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Husain is Safely Dead: Posthumous tributes to the self-exiled artist expose India’s hypocrisy

by Ashok Mitra, 19 July 2011

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The Telegraph, 18 July 2011

Posthumous tributes to the self-exiled artist expose India’s hypocrisy

Jibanananda Das, now acclaimed as the most significant figure in Bengali poetry in the post-Tagore era, composed the cameo of a poem in his later years. It is in the form of a narrative, oozing in sarcasm and debunking the myth of his aversion to social realities. He describes the proceedings of a post-midnight soirée held by a sample of Calcutta’s underclass: the venue is the dirty pavement, right next to a leaking public hydrant, that abuts a downtown street intersection; an eerie stillness which has supplanted the roar of chaotic traffic during the long hours of the day and the evening. Those in attendance are the usual sprinkling of street beggars, part-time pickpockets and other riff-raff, tattered clothes and diseased bodies. But each has as much a mind of his own as a point of view. They are discussing a most important issue: who, pray, is the beneficiary if one of them is donated a free bottle of medicine, but only after he is dead? Arguments and counter-arguments fly across the pavement. That is all. The poet does not inform us whether a vote was taken at the end of the debate.

The farce taking place in the country since the passing of Maqbool Fida Husain in London last month would have drawn a chuckle from Jibanananda Das. Messages of condolence are flooding the newspaper pages; long editorials extolling his contributions spill into even academic journals. Television channels have collected the usual crowd of resident pundits to unravel the mystery of Husain’s eclecticism. The Hindutva crowd has of course kept mum, politicians of all other hues are fiercely in competition to record their lament at the shuffling of mortal coils by this great son of India. Disappointment is expressed at the failure of reported efforts to have his body brought back to India and entombed here with appropriate solemnity and grandeur. Magazines have brought out supplements on Husain’s life and works. A number of seminars and workshops have already been organized on the same theme; more are planned. Exhibitions of his paintings in the personal collection of industrial tycoons are in the offing. A couple of short documentaries Husain produced are in intense demand for special shows. Earnest rookie directors had perhaps shot stray scenes from Husain’s daily perambulations while on a visit to Delhi or Bangalore and woven them together; these patchworks too are beginning to find a market. Anecdotes around Husain are suddenly a dime a dozen. The dhaba he frequented while visiting Calcutta is threatening to turn into a tourist attraction. Trust several books on him to be on the anvil; eminences grises, such as State governors and peripatetic Nobel laureates, will be busy releasing them in city malls. And — this was inevitable — voices have already been raised suggesting a posthumous Bharat Ratna for the great Maqbool Fida Husain, the barefoot vagrant who won for India a place of reckoning on the global map of contemporary art but nonetheless had to scamperingly leave his homeland for fear of his life.

Can there be any greater instance of collective hypocrisy? Politicians, including those in government, who are now unloading torrents of crocodile tears over Husain’s death in exile, hardly stirred themselves when circumstances were being created to hound him out of the country. Had they exerted themselves and taken a determined stand against the vandals who had targeted exhibitions of Husain’s works, it could have been a different story altogether. The prime minister and his cabinet colleagues looked the other way when atrocious anti-Husain incidents were taking place in the very heart of the nation’s capital. Non-Bharatiya Janata Party, non-Congress parties too could have, jointly as well as severally, launched a searing campaign in defence of Husain’s — and every other citizen’s — right to creative activities of all genres howsoever distasteful these might be as per the code of aesthetics of any other citizen or group of citizens — with the only reservation that these must not encroach upon the fundamental rights of others. That apart, a portraiture of, for instance, a nude Saraswati should not be any more erotic than the medieval sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses in various amatory positions observable in the temples of Konark and Khajuraho. True, to be outraged by Husain but make a beeline for Khajuraho is in the domain of one’s personal prerogative. To demand a ban of Husain’s work or create a situation vicious enough to compel him flee the country was, however, something totally out of alignment with the tenets of a free society. Why deny it, there was also an undercurrent of a sickening attitude echoing the crooked, not-quite-uttered-but-implicit assertion that if some damsel was fated to be violated, that act should be the exclusive right of only a hoodlum belonging to her own religion or caste rather than that of an outsider.

Civil society activists could have thronged New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar or Ramlila grounds to demand the end of the sordid ongoing drama. Scholars of weight and art connoisseurs, currently busy giving discourses and writing long tracts on the genius of Husain, could have addressed the Union and state governments seeking adequate measures to protect Husain’s right to free expression, failing which — they could have given the ultimatum — they would resign from all official committees and commissions, including cultural bodies like the Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak and Sahitya Akademis or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. There was not a squeak from these categories.

Call this hypocrisy or call this cowardice, it has a solid material basis. Political parties by and large have their eye on the main chance. They want to come to power. To capture power, it is necessary to win votes. Around 80 per cent of the national electorate, they reason — even if clandestinely — are from the majority community. Debauchery indulged in by deities is a subject never to be discussed; the affairs of gods and goddesses are out of the jurisdiction of ordinary mortals. Painting the goddess Saraswati in the nude by one such mortal — that too by one who does not belong to the denomination — was a different matter. One never knows, it could affect the susceptibilities of a substantial section of voters; so why take an unnecessary risk, it was safer to be circumspect and not be too vocal against the religious bigots harrying Husain, let him take care of himself.

Civil society groups, alas, are hardly innocent Simple Simons either. Several of them are, in supposedly authentic Gandhian tradition, of a religious bent; a controversy concerning, say, the depiction of an unclad female deity was not exactly their cup of tea. The culture vultures are even more calculating. They, the bulk of them, prefer to be always in the limelight, it bloats their ego. There are, besides prospects of collateral dividends to be considered. Government patronage ensures opportunities for both being at the receiving end of public notice and selection for official goodwill trips to charming distant countries. The credo is, come hell or high water, be on the right side of the establishment. Those in authority had decided to throw Husain to the wolves; the so-called intelligentsia hastened to take the cue.

Any way, all is well that ends well. Now that Husain is safely dead, everybody can breathe easy and pile homage upon homage on him. As for the BJP, there was, of course, no problem ever. Husain-baiting promised a swelling of its vote bank; it could afford to relax. One or two of its leaders, with the reputation of being culture buffs, had some early Husains in their private collection; these were hastily removed from the living room and stashed away. Meanwhile, the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government is exceedingly happy with its tourism development corporation which continues to make a roaring business carting tourists, foreign and native, to see the Khajuraho stoneworks — and die.

The layers of hypocrisy have no bottom.


The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for education and non commercial use.