Maqbool Fida Hussain is at the very centre of a storm whose after-effects are extremely relevant for our democracy—both for the democratic structure of our state and for the preservation of democratic values in our society.
It is not that Hussain is at the centre of a controversy for the first time; in fact, it is seldom he is out of one. He has got thousands of fans, not all because of the beauty of his art but quite a large number applauding him for what would have been called idiosyncracies in the case of mere mortals. Publicity he likes, perhaps craves for, and publicity of one kind or another can certainly be good business in these days of market-worship. As is but natural in the case of any celebrity, there are always admirers and traducers, fans and jealous rivals for Hussain. Sometimes, he has evoked adverse responses even among his admirers as when he put up his huge painting depicting Indira Gandhi as a Durga at the height of the Emergency. Though this fetched him a lot of kudos from the then establishment, it was taken as being in bad taste by many of his fans at that time.
Like many other artists, Hussain sometimes seems to be seeking the limelight by being provocative. The present writer is no art critic, but he has sometimes felt some of Hussain’s creations need not be so aggressive as to provoke protests and misunderstandings. Would his art or his power of depiction suffer if some of his images are not so downright? Is it necessary at all that Draupadi should be bereft of all clothes, which even the filthy villain at the famous gambling over chess could not achieve?
This is no doubt treading on a minefield, a dangerous ground as it brings into focus the question perennially controversial—the length of the artist’s freedom of expression. Like all freedoms, this has its limitations, and carries alongwith it the responsibility of the artist to society to which he or she may belong. And if the artist flouts that responsibility, who is to enforce it upon him?
The raging controversy of today about Hussain’s paintings started precisely on this point. Some of the angry missionaries of faith, out to cleanse the world of all its dross and dregs, raised a hue and cry of some of Hussain’s paintings depicting well-known figures of Hindu mythology in scanty garments resembling birthday suits. They have warned Hussain for having hurt the sentiments of the Hindu devotees. They have even gone to court to seek an injunction against the artist.
It is not difficult to anticipate the chain of argument of these angry upholders of the Hindu faith. Since Islam does not permit even an imaginary portrait of the Prophet, why should anybody, particularly a Muslim, be permitted to depict the immortals of the Hindu pantheon in a manner suggestive of being indecent, if not promiscuous? If the Prophet’s portrayal is banned, so must be the portrayal of the gods and goddesses whom the Hindus worship. Sounds reasonable and this may be the gist of the accusation against Hussain when the case comes up before the Bombay courts.
But the flaw in this argument lies in the fact that the mythology of the Hindus has never presented the gods and immortals as dry totems: they reflect, by and large, the life and living of a human being projected on a supernatural canvas. By no means do they appear as shrivelled-up, bone-dry. Rather they appear almost like robust human beings with supernatural powers—having all the emotions, sometimes in abundance. There is nothing Calvinistic in its austerity in the Hindu faith. It is worth recalling that in the wake of the reform movement in Indian society in the nineteenth century, a section of the Hindu fold was expelled from it, as it refused to agree to what they called the idol-worship. This section, the Brahmo Samaj and its smaller counterparts, was austere in its outlook, and according to it, God in any manifestation must not be idolised as mere mortals with all their emotions and urges.
Needless to add, it is the broad sweep of the Hindu faith which helped to promote rich classics in history and poetry, performing and fine arts—many works out of them which may be frowned upon by rigid standards of moral sermonising. It is in such a background that one has to comprehened the full implications of the sudden attack on Hussain’s works by self-styled defenders of Hindu faith. It would be absurd to think that the hollow pretences of such bigotry can mislead the true devotees of the religion. Nevertheless, Hussain has done the correct thing in promptly issuing a statement that he did not want to hurt anybody’s feelings by his paintings, and he was sorry about it all.
This, of course, has not satisfied the fanatics, who are out to make political capital out of it. The artist with his message has not been spared by the aggressive fanatics. One of the groups, the Bajrang Dal, attacked a well-known art gallery in Ahmedabad and tore out Hussain’s paintings and made a bonfire of them. This shocking example of vandalism has evoked widespread condemnation from a large body of intellectuals while artists at a number of places have come out to demonstrate their resentment against this piece of intolerance and vandalism. Undaunted, the President of the Mumbai branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has now come with a new offer for truce with Hussain. He wants Hussain himself to destroy the paintings to which the VHP and its fellow-travelling crusaders have objected, as a Dussehra reconciliation. Obviously, this move has clear communal overtones: a Muslim artist cannot be permitted to depict Hindu gods and goddesses as he likes. Ironically, these fanatics want our people to forget that most of the religious festivals in our country cut across the communal divide. The best of the idol-makers for Dussehra in Calcutta, for instance, are Muslim potters for generations.
After all the vandalism committed, this spate of threats makes it abundantly clear that the fanatic fringe which has arrogated to itself the role of the upholder of morals as per its own book would pursue the persecution of all those who are their target. Today the target is Hussain. Tomorrow it may be an author or a dancer. And let us not forget, it is the same mentality of blatant fanaticism that had fired the bullet that killed Gandhiji. In the year earmarked for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of our achieving independence, it is an ominous sign that this country has within its fold such fanatics that would not hesitate to destroy our hard-earned democracy.
We need no Taliban of whatever denomination—neither in our parlour nor in our basement.
(Mainstream October 26, 1996)