Soon after some Arab countries objected to the comments by two Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons on the Prophet of Islam, the Hindu rightwing accused Qatar of hypocrisy for giving refuge to artist MF Husain. The painter, alleges the Hindu-right, indulged in offensive depiction of Hindu deities.
He had not requested for the citizenship of Qatar; it was an honorary conferment, certainly not in lieu of his Indian nationality. His exile was tragic not only because he was hounded out by members of Hindutva organisations, but also because his acceptance by the liberals was conditional.
Husain insulting Hinduism and Husain being a pristine representative of secularism are both flawed premises.
MF Husain and Mother India
In 2006, a case was filed against him for his painting depicting a nude woman in the shape of the map of India. The Hindu Janjagruti Samiti appealed to President APJ Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take action against such “anti-national and perverse attitude of great artists”.
The work was, in fact, a depiction of mother earth.
The concept of Mother Earth in the majoritarian narrative is linked not to the soil that the farmers till but a goddess who will destroy any opposition, the ‘others’ that they abhor. Kitschy posters of Mother India superimposed on the map follow this prototype.
Deference to deities seen as patriotism seems to be the norm. Bowing at the steps of Parliament or referring to the Constitution as a holy book are part of this exercise. Every attempt is made to convey that the country has a certain religion. This allows for many a charlatan to claim to save it.
Are Enraged Hindus Even Staying True to Their Traditions?
Hindus certainly have a right to protest any insult to their deities. But, interestingly, Hindu texts themselves are full of symbolism and ‘humanising’ examples. When a Southern Comfort whiskey ad showed Goddess Durga astride a tiger cradling numerous bottles of alcohol in her many hands, there were protests in America. But in the ‘Devi-mahatmyam’ (Hymn on the Greatness of the Goddess) it is said that devotees of the goddess may offer her wine and then drink it as an offering.
I had once walked into a store in Las Vegas and found souvenir gambling slot machines with the face of Kali, tongue hanging out. It might appear "offensive" to some. But then, when a new statue of Lord Mahavira in the buff was installed at Shravanbelgola, it was inaugurated by the President of India; thousands of worshippers turned up.
Apsaras are shown in compromising positions in temple sculptures. No one wants them razed because of these depictions.
Then you have the Khajuraho temple and Kama Sutra. They are flaunted as antitheses to the ‘regressive Victorianism’ that the British introduced in our open society.
Raja Ravi Verma’s buxom ‘devis’ and stud-like ‘devtas’ are seen on calendars in middle class homes.
A Trump Card Called Blasphemy
How could Husain’s artistic interpretation, then, not be acceptable? This immediately results in the counter question: Would he have dared to tarnish an image of Allah or the Prophet? For one, there is no image. Besides, Islamic art is to be found in Mughal miniatures and architecture, and defacing these can have virtually no impact.
Gestures of veneration may be antithetical to an individual’s personality, ideology or faith. But even before a Muslim in India might try and explain such concerns, those who flaunt their “Hindu nationalism” will scream treason.
The Hindu right-wing states with gumption that they haven’t beheaded anybody for blasphemy. The churlish nature of the arguments aside, they have killed rationalists for being rationalist. Their enthusiastic liberalism regarding the parodic portrayal of the Prophet of Islam while at the same time seeking to protect their own deities—who they themselves caricature—does not allow for equitable empathy in the hurt stakes.
As regards blasphemy, in 2012 after mobs vandalised a temple in Karachi the police had registered a case against them for insulting religious beliefs: “In an extraordinary turn of events, Section 295-A was used to register a blasphemy case against Muslim men for damaging a Hindu temple. Section 295-A is the lesser known, non Islam-specific clause of the country’s notorious blasphemy law.”
Limits of an Indian Muslim's Nationalism
What few seem to realise is that Husain was using his canvas to pay homage, and thereby contributing to the Hinduisation of India. When he painted Mother Teresa wearing a Paithani sari, there was criticism that such a raiment denoted wealth, something the Mother was not associated with. But that was not his intention. He wanted to convert her into an indigenous goddess untainted by Vatican canonisation.
He did several series on the deities in the Hindu pantheon. For this, he was placed on a ‘dharmic’ pedestal by the liberals as a paragon of secular virtue.
Former Lalit Kala Akademi chairman Ashok Vajpeyi had said that he was “the only Indian painter in history who has extensively painted both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”. Artist Satish Gujral said: “Few have contributed to popularising Indian mythological heritage as has Husain through his paintings. I strongly condemn the government’s attitude of not helping him in the strongest of terms”.
It begs the question: why must an artist be co-opted into an agenda to paint what is considered sacred to some? It assumes that the dominant religion of India is also what drives its nationalism.
Husain’s nationalism depended on what a person of his religion could be allowed to do. His support group, too, accepted him because he was considered mainstream enough for paying his respects to their mythology.
His liberty was conditional.
As it is of the community.
The woke—who speak out against savarnas and for trans rights and artistic licence as unequivocal allies—tend to validate Muslims on a liberal theist-political yardstick of their choosing.
(Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)