register a case against an artist's work today and infringe upon our lives".

Noted filmmaker Syed Mirza echoed similar sentiments. "This is totally outrageous. All that I want to say is that 91-year-old Husain deserves more respect than this, not because of his age but because of the immense contribution in the fields of art and cinema," he said.

A Haridwar court had ordered attaching of his properties over a case of obscenity filed by an advocate with regard to two of his paintings.

Hardly had this issue subsided, than the Vadodara 'art attack' incident erupted. A final year student of Maharaja Sayaji Rao University (MSU) in the city was arrested and later released on bail for alleged obscene portrayal of gods and goddesses.

Converging in big numbers in major metropolises, artists came together in a show of support for the student.

"Indian art is on an all-time high. There's a huge market for it in the international arena. Hence at this time protests against the artists who are actually taking Indian art to great heights is a huge human tragedy," Nafisa Ali, actor and community activist, told IANS.

Giving the legal angle to the issue, Supreme Court advocate Rajiv Dhawan said: "I wish I could say that there were any legal aspects to it. If one has to go by the constitutional proposition, the freedom of speech has been taken over by thugs."

But while there is this huge uproar on freedom of speech and expression being strangulated, there is, but obviously, the other side.

"Freedom of expression doesn't mean that you can do anything which hurts the sentiments of people. That is simply not acceptable," said Amol Misra, a bank employee.

"How would you like it if your mother's bare portrait is drawn by someone in the name of art? We pray to the gods and goddesses, respect is too mild a word to use for them. So isn't this reaction only justified?" asked Dharmendra Singh.

Justified or not, the artists community is definitely not taking things lying down with regard to the issue of public censorship. "Even touching a theme can make people nervous. We are in the worst phase of expression," said visual artist Ram Rahman.

"It's a long struggle and we will fight," added Raina.

(Azera Rahman can be contacted at [email protected])