M.F. Husain Episode: Indian Fascists have triumphed
Syed Ali Mujtaba
When I learnt that one of the most celebrated artists of India, Maqbool Fida Hussain has taken up the nationality of Qatar to escape from the Hindu zealots who have been gunning for his life, there was a feeling of remorse. It was not because he was known to me or I am an admirer of his paintings, but simply because, he has been such a colorful personality. He epitomized ‘Dil to bacha hai jee’ (heart is always a child) in his fling (Ishqiya) with Madhuri Dixit. I have practically grown up reading about his eccentricities. Now when I realize he will no more be gossiped in the media columns, a stream of thought flows my memory lane at various points of my life.
It was exactly 1980, when I first saw M.F Hussain. That was when I was an undergraduate student in AMU, Aligarh. Hussain had come there to finalize the huge cutouts to adore the front entrance of the geography department. The campus was abuzz with the news of his arrival and we rushed from the arts block to the Kennedy Hall, where his older work greets the visitors. I had a chance to see him in real flesh and blood. He was wearing white kurta- pajama and sported long white beard. The only intriguing part of his personality was he was bare footed! As usual it happens in AMU such personalities are mobbed by the students and Hussain was no exception. I saw him waving hands as he was escorted into a car that drove him out of the campus.
My second encounter with MF Hussain was at JNU, New Delhi. That was sometime in 1987 where I was a PhD student. This again was just a coincidence when one evening I saw Hussain walking with few Professors outside the Kaveri hostel. This time he had trimmed his beard and had short hairs. In fact, I was walking from the opposite side but could not realize who he was. Again, his trademark, the barefooted man, rang bells into my ears. By the time I realized he was MF Hussain, I saw him driving a car, and moving out of my sight.
I saw Hussain for the third time. This time it was in 1995 when I was in Hyderabad working as a city reporter. One evening after attending a press conference at the Hyderabad secretariat, I was returning to my Secundrabad office in a bus when it got flat tires. Since, it was an important assignment, and I had to reach my office quickly and so I decided to walk the bridge over the Hussain Sagar Lake. It was a breezy evening, and I was enjoying my stroll. Suddenly from somewhere, when I was on the middle of the Bridge, I saw a Mercedes Benz very slowly moving by my side. In the back seat, I saw a man wearing white Kurta- Pajama sporting a white beard. The car was so slow, that I was almost walking with it. My mind was racing, searching the memory files to locate this character sitting on the back seat. By the time I could realize he was MF Hussain, his car sped past me. I was seeing from the rear glass of that car the image of M.F Hussain fading out of my sight.
Well that was the last time I saw the man who is called the Picasso of India. Since then his images use to adorn my sight through the pages on magazines and newspapers and I could feel he was there somewhere a part and parcel of the Indian social life.
Now when I realize he is been hounded out the country and forced to take citizenship of another country, I feel I may not be able follow him as before. The forces of bigotry and intimidation have won against those who hold liberal views. In simple words the Indian fascists have got the trophy, while their counterparts from across the border are busy making the headlines for the newspapers.
It’s ironical that a country, whose religious art often portrays nudity and even overt sexuality, as in the case of the Khajuraho sculptures and the murals and frescoes of south Indian temples, has grown so intolerant as to drive into permanent exile its most famous artist, compelling him to forego his Indian citizenship.
Hussain’s time of troubles started since 1996, when a Hindi monthly published an inflammatory article on his paintings done in 1970s. This led to a slew of criminal cases, filed against him alleging that the artist has hurt the Hindus sentiments. The painter was harassed by the fanatical mobs; the exhibitions of his work were vandalized, and about 900 cases filed against him.
The magnitude of the protest against MF Hussain suggests the organized and entrenched strength of the Hindutva forces is in this country. This makes me ponder how long those who uphold the secular, plural and democratic values will allow such forces to have a free run? How long we may be delegating the responsibility to government to keep such elements under check? To me, its time those opposing such regressive forces, have to be equally organized if we want to make India an oasis of peace and harmony.
With this episode what seems apparent is the ninety-five years old painter of India is heading to become another Bahadur Shah Zafar who once bemoaned from Rangoon that he could not get even two meters of land in his own motherland for his burial.
MF Hussain’s son Owais Husain, a filmmaker-writer-painter, rationalizes the predicament of his father. ‘My father is older than modern independent India. As a child he struggled to make ends meet. During British India he painted slogans against the colonial rulers. In independent India, he painted pictures that sold for astronomical sums of money. He didn't plan any of this. He didn't plan his exile in Dubai and now his citizenship in Qatar. His life has been charted by destiny.’
Some have argued that many undeserving individuals in the country have been given red level security, why not MF Hussain? It’s the duty of the government to provide security to its national icon. To this there runs a counter argument; why should a creative person be living in captivity watched by hosts of security guards. How can he work in such a claustrophobic atmosphere? Hussain is justified for his action because is important at this stage of his life to have a sense of belongingness. There are others who feel that a national campaign should be launched to request the distinguished artist to return home.
Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that M F Hussein undoubtedly is one of the top most celebrities in the field of painting that India has produced in modern times. The irony is, even after being acknowledged so, he is haunted out of the country, forced to live in exile, and eventually have to take a foreign nationality.
His crime is to draw paintings that supposedly to be of Hindu deities that has allegedly hurt the sentiments of some Hindu brethrens. Is Hussein the first person to have committed such irreverence? Isn’t Indian history is littered with such visual images that are now considered as India’s treasure trove. Then why such hypocritical attitude is shown against him? Perhaps because Hussein bears a Muslim sounding name and does not fit into the stereotype of ‘ours’ image, and therefore cannot be accepted as ones own.
Indian courts have tried to educate those who claim to been hurt. It observes; “A painter has his own perspective of looking at things and it cannot be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him. In India, a new Puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalizing art and pushing us towards the pre-renaissance era. A painter at 90s deserves to be sitting at his home and painting his canvas [rather than living in exile].” Another ruling says: “There are so many such subjects, photographs and publications. Will you [complainant] file cases against all of them?” It is art. If you don’t want to see it, then don’t see it. There are so many such art forms in the [Hindu] temple structures.”
However, these arguments do not placate those who maintain their distinct line of thought and like to compete with the Talibans from across the border in such matters. It’s a major victory for them as they have forced MF Hussein to accept a foreign nationality. It’s a real shame for those who uphold liberal, secular, plural and democratic values that failed to keep its national icon in its motherland.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@ yahoo.com