For those who have only read about but did not ever see the ‘controversial painting’ please see http://www.hindujagruti.org/activities/campaigns/national/mfhussain-campaign/

 

Were Hindus right to oppose M. F. Husain’s art, or is legitimate artistic freedom being trodden upon?

 

Koenraad Elst

Hindu Voice UK, July 2009 

The first half of 2006 saw a number of incidents concerning the nude paintings of Hindu deities by veteran Muslim painter Maqbul Fida Husain. At least six court cases were filed against him and more than 150 demonstrations took place near Husain exhibitions, auctions, award ceremonies and litigation venues in places as far apart as New York, Washington DC, London, Mumbai, Delhi, Bhopal and provincial towns like Satara. In this article I have no intention of giving a full account of all this commotion, merely to develop my view on the basic question: are these nude depictions of deities justifiable under modern principles of artistic freedom?

Protests

Hindu organizations in Great Britain, most actively the Hindu Human Rights group, have organized protests against an exhibition of paintings by the Indian Muslim artist M. F. Husain. The Times of India (24th May 2006) carried a story of the exhibition held in Asia House in London of two nude portrayals of Hindu goddesses drawn by M. F. Husain. The exhibition was inaugurated by Kamlesh Sharma, India’s High Commissioner. Mr Ramesh Kallidai, the secretary-general of the Hindu Forum of Britain, an umbrella group that claims 270 Hindu organizations as members, told Times of India: “When it came t Prophet’s cartoons, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally condemned them. India was one of the first to ban Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses. Why should artistic freedom only be enjoyed by those who hurt and insult Hindus?”

Hindus protested against the Asia House gallery because they objected to its decision to exhibit paintings of Hindu goddesses engaged in what looked like acts of bestiality. While the Hindu groups had agreed to meet the organizers for discussion, they were beaten to it by unknown individuals who entered the exhibition hall and destroyed some offended paintings. No further talks took place, and exhibition was closed. Anti-Hindu commentators lost no time in amalgamating the dignified Hindu protests with an act of vandalism. The British Hindus set the record straight: “These people also fail to acknowledge the right of the Hindu community to hold peaceful protests when our religion and culture are abused and defamed. The right to peaceful protest is integral to the functioning in any healthy democratic society. Following this logic, the thousands of anti-war protests must also be bigots and fundamentalists. (…) The wider problem is that this is not the first case of defamation against Hindus and Hinduism and it is something that the Hindu community has been concerned about for a long time and it is this defamation that leads to persecution of Hindus elsewhere in the world. It also creates the atmosphere in the West where the media and public becomes apathetic, ignorant and indifferent to the persecution and discrimination of Hindus and Hinduism across the world.”

When Lord Meghnad Desai, a prominent Nehruvian secularist, heard of the affair, he issued a comment putting forth three arguments. Firstly, the exhibition is being attacked because M. F. Husain is a Muslim. Secondly, Hindu Right groups have attempted to undermine artistic freedom. Thirdly, Hindu goddesses can be seen in a variety of poses which many may find erotic in the temples of Khajuraho, Tirupati and others. Let’s look into these claims.

“It’s normal for Goddesses to be naked”

Like Lord Desai, M. F. Husain himself has claimed that his paintings were part of an existing Hindu tradition of depicting goddesses in non-Victorian poses: “We Indians are proud to create a civilization of art and culture, enshrined in the sanctity of Ajanta and Ellora caves and temples for last 5,000 years. There the images of Gods and Goddesses are pure and uncovered.” (Sify.com 13th March 2006)

However, it is simply untrue that goddesses are ever depicted while satisfying themselves with the help of a tiger’s tail, the way Husain depicts Durga. As for the more modest nudes, even these are far from the rule in Hindu iconography.

In the Hindu worldview, kama or eroticism has a place among the finalities of human life. This may well be the idea behind the depiction of some sexual scenes on the outside walls of Khajuraho temples. However, it is not because the Khajuraho buildings are temples that they depict sex between deities. These sculptures are only on the outside, not inside the abode of the deity, and they depict scenes from all aspects of human life. They send the message that one should always have the deity as the central point in one’s life even though one is engaged in worldly activities. About one tenth of them are of a sexual nature,a and none of these involves characters recognizable as Saraswati, Lakshmi or other deities. Inside the Khajuraho temples, the idols of Shiva, Nandi, Durga, the incarnation of Vishnu and Lakshmi etc. are clothed normally. All over India, deities have been shown in temples as described in the scriptures and normally no idols of deities are shown nude or in sexual positions.

There are arguable exceptions. One is the Tantric deity-couples, frequent in Tibet but rare in India, who may be shown in a dignified copulation posture, not doggie-style or lying down missionary-style as pornographers would prefer, but the god sitting in lotus posture with the goddesses sitting on his lap embracing him. I am the happy owner of a statue of Ganesha in copulation with a female partner, which incidentally gives the lie to Paul Courtright’s thesis of Ganesha as a symbol of phallic limpness. None of Husain’s contested paintings even dimly resembles these icons.

The second exception is the icons of naked saints, not gods, who observed a vow of nudity as part of their ascetic discipline. This chiefly concerns Mahavirs Jina and some of his followers. But obviously there cannot be a trace of sensuality, let alone Husain’s perversity, in those depictions of celibate saints.

In an open letter to Lord Desai, Hindu Human Rights also explained that Hindus were “offended at his depiction of Draupadi as naked, as in Hindu tradition it is Lord Kridhna who saves her modesty in the Maharabhata”. Effectively, in a central episode of the most influential text of Hinduism, the Mahabharata¸ Draupadi is threatened with nudity as an act of humiliation, and the deified hero Krishna is credited with saving her from this shame. Husain identifies with the Kaurava rascals by taking her clothes off after all. The very least that the epic story teaches is that ancient Hindus were not so carefree about nudity after all.

At this point I have to correct a position I had taken in an internet discussion after a naked depiction of goddess Saraswati by Husian had caused some commotion. I had pointed out that Saraswati had been introduced in Japan by the Buddhists under the name Benzai-ten, and that this goddess does get depicted naked. Indeed, a naked sculpture of Benzai-ten is shown in many books of Buddhist or Japanese art history (e.g Louis Frederic: Les Dieux du Bouddhisme, Flammarion, Paris 1992, p.223 ff.). However, that sculpture is not functioning idol in a temple but located in a museum. In a temple, such a naked sculpture is clothed every morning, and worshippers only see her clothed. This practice of clothing a sculpture is not uncommon in Hindu-Buddhist devotionalism, e.g even the giant Bamian Buddhas in Afghanistan used to be clothed. The Japanese are less prudish than the Indians, but even they worship their deities in clothed form. Likewise, even the impudent Greeks depicted only Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, in the nude; but Artemis, Athena, Demeter and other goddesses are always shown covered.

“Nudity is normal in modern art”

In a letter published in The Gurdian, 2nd June 2006, the HHR, in line with its other progressive statements regarding full integration of Dalits, action against female infanticide etc., refutes the allegation that it represents an anti-art obscurantism: “We protested against the Asia House gallery because we object to its decision to exhibit paintings of Hindu goddesses engaged in acts of bestiality (Letters, May 26 and 30). Maghnad Desai seems to think such images can be found in Hindu temples, but, as we have written to him, we dispute this and challenge him to produce evidence. All our statements show we have always maintained we are not anti-art. After all, where else can we find the range of expression we find in Hindu literature, poetry, painting, dance, music, sculpture, drama, spiritual epics, architecture, costumes and jewellery. But when we see Hindu imagery and symbolism adorning toilet seats, bikinis, magazine covers etc., it becomes easier to see why so many people in the media and politics are ignorant and apathetic when it comes to highlighting the plight of Hindus in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, [etc.].”

There is a certain pluralism and fluidity in contemporary standards about what is acceptable and what is not. Some standards are nonetheless still standing firm, and they can be ascertained approximately with the comparative method: replace the question of nudity in different contexts and see what is accepted there. For a precise instance: “Those supporting the nude paintings of Hindu goddesses by Husain should answer in the affirmative the following question: will they accept an exhibition of a nude painting of their beloved ones?”

Hindus may not realize that some artsy people in the West would indeed not mind having their loved ones or themselves depicted naked. But this is unlikely to be true of Lord Desai, much less of M. F. Husain. And for this, we have the testimony of Husain’s own paintings.

“Nudity is a form of innocence”, say Husain (Sify.com 13th May 2006), who describes himself as a “a humble and ardent contributor in creating a great Indian ‘Composite’ culture”. Yet, the pattern emerging from a survey of his paintings suggests nudity isn’t all that innocent to his own mind. Husain shows the Prophet’s daughter Fatima fully clothed; his own mother fully clothed; Mother Teresa fully clothed; Muslim poets Faiz and Ghalib fully clothed; an unnamed Muslim lady fully clothed; but goddess Durga naked and in compromising position; goddess Lakshmi naked on Ganesha’s head; goddess Saraswati naked; Draupadi naked; Hanuman naked with Sita sitting on Ravan’s thigh; Bharat Mata naked, with names of India’s provinces written on her flesh. Even more telling is a painting showing a fully clad Muslim king with a naked Brahmin, and one showing four 20 th-century leaders, among them Gandhi decapitated and Hitler naked.

So, it is hard to find fault with the Hindu group’s conclusion: “M. F. Husain depicts the deity or person he hates as naked. He shows Prophet’s Mother, his own mother, daughter, all the Muslim personalities fully clothed, but at the same time Hindus and Hindu deities along with Hitler are shown naked. This proves his hatred for the Hindus.” The HHR suggests to Husain’s patrons: “It will be very much appreciated if these art traders dare to make nude paintings of their beloved ones, and what to say of Mohammed the Prophet, and exhibit [these] in the name of art.”

Some secular modern painters might in good faith depict Hindu deities in the nude and mean it when they deny that this has any disparaging intention. But M. F. Husain is not one of those. He is a Muslim fanatic who gives a new expression to the old Islamic contempt for Hinduism. Muslim rulers in the past expressed their contempt by placing Hindu deity sculptures in roads for treading them underfoot, or in lavatories. Husain seeks the same effect by depicting the deities in poses that he and many onlookers find contemptible. As for the secular art collectors who now support him in the name of artistic freedom, he takes them for a ride by using the visual language of modernism and the liberal rhetoric of artistic freedom to package the age-old Islamic message of hatred.

“Husain is a Muslim”

The same Hindu bodies who have joined the sensitivity bandwagon are usually also those which avoid polemic with Islam. When given an opportunity, they will rather join hands with Muslims to prove how nice they are. Many Hindu organizations, such as the Hindu American Forum, have passed resolutions condemning the Danish Mohammed cartoons. In the State Assembly of Andhra Pradesh, the Hindu nationalist BJP supported a resolution to the same effect, which was passed unanimously, also and especially with the support of the so called secularists. These Hindus were naive to expect any signs of gratitude in return, whether from Muslims or secularists. Indeed, now that Hindus themselves allege blasphemy, no one comes out in solidarity with them.

Unlike in France or Germany, where prominent media came out in support of the Danish cartoonist by republishing the cartoons, the British and American media downplayed the affair as much as possible and refrained from showing the cartoons, possibly in a concern not to make matters worse for their occupation troops in Iraq. At any rate, they went out of their way not to offend Muslim sensibilities. An earlier HHR statements observes: “We understand that the media in the UK did not publish the Mohammed cartoons as a deliberate decision. And we also understand that no academics (or people like Lord Meghnad Desai) protested about the decision. In fact, it is possible that they would be all applauding the decision of the media.”

Yet, when it comes to Hindu sensibilities, different standards apply. Here, Desai stands up for a Muslim painter’s “artistic freedom to take Hindu gods and goddesses as his theme”. In its letter to The Guardian, HHR explains: “More seriously, he accuses us of raising this issue because of M. F. Husain’s religion. This is completely baseless; we are proud of our interfaith work and have spoken on radio with Muslim leaders to support their efforts to end attempts to demonize their community.”

Another activist group, the Mumbai-based Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (Committee for Hindu Popular Awakening) claims in reply that it “has handled many similar campaigns against deliberate insults of Hindus and Hinduism by Hindu painters, for example Shri. Subash Avchat, Dnyanesh Sonar, Mahendra Pandit amongst others.” There are at any rate plenty of Hindu-born anti-Hindu secularists, and those among them with an artistic vocation might feel inclined to insulting Hinduism through paintings too, just as the scholors among them do with anti-Hindu theses. Reacting against Hinduism, but it is not the only onr; a commitment to Islam is another.

The case of M. F. Husainis probably one of mixed motives. The engouragement by secularists to insult Hinduism certainly played a role, but the more fundamental reason may well be his own ingrained Muslim hatred of “idolatry”.

In the debate about the Danish Mohammed cartoons, Muslims eagerly quote the words UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the Oraganization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul on 13th April 2006, where he affirmed the importance of basic freedoms as well as the need for sensitivity towards other cultures: “We must stress that rights carry with them an inherent responsibility, and should not be used to degrade, humiliate or insult any group or individual.” But these Muslims have not matured enough to take this maxim to heart in their own treatment of non-Muslim cultures.

My view

In contrast with the Hindu human Rights group, which has fully integrated the modern outlook, many Hindu advocacy groups have reacted to the Husain paintings in a humourless, unimaginative, crude and repression-centred manner. For example, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti put forward the following demands: “1. That M. F. Husain be arrested and put behind the bars immediately. 2. Immediate removal of all objectionable paintings of Husain from the Kashmir Mission Auction. 3. That M. F. Husain be socially ostracized so that no one dares to commit such a mistake in future.” And again: “Arrest Mr. Chetan bhatt [a London-based political science professor who came out in Husain’s support] and other evil intellectuals for promoting hatred. Socially ostracise M. F. Husain, Lord Desai and others supporting M. F. Husain’s paintings from offices and galleries.”

It can’t be a good advertisement for Hinduism that its activists have not advanced beyond this stage of purely reactive, emotionalist and repressive thinking. The people who came out in support of M. F. Husain’s insulting paintings can safely be suspected of an anti-Hindu animus, but that, after all, is their privilege. Neither in the ancient Hindu tradition of open debate nor in modern Western framework of freedom of expression can their opinion be a valid reason for arresting or otherwise harassing them.

Within that framework, it is nonetheless legitimate to try and persuade people into abandoning insulting practices. Companies depicting Hindu deities on shoes or underwear have indeed agreed to withdraw these products after friendly negotiations with Hindu protestors. The people concerned are usually outsiders to Hindu culture and South-Asian politics, and precisely because there is a silly innocence about their improper gimmicks, they don’t insist on their “right to artistic expression” when properly informed.

The matter may be different with hate-driven secularists and Muslims. As demonstrated in the M. F. Husain affair, Hindu opposition only makes them more arrogant and more eager to rub it in. Even there, I believe Hindus should muster the self-control to maintain respect for ancient Hindu and modern international norms regarding freedom of expression. This is very precious and benefits everyone in the long run.

One reason why many Hindus don’t value their right to free expression, is that they never use it, at least not in matters where it would provoke controversy. Kofi Annan’s admonition cited above, which Muslims use to bully their critics into silence, is being sincerely observed by most Hindus. Without being asked or pressured, they try not to offend Muslims and Christians. It is commendable that Hindus have the good taste not to put images of Jesus or Mohammed on underwear or toilet seats. But it is regrettable that they also silence their own critical faculty and refrain from taking a frank look at the doctrines of their declared enemies. If they tried to do that once in a while, they would soon come to value the need for a legally guaranteed freedom of expression.

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