Who moved M.F. Husain?

He towers over the Indian art world, putting most other artists in the shade. And yet he’s almost child-like at times in his belief that he can repaint the canvas of the world, reorder the universe, and that there’s no better reward for his legions of fans than a piece of his art, a piece of himself.

Wandering down the streets of a chilly New York, barefoot as always, and lost — he couldn’t remember the name of his hotel — he was noticed by a young Indian businessman from Bengaluru who took pity on the ill-clad, shivering man looking longingly into the window of a bakery.

Ashok Fernandes bought him a steaming cup of coffee and anything else he wanted to eat at the diner and left. Years later, while he had forgotten his encounter with India’s iconic artist, Maqbool Fida Husain on a visit to Bengaluru, hadn’t. He thanked Fernandes in the only way he knew how — painting a wall in his new home. Big canvas. Big heart. Today, the gentle giant who brought colour into Fernandes’ home, and that of countless others, has finally signed off on the country of his birth, trading a not-so-liberal India for the patronage of a sheikhdom in the Gulf that is using Husain’s shoulders to transform itself into the Middle East’s patron of the arts.
The sprightly but ageing Husain, ever mindful of his place in the artistic firmament knows that with the BJP’s goons snapping at his heels at every turn, his project – 100 years of Islamic art – commissioned for several million dollars and to be hung at Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art — designed by Pei — must take priority. As he told a private news channel, he cannot afford to get distracted.

Clearly, this past week has been an unsettling one for liberal India. First, Husain’s acceptance of Qatari citizenship after years of self-imposed exile following the brouhaha over his paintings of bare-breasted goddesses that saw the Hindu right see red. And then, violence in several Karnataka towns which left two people dead, over an article purportedly written by Bengali writer Taslima Nasreen on Prophet Muhammed’s views on the veil.

Both raise questions that India must answer. They highlight how the many cultures that inhabit this country of nearly 1.2 billion people co-exist, and yet collide at the slightest provocation. This seething resentment by Hindu and Muslim hardliners adduces how fragile India ‘s religious and cultural fabric really is. It makes us question whether this social fabric that was once celebrated for its variegated hues, is in
danger of achromatizing .

It makes us question whether anyone other than an artist or a writer, regardless of what authority he or she commands or assumes, should be able to dictate what the artist or author should deal with and what they should leave unstirred?

“We are supposedly a democratic country, but an artist does not even have the right to think here,” says acclaimed Bengali artist Jagannath Paul who believes that style cannot be dictated, “We are surrounded by art, but sadly don’t know how to interpret it. Everything is taken at face value. When I look at Hussain saab’s painting, I don’t look at whether it is a goddess or a layman, whether it is a fully-clothed figure or a stark-nude depiction; I look at the confidence of his brush strokes and that makes me realise that this man has God speaking through him. Why will he insult that same God?”

“If we have the power to think of Radha and Krishna, or Parvati and Shiva, why can’t we draw them?” Paul asks. Come to think of it, people who go to temples to worship the same figures begin to have a problem when an interpretation of it is hung in someone’s bedroom. Are we Indians just plain hypocrites?

Jogen Chowdhury, one of the most important painters of 21st century India, believes that it goes deeper than hypocrisy – it is the ‘Talibanisation’ of India. “What is shocking in India is the growing intolerance of people towards creative people’s freedom of expression. The majority of people are waging a war against creativity, Taliban-style, all because one section of the citizenry who are religious fundamentalists see offence in harmless words and brush strokes. We have become an intolerant society”, says Chowdhury.

Perhaps it is not just religion, either. For, in India, through the millenia, gods and goddesses have not just been worshipped, they have also been the inspiration for art and literature; religion has not just been temples and churches, it has been the shelter for artists and writers. Is it the venality of politics, then, that has tainted Indian sensibilities?

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