But do these rights and freedoms -- enshrined in our Constitution -- give one the right to offend a particular community or religion, while studiously avoiding antagonizing your own?
That is precisely what MF Husain has done by depicting Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, and apparently even indulging in bestiality. No other religion is given similar treatment by this man, whom many describe as India’s Picasso. If he had, I would have saluted him for truly practicing his freedom. But in this case, I can only speculate on the motives behind such partiality.
With great freedom comes great responsibility. And artistic freedom too must have its limits. To say that an artist is not bound by societal or religious conventions, like Husain invariably claims, is assuming too many liberties simply because of one’s prowess in wielding the brush.
Husain often argues he’s a citizen of the world. But how many countries in the world would have looked the other way knowing that here was a painter, gifted no doubt, whose life’s purpose it had become to see beneath the skin of their religious icons and motifs, and whose artistic merit chiefly lay on how sexually loaded and explicit his work was?.
There are boundaries that even an artist of his caliber needs to respect and adhere to. And if he crosses them time and again, like Husain most definitely did, then it is natural that to assume that talent and genius have crossed over to the line of mischief and intended hurt. And that makes him answerable.
Probably, if he had depicted other icons of other religion in similar light, his trespasses would have acquired a shade of consistency, and one might even have been able to defend the indefensible, though two wrongs do not always make a right.
But the fact that he chose to steer clear of exposing figure heads and divinities of other religions clearly signifies he was more keen to court controversy, get publicity, play the victim and then milk sentiments like ‘India is my motherland’ to its last drop. Besides, religious art is one thing. Making huge profits out of it something else altogether.
Surely Mr Husain could not have been unaware of the fact that he was playing with fire. He has seen and heard of enough and more incidents wherein his brethren belonging to his religious faith have spread havoc and destruction when the Prophet has been so-called artistically interpreted or lampooned.
India was among the first nations to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses
. Similarly, Muslim hardliners forced Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi author seeking refuge in India, to be evicted from the nation. Both were perceived to have offended the religious sensibilities of the Muslim community.
Yet when MF Husain is charged with hurting Hindu sensibilities, our secular media and even sections of the government lament and decry the community’s “growing intolerance.”
Let us not kid ourselves: this is not about artistic freedom. It is about perceptions.
The people who defend MF Husain point to the fact that Indian art is apparently full of sexual overtones. “Look at the sculptures of Khajuraho, look at the paintings of Lord Krishna cavorting with nude women!” they declare.
But Hindu scholars say that none of these erotic statues on the Khajuraho temples walls depict Hindu –or any other-- gods indulging in sexual union. And none of these paintings of Krishna portray him nude.
It is a matter of perception. Almost every act of Muslim violence in India is blamed on the ransacking of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya by Hindu zealots in December 1992, and of course the more recent carnage in Gujarat. Both are perceived, and projected, as blots on India’s secular credentials.
Similarly, among other things, the Indian government’s 1986 decision to allow Muslim women to be subject to Sharia law, as opposed to the common civil code, is perceived by many Hindus as appeasement of the Muslim community.
So it is not really Husain’s art, but the perception about it, that is germane to the debate.
A few years ago, a Delhi court heard a case against Husain over a painting which depicted “Bharat Mata” as a nude woman in distress.
Husain apparently did not title the picture. But large scale protests erupted against the painting after it appeared in an advertisement for the auction house, which had inserted the title. Several cases were filed against the artist on the grounds of obscenity and offending religious sentiments. Husain later claimed he had apologised for it, but the painting was subsequently hosted on his official website.Has India been unfair to M F Husain?
(Interestingly, it is now impossible to access his paintings on his website, or even participate in a poll on the subject, which asks: “ What do you think about Bharat Matha?”)
Quashing the cases against the artist, the court ruled that: “...the literature of India, both religious and secular, is full of sexual allusions, sexual symbolisms and passages of such frank eroticism the likes of which are not to be found elsewhere in world literature”.
However, it noted, “While an artist should have creative freedom, he is not free to do anything he wants. The line which needs to be drawn is between art as an expression of beauty and art as an expression of an ill mind intoxicated with a vulgar manifestation of counter-culture where the latter needs to be kept away from a civilian society. …..There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech. The reality of democracy is to be measured by the extent of freedom and accommodation it extends.”
And therein lies the rub. Because as editor and journalist Vir Sanghvi put it: “The goons who drove Husain out have shamed India. But if he accepts citizenship of a totalitarian state, then Husain will shame himself. Now that MF Husain has taken Qatar citizenship, can we please know how much freedom of expression there is in Qatar?”
Grow up, Mr Husain. Ramananda Sengupta is Chief Editor, sify.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are his personal views, and not of sify.comMore columns by the author