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India’s speech restrictions didn’t allow M.F. Husain to paint in peace

14 June 2011

print version of this article print version, June 14, 2011

A Portrait of India’s Intolerance

The country’s speech restrictions didn’t allow M.F. Husain to paint in peace.


Maqbool Fida Husain was India’s most celebrated painter, and his death in London last week was front-page news across the subcontinent. However, toward the end of his life, Husain had trouble finding galleries willing to show his work. He lived in Dubai, Doha or London for most of the last two decades because he couldn’t paint in peace in his own country, even becoming a Qatari national last year.

Husain’s story says much about modern India. The troubles started in 1996, when the magazine Vichar Mimansa ("Discussion of Thoughts") published a decades-old sketch that showed a nude Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. That discovery electrified Hindu activists, who began filing lawsuits against the painter for hurting their sentiments.

These activists were able to persecute Husain by taking advantage of laws intended to prevent the incitement of religious hatred. Though the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it allows "reasonable restrictions" to safeguard "the interests of the sovereignty and integrity" of the country and "public order, decency or morality." The penal code makes it a crime "to outrage religious feelings" and also outlaws "promoting enmity" between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language—and the all-inclusive "etc."

Fringe Hindu groups claimed to have been offended by the artist’s work, and pressured the authorities to initiate proceedings. Indian courts often throw such cases out, but there were multiple cases against him. When a few of them reached the Delhi High Court on appeal, it ruled in Husain’s favor. So did the Supreme Court in a similar case.

But the court judgments did not stem the tide of vitriol. Vigilantes continued to file cases against him, attacked his works and damaged the studio of a television network that polled its readers on whether Husain should be given India’s highest civilian honor.

An artist with weaker convictions would have stopped painting altogether, but Husain continued to portray the many colors of this pluralist democracy. Born around 1915, he got his artistic start painting cinema posters. Formally trained at the prestigious Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, he was an integral member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which brought together leading modernists soon after India’s independence in 1947. He painted horses all his life; his other recurring themes included celebration of Indian music, Sufi art and the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Since 1996, he continued to paint Hindu deities as well as paintings inspired by Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, whom he called his muse.

But he couldn’t go on very long. At one count last decade, there were hundreds of cases pending against him across India, and some death threats too. Instead of defending Husain’s right to express his imagination, the authorities did nothing, actually adding to pressure from activists. In 2006, several state governments decided to prosecute him for outraging feelings after he painted "Bharat Mata" (Mother India) in the nude. The controversy scared those who otherwise would have been happy to exhibit his work, including the organizers of the 2008 Indian Art Fair in Delhi, which had the works of 300 artists but not Husain’s.

Exasperated by the lack of support from the Indian state and the continued harassment—both physical and legal—Husain gave up. He was living outside India anyway, and last year he publicly renounced his Indian citizenship.

Hindu nationalists justified their attacks on Husain’s art by noting that the Indian state has allowed other faiths to block literature that has offended them. India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s "Satanic Verses." Muslim activists last year chopped off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a university professor in Kerala, because he gave an exam question that was deemed insulting to Muhammad. Christian groups have protested films like "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Last Temptation of Christ."

To be sure, a large number of books get published in India, hundreds of films get made and galleries hold many exhibitions without incident. But artists like Husain inhabit speech at the edge of acceptability, speech that challenges conventional thought. The controversial sketch of Saraswati, for example, is an elegant white-on-black line drawing, which makes the viewer reflect on the old Indian tradition of "nirakara," or formlessness. Yet instead of questioning themselves when provoked, extremist Hindus, like extremists from other faiths, have reacted with anger.

The trouble is that along with such sectarian anger comes New Delhi’s timidity in protecting individual rights. Hindus have every right to peacefully protest Husain’s depictions, but Indian law allows them to become vigilantes who chill all expression.

India will now try to claim Husain as a son of its soil. Someone will suggest issuing a postage stamp in his name. Others will talk about naming roads or art galleries after him. A more fitting tribute would be to revoke those provisions of Indian law that drove Husain out of the country. The next M.F. Husain should not have to curb his imagination or dream smaller dreams.

—Mr. Tripathi, a writer in London, is the author of "Offense: The Hindu Case" (Seagull, 2009).


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