How India’s Most Famous Painter Had to Leave India

Hello from your friendly neighborhood ex-Muslim Abdullah Sameer. In today’s blog post we are going to discuss how a famous painter, known as the “Picasso of India”, MF Hussain, angered a nation and had to leave his native country. His story is the best example of the intersection of religion, politics, and human rights and exemplifies how we need to stand for the right to be blasphemous. How is it that something Husain did in the 70s suddenly became a problem in the 90s? Because of “religious sentiment”. Let’s hear what happened.

MF Hussain image from The Wall Street Journal

For those who are not fully aware of MF Hussain here is a brief background: He was born Maqbool Fida Hussain in 1915 in Maharashtra state in India and died on June 9 2011 while in self-imposed exile. He rose to prominence because of his paintings and film production work. Before the controversy, he was affectionately known as “The Picasso of India”. He was from the Bohra subsect of Shiite Muslims.

Hussain’s work covered a wide array of topics. Husain was familiar with Hindu mythology from his childhood, having been born in the town of Pandharpur and watched Ram Lila performances frequently while growing up in Indore. He had a series of paintings based on episodes from the Hindu Epic Ramayana and a parallel suite of works on the Mahabharata. These paintings got international acclaim, being shipped to Brazil to exhibit alongside Pablo Picasso! One could imagine this to be something Hindus would be proud of. He got these religious icons international recognition. And in all the decades he painted Hindu deities and legends before the 1990s, nobody suggested he was insulting the faith. Quite the contrary, he seemed the embodiment of India’s syncretic culture.

The controversy started when a far-right Hindu magazine (Vichar Mimans) reprinted his work from the 70s and 80s. The first complaint against Husain related to a sketch he had made in the 1970s as part of a series on Indian goddesses. That this minor work should have been re-invoked in the mid-1990s and publicized widely as an affront to Hinduism, demonstrates the dangerous power of false re-contexting. Husain’s Saraswati is a good illustration of the way modern artists reinvent traditional icons: Its very simplicity makes it a fine exemplar. The figure is sketched in elegant, precise lines. Although this work had previously been well received by the community at large, the magazine’s reprints were cast in a partisan framing under the inflammatory title “MF Hussain: Painter or butcher”. This prompted ultra-nationalist Hindus to protest Hussain’s work citing that it was intended to hurt their religious sensitivities.

Husain was never a Muslim with capital M. What kind of Muslim paints Hindu gods? Painting is haram for many Muslims. Painting kafir gods? EVEN WORSE. A form of idolatry even. So he was clearly not influenced in any way by Islam. He was just an artist!

For those who ask why Husain painted Hindu figures naked and not Muslim ones, the answer is simple: he aimed to work with traditions and reconfigure them, and there are no traditions of nude Islamic paintings the way there are of Hindu icons.

As Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul in the Delhi High Court ruled: “Ancient Indian art has been never devoid of eroticism where sex worship and graphical representation of the union between man and woman has been a recurring feature.”

MF Hussain’s Bharat Mata: Image from The Guardian

Some of Hussain’s work that was considered “blasphemous” by the Hindu hardliners include Bharat Mata (Mother India). Normally she is portrayed wearing a sari but in this case, Hussain depicted her naked covering the subcontinent India. Her hair was covering the religiously sacred rivers of Ganges and Yamuna. Hindu nationalists (Who believe that India should be a Hindu nation and that the “mother India” only belongs to them and not all citizens of India) claimed that this was deeply disrespectful and derogatory to the goddess.

Hussain’s work also elicited protests from the Muslim population. In this case, it was regarding Hussain’s film: A state of 3 cities. The Muslims were protesting lines in the Qawwali song “Noor-un-Ala_Noor” who alleged that these lyrics were taken directly from the Quran. This film was withdrawn from the cinemas.

Hindu nationalists employed a multi-pronged strategy to try and censor Hussain. They approached the courts claiming that Hussain’s work was inflammatory to their religious sensitivities and was not covered by the freedom of expression protections. This strategy is known as Kick (Criminal coercive knockout strategy) where the Hindutva filed a large number of suits in order to drain Hussain’s resources. They wanted to use the chilling effect arising from “being criminally charged” and lobbying the courts to rule in their favor. They were making these claims because India has section 295 of the penal code that functionally acts as blasphemy law. In all these cases the courts sided with Hussain.

The leaders of Hindutva (like Jagruti Samiti) seized on the opportunity to gain political mileage from this controversy by “Othering” Hussain as a Muslim and appealing to the other Hindus by saying Hussain’s motive was to demean Hindu gods and the Hindu people. This was a concerted effort. The Irony in this is that Hindu temples such as the Khajuraho are full of nude gods and goddesses in sexually suggestive poses and even having sex but just because this painting was done by a “Muslim” the Hindus considered it as blasphemy against their gods.

Temple Khajuraho image courtesy of Swan tours

As a result of the concerted campaign against Hussain’s work, the riled-up Hindus ended up attacking Hussain’s art exhibitions and his artwork was vandalized on numerous occasions. Various religious groups attacked Hussain including the youth militant group Bajrang Dal (a part of the RSS) and the Shiv Sena. The most concerning issue here is that this was done with the blessings of the party leadership. This is a form of mob rule in which disgruntled citizens take matters into their own hands and try to administer their form of “justice”.

The RSS is a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization with various allied organizations, some of which are militant while others include the ruling BJP party. Indian Prime Minister Modi himself is known to have been an RSS worker in his younger years. Critics have drawn parallels with the Nazi party.

As a result of all the harassment and safety concerns, Hussain Ended up leaving India for Dubai then London and Qatar. In 2010 He was conferred with Qatari citizenship which he accepted and changed his Indian citizenship to Overseas Indian citizen.

After spending his final days in Qatar and London, Husain expressed a strong desire to return to India but was advised against it as he was constantly receiving death threats. After being ill for months, Husain breathed his last after a cardiac arrest on 9th June 2011 at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London. His mortal remains were buried in Brookwood Cemetery, the largest cemetery in the U.K.

This case shows that even though the courts were offering legal recourse to Hussain’s problems, it was not enough to ensure his safety. The government and the constitutional protections (free speech and safety) were also insufficient. His wealth and influence were not enough to protect him from the mob. The mixing of politics and religion in the case of Hindutva is very dangerous.

We need to continue to stand for secular rights and freedoms, for the right to be blasphemous. Nobody should be abused or harassed or threatened for making paintings. Nobody should be prevented from criticizing any idea or ideology. This is how we progress as a society. If you don’t like the paintings, don’t look at them. The foundation of society needs to be based on secular freedoms and rights, not Hinduism or Islam, or anything else. Let’s all work for a better world where artists like MF Husain’s and Salman Rushdie’s are not persecuted. Nobody should have to bow down to someone else’s religious beliefs. Believe what you want. But I will also disbelieve if I want.

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