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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Exercise Continues : Defence Through Offence

Internationa Herald Tribune : Editorials & Commentary : Opinion : Meanwhile : The Right To Be Offended : Salil Tripathi

Maqbool Fida Husain is India's most renowned contemporary painter. Even at the ripe old age of 90, he remains active, holding exhibitions around the world that draw many visitors, commanding a huge premium for his canvases, and revealing an astonishing range of creativity.

And so we set up Mr Hussain as an undoubtably agreeable aggrieved. I am not too sure about the range of creativity, though this be an impression one keeps to oneself.

This month in London, Kamlesh Sharma, the Indian high commissioner, inaugurated an exhibition of his early work. Calling him India's greatest modern artist, Sharma said, "Husain's career and success mirrors closely the meteoric rise of contemporary Indian art on the international stage."

One can imagine how such speeches are written and delivered. And, this is an unnecessary aside, unless of course you desire to set up a halo around the artist. What is this about the need for "international" recognition? Wait a moment, we are not getting drawn into asides here.

And yet with all of his accomplishments, Husain faces the risk of prosecution - in India. His alleged crime? A painting of Bharat Mata, or Mother India, in the nude. This work comes on top of many paintings over the years that show several revered Hindu female deities in the nude. Hindu nationalists have run a decade-long campaign against Husain; now, quixotically, India's center-left governing coalition is supporting them. There have been ripple effects: Because of threats from Hindu nationalists, the London exhibition has been closed.

The female deities in question had some or the other aspect of sexuality associated with them, going by the related mythology. I am not too sure the same applies to the notion of the Mother Nation, young as it may be. Does it have to do with the difficulty in imagining your mother in bed? Be it that this Nation be a myth; there seems to be a sense of convenient equivalence here, not entirely justified and somewhat dissonant.

Husain has remained in the limelight, not only through his elegant rendering of horses, but also by capturing India's mood over the past six decades. He has become the artistic equivalent of a poet laureate, celebrating India's triumphs and weeping over its tragedies. All along, Husain has celebrated India's diversity, embodying its inclusive culture.

"Not only through the elegant rendering of horses," is said right after "astonishing range of creativity". Petty point. Let it not be registered. And the less said about the mood of his patrons, the better. We do not wish to disturb him from resting on his laurels. The rest are non-sequitirs with merely a tangential bearing on the matter discussed in the previous paragraph.

Indeed, Husain has painted several goddesses from the Hindu pantheon in the nude, including Saraswati, the goddess of learning, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Durga, a martial goddess who slays demons. These are bold works that reshape our thinking about Hindu myths, revealing them in new light; they are not lewd drawings meant to titillate. His nudes delineate the body in sharp lines, elevating it to an abstract realm, suggesting the formlessness of divinity.

They may not be lewd drawings meant to titillate, but why do you gloss over the possibility that nudity in this context is associated with sex, penury or asceticism. Now which of your favourite goddesses would you prefer being portrayed in which mode? I would humbly suggest that there is nothing abstract about any of them. And how long, goiing by your study of history and intimate knowledge of human nature, would you estimate such abstractions take to percolate down to one and all? Sans dissonance? The problem with dissonance is that, once actuated, you either end up with the opposite stance ( thereby appearing rather foolish and inconsistent ) or crystallise on your taken position ( rather violently at times ). Why the surprise at the offence taken? And, I beg to submit, there is nothing abstract about "delineation of the body into sharp lines" so as to "suggest formlessness" - and if there be, as I can imagine, I can also imagine it being absolutely incomprehensible.

This explanation, which is faithful to Hindu philosophy, is too abstract for fundamentalists who have protested against his works, and in some cases, ransacked art galleries in India displaying his art. Some Hindu groups have also used the courts: More than 1,200 cases have been filed against him.

So we agree that it may be a tad too abstract. And that is enough for us to start using labels pejoratively. Only 1200 cases? We would have imagined it being more abstract than that.

Husain has apologized for hurting sentiments. Explaining his motives, the painter has traced his art to India's millennia-old heritage in which gods and goddesses were "pure and uncovered."

So much for Artistic Integrity in the Face of Adversity. Neat paraphrasing. They were "pure and uncovered" - but they are not now, in the same way that our sexuality here has evolved therefrom.

But we live in complicated times. Hindu nationalists have grown more assertive since the 1990s, complaining about the inequity in taking Hindus for granted while appeasing Muslim sensibilities. Some Hindus are seething over this perceived injustice: Because of the amount of attention Muslims have commanded when they have been offended by images they consider blasphemous - a concept alien to Hinduism - Hindus want equal treatment. They want the right to be offended.

But as Husain has said, the sacred and the profane have always coexisted in India. As a faith, Hinduism is broad enough to include some sects that think sex is the way to enlightenment, and broadminded enough to overlook some ascetics roaming around naked, their bodies smeared with ash, during major religious congregations.

In some Indian literature and art, nudity connotes purity and openness, not vulgarity. Architects have decorated many temples with nude deities. Bronze sculptures of scantily clad Hindu goddesses made during the Chola period are no less divine. The temples in Khajuraho from the Chandela period have hundreds of erotic statues. Husain is linking his art with these traditions.

It is hypocritical to place curbs on Husain's artistic freedom. What's more shameful is that a government that claims to be the secular alternative to Hindu nationalists is threatening to prosecute Husain. This does not do India proud; it adds to India's disgrace.

We have referred to evolution of religious sentiment, reality and implied the need for assertion in the domain of information earlier. Interpretation is another matter for another day.

~ Advocatus Diaboli

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