Recently, the issue on M. F. Hussain being nominated (as a result of a popular poll) by NDTV for Bharat Ratna award (India’s highest civilian award for national service) came to my attention, which in turn, led me to do a little research about this.
There are a lot of controversies going on around M. F. Hussain’s paintings. Some of his paintings showed Hindu gods and goddesses in nude. Several years ago there was another controversial painting by him that showed the Bharat Mata (Mother India) nude.
Apparently, the Hindu Personal Law Board (a private organization) has announced Rs. 51 Crore reward for beheading him. There were some more rewards offered by others for gouging out his eyes, or chopping off his hands. I am really astonished by the instances of these kinds of “Hindu fatwa“. Over the years, we had seen Islamic fundamentalists to use fatwa against so called infidels or non-believers , but lately more and more fatwa are being summoned by Hindu groups/activists in India. (There was one issued by a VHP sadhu for murdering Karunanidhi, after his notorious comments about Lord Rama’s credentials and eventually questioning his existence.)
All these allegations, several “fatwa“, violent protests and litigation (mostly by right-wing activists), pushed M. F. Hussain, who is now 91, into a self-imposed exile. He’s charged with “hurting the sentiments of people because of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses”.
In 1989, Salman Rushdie, probably the greatest author alive, was forced to live under police protection for years after a fatwa was proclaimed by an Islamic leader (Ayatollah Khomeini) requiring Rushdie’s execution. I wonder how different that fatwa is, from the one that’s declared for the death of Hussain.
I am not going to comment on whether Hussain is eligible to receive Bharat Ratna award or not, because I know little about his achievements as an artist. There’s a little doubt that M. F. Hussain is one of the most renowned contemporary painter though. Forbes magazine called him “Picasso of India” [source]. For comparison, here’s a list of some other artists who received this prestigious award: Satyajit Ray, Lata Mangeshkar, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan. In any case, if the government decides to give him this award (which, I think, is unlikely), it is bound to create huge controversy, especially among the Hindu fundamentalists. (And God forbid if that triggers communal violence.)
I think the bigger question we’re dealing with here is: Is our society being fair with the artists? Are politicians and fundamentalists in India destroying the artistic freedom in our country?
If an artist has to make sure that no sentiments are going to get hurt by his/her creation, how much would that impact his/her creativity? I think the impact can be huge. There’s an intangible cost that an artist has to pay by curbing his/her creativity & imagination, which in turn the society will also have to (indirectly) incur. An argument can be made that there has to be a limit to freedom of expression. But where exactly should we draw the line, if we have to?
It’s just not possible to define this boundary. What is acceptable to one group of individuals can be offensive to another. And the whole thing becomes more complicated when we add politicians, that are wholeheartedly eager to manipulate those sentiments and turn them into votes, into the mix. If we start to foster all little disagreements and offenses, then it’s only going to make matter worse. (For example, few weeks ago, a Hindu group got offended by the dress an actress – Shreya – wore in an award ceremony, and files a police complaint. They felt that the dress was “provocative and offended the Hindu culture”.)
I think that protecting the fundamental rights of expression should be one of the main goals of a liberal democratic and morally healthy society. We, the people, need to learn to become more tolerant and learn not to get insulted at the mere drop of a hat. In case some individuals find a particular matter very offensive, there are ways to protest peacefully (as opposed to declaring a “fatwa“). The legal system can intervene if needed.
By the way, it’s not only right-wing Hindus who have issues with Hussain. Several years ago, some Muslim organization raised objection to one of the songs (a qawwali) he wrote for his own movie Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities . The song is called “Noor–Un-Ala-Noor‘. Since he used some words in this qawwali that were directly taken from Quran, it was considered blasphemous.