Husain in exile reflects cultural decadence

By Uma Nair

Zealots clip artistic freedom and Husain remains between Dubai and London zooming around in his Bentleys and Cadillacs, enormously nostalgic about a walk down Marine Drive (Mumbai) and a cup of chai on his native soil. It is perhaps the only example of its kind in the world, where an artist who has risen to the ranks of fame has been kept away by the fanatics of a newly dictated religion that draws up its own rules and touts globalism even as it defines a decadent diatribe in the name of Hinduism.

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India has become the land of puzzling paradoxes. On the one hand is an artist's freedom of expression, a right that our society is founded upon and one that we appreciate on a deeply personal level. On the other is the cherished value that allows all Indians to live harmoniously in a multicultural society with sensitivity and respect towards the religious sensibilities of other cultures.

But in the strange case of M.F. Husain and his pending cases in the courts, including his properties being attached, you wonder if the very values we have preached and been praised for have become intractably and painfully entangled in the web of cultural decadence.

Whether it be his nude drawings or the semblance to any god/goddess, the focus of the sculptonic structuring of Husain's contours in all his works have been primarily aesthetic. In interviews Husain has always referred to himself as an aesthete with the spiritual aspects of the symbolism playing a relevant but secondary role. This means that the symbolic meaning of the iconography does lend a secondary level of interest to his works, supplementing their primary effect as works of art.

In his first book published by TATA, he wrote:

"War breaks out. `Museums with walls' collapse. A battered tree itself becomes an object alive, a cracked asphalt road bears the inscription of art manifestos. I don't read them, I can't but my fingers can travel along."

Always concerned with the mysteries of the human panorama, Husain's appropriation and subtle suggestions have fallen on stagnant intellects whose minds are buried under the debris of intellectual and spiritual arrogance. The media on one hand has its role to play, for them appropriation of sacred imagery for secular purposes is inevitably more sensational than just being merely hurtful and contentious. Particularly in India, which boasts of a rich and harmonious multicultural society and where sacred imagery has always been an intrinsic part of popular culture, one wonders if artists now will have to create with caution.

Does that mean that artists like Husain who happen to be Muslim can't ever be inspired by the rich lore of world religions or use religious art as the starting point of their work? That question is burning with no conclusive epiphany in sight. It seems as if the final balance between freedom of expression and respect for the faith of others is like treading a razor's edge.

One remembers an incident in 2002 when a newspaper office in Bangalore was vandalised by a Muslim mob for publishing a perfectly innocent cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in its children's section. And the newspaper apologised to the attackers. Imagine the victim apologising to the assailants! Other papers in Bangalore – and at other places – have also apologised on similar occasions. So does 'artistic freedom' mean that the freedom is to offend Hindu sensibilities only?

Then there was Britain in December 2004, which saw a drama company in the Midlands cancel the run of a contentious play in the face of violent religious protests. In the past, British theatre has been grappling with a range of uncomfortable and unusual questions about censorship, freedom and faith.

The furore centred on a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the British-born daughter of Sikh immigrants. Her work, "Behzti" ("Dishonour"), used a Sikh temple as the setting for a harrowing scene in which a young woman is beaten by other women, including her own mother, after being raped by a man who claims to have had a homosexual relationship with her father.

As the play was being performed on Dec. 18, hundreds of Sikh protesters attacked the building, throwing bricks, smashing windows and fighting with the police. Citing the threat of further disruptions, the theatre cancelled the run, which started Dec 9.

But that was only the beginning of a much broader drama. In the midst of this impassioned debate, Bhatti went into hiding, fearing for her life after death threats. The situation evoked comparisons with the fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989 that sent Salman Rushdie into hiding following the publication of his "Satanic Verses", a novel the Iranian authorities regarded as insulting to Islam.

It is clear that with globalisation the world has become a small place, but with its smallness it seems as if our mental faculties have also shrunk. It also seems as if in a world of global information flow there is an insurmountable contradiction between traditional free speech values and public discussion about Islam/Hinduism. It is amply clear that in our newly erected networked world, existing societal and political tensions can be inflamed instantly through the transfer of images/messages from one cultural context to another.

The central question is as simple as it is difficult. In the NYT was a radical question: "What is more important for the democratic advancement of a society – to ensure the freedom of expression of all its citizens (within the limits marked by law) or to protect the collective interests of society?"

Artistic freedom is not a static value, and the responsibilities of society evolve with every new social and political development around the nation/world – requiring the limits of censorship outputs to be subjected to constant review. Husain's exile puts a single notion forward. The connection between artistic freedom and censorship may be roundabout and hidden, or direct and fully exposed – like a livewire. That's when things start to subvert.

(Uma Nair writes on art and culture. She can be contacted at [email protected])