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MF Husain’s Exile Tests India

by Somini Sengupta

by, 9 November 2008

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New York Times, November 8, 2008

An Artist in Exile Tests India’s Democratic Ideals

[Photo]Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times

Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most famous painter, in one of his homes in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he now lives.

Published: November 8, 2008

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most famous painter, is afraid to go home.

Tamara Abdul Hadi for The New York Times

M. F. Husain

Mr. Husain is a Muslim who is fond of painting Hindu goddesses, sometimes portraying them nude. That obsession has earned him the ire of a small but organized cadre of Hindu nationalists. They have attacked galleries that exhibit his work, accused him in court of “promoting enmity” among faiths and, on one occasion, offered an $11 million reward for his head.

In September, the country’s highest court offered him an unexpected reprieve, dismissing one of the cases against him with the blunt reminder that Hindu iconography, including ancient temples, is replete with nudity. Still, the artist, 93 and increasingly frail, is not taking any chances. For two years, he has lived here in self-imposed exile, amid opulently sterile skyscrapers. He intends to remain, at least for now. “They can put me in a jungle,” Mr. Husain said gamely. “Still, I can create.”

Freedom of expression has frequently, and by some accounts, increasingly, come under fire in India, as the country tries to balance the dictates of its secular democracy with the easily inflamed religious and ethnic passions of its multitudes.

The result is a strange anomaly in a nation known for its vibrant, freewheeling political culture. The government is compelled to ensure respect for India’s diversity and at the same time prevent one group from pouncing on another for a perceiv-

A version of this article appeared in print on November 9, 2008, on page A1 of the New York edition.