And So He Left…

About a year ago, I wrote about Delhi High Court’s exemplary verdict that disposed off the charges against M F Husain; I cherished each and every word of Justice Kaul’s verdict that emphasized the importance of tolerance in a free and democratic society.

M F Husain, who was once called the Picasso of India by Forbes magazine, has now given up on India and embraced Qatar. Thanks to the game of competitive intolerance in India, he has now become the Picasso of Qatar.

Many newspaper articles and blogs are written about this – some endorsing, some condemning – but the best article that I came across is from Salil Tripathi (link). Here’s an excerpt:

And this is how it ends. This is how India loses one of its own.

Maqbool Fida Husain, born in Pandharpur, Maharashtra, before there was an independent India, is no longer ours. After a decade in which he faced arrest warrants and was threatened, his canvases defaced, his family harassed, his property attached, his personality ridiculed, art galleries showing his art attacked, and his art deliberately and disingenuously mischaracterized, he has decided that it is enough.

For those who argue that Qatar is not a democracy and Husain has become a laughingstock for choosing a country that’s light-years behind India in terms of human rights protection, here’s what Tripathi says: “Qatar’s record on free speech is not relevant; India’s is. And it is for Indians to reflect on why India’s most widely known painter feels safer in Doha than in Mumbai.”

I couldn’t agree more!

Husain felt unsafe: He spent his summers in London, winters in Dubai. He apologized; he explained; he clarified. But nothing was enough for his detractors. Indian ambassadors abroad praised him, while police officers at home prepared arrest warrants. Courts threw the cases out and defended art, but the state dragged its feet. Some officials said the state would protect him, but Husain did not feel safe—to think, imagine and create, in peace.

And so he left.

And the saddest part of all is that this is no longer about Husain. Just look around and you’ll see many examples of people taking offense and often retorting violently (Taslima Nasreen, Yarlagadda Lakshmi Prasad, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan are some of the recent victims of competitive intolerance), and such events are gaining momentum and earning a wider ideological support.

The end-note on Salil Tripathi’s article reads:

Maqbool Fida Husain was Indian. India made him a foreigner.

I deeply regret this loss, and being an Indian I want to apologize to this great painter and expatriate who still talks proudly about his Indian-ness, expresses regrets if he had offended anyone, and blames the politicians – not Indians in general – for his exile.


And while on the subject of ‘taking offense’, here’s today’s comic strip from Jesus and Mo:


7 responses to “And So He Left…

  1. Jigar Doshi

    It is sad and what is more sad is that I see no end to this way of hooliganism. The biggest problem in India is that any political, religious or social organization can take law in their hands and decide above law what is right and wrong.

    • Vishal

      One would think that economic liberalization and global capitalism would dampen religious nationalism and communalism, but they seem to have an adverse effect (in India and elsewhere in the world). We seem to be growing less and less tolerant as we progress economically.

  2. Ritesh

    Alright guys, So are we talking of bringing him back or we are sorry for he left India?

    In both cases I strongly feel we are good without people like him, we do not want Picasso – if they cannot understand people feelings or play with sentiments.

    In the name of freedom of expression, we cannot anyone to cross a line. We have to see the social history of our country – we cannot be like America or Europe in everyway. Even in this countries if a painter painted such pictures to hurt religious feelings, they will be upset with him.

    I am happy that such elements are not in india, dont mind if they rot anywhere but india.

    • Vishal

      >> So are we talking of bringing him back or we are sorry for he left India?

      As a liberal, here’s what I believe: If someone is offended by a piece of art (for example), he has a right to simply look away (and even convince others to do so). But he has no right to issue fatwas against the artist, or threaten to kill him, or harass his family, or vandalize his art galleries, or destroy his canvasses, and so on…

      All these things happened with Husain (while the government turned a blind eye). Which culminated into India losing one of the greatest contemporary painters to an illiberal non-democratic nation.

      I feel sad and sorry for that.

      >> In the name of freedom of expression, we cannot anyone to cross a line.

      I partially agree with that, but again, a violent recourse is not the right response.

      (As a side note, “we can not let anyone cross the line” is a slippery slope. Different people would want to draw that line at different levels depending on their religion, community and personal beliefs…)

      >> if a painter painted such pictures to hurt religious feelings

      I find it hard to imagine M F Hussain painting a nude portrait of a Hindu goddess with a lewd chuckle on his face thinking “Wait till the Hindus see this, they are going to be super-pissed!”

      Although I have no way of proving this, I don’t believe Husain did those paintings intentionally (with a hidden motive to hurt religious sentiments). I think he was surprised by the hurt sentiments (we all were, especially since it took them 26 years to feel that the painting were offensive) and he has been apologizing about that over the last decade.

    • Gautam Jain

      I partially agree with both of you – Ritesh & Vishal. We did indeed loose a great artist. But MF did cross the line. His naked drawings of Hindu goddesses would provoke the kind of anger it did. But what i believe is, MF being how great he is, never bothered about such things. Its hard to know what he actually felt about this. Did he do this on purpose, or meant to create these paintings just like any other painter. My knowledge on this topic is very minimal and I appreciate any corrections.

      The backlash against Hussain can be compared to the anger Muslims expressed when a Danish cartoonist insulted the holy Prophet. Neither of the two groups can lay their claim to religions they so fiercely defend and represent, because no religion encourages vandalism and barbarism.

      How he has been treated does bring something to attention – how undemocratic state of affairs in India have become? Any political party or group use religious reasons to get public attention and would go to any level to gain the votebank. People in India, need to understand that they cannot let these parties play with their emotions! But that may be another topic of discussion…

      • Vishal

        Spot on about the role of politicians in this (and many other similar) mess. Note that the paintings in question were painted by Husain in 1970 and it took 26 years for some people to get their sentiments hurt! (… incidentally, few years after the Hindu nationalist became assertive, after the demolition of Babri masjid in 1992.)

        Anyway, I am glad that you don’t seem to have pre-conceived rhetorical notions/opinions, and are willing to at least consider different POV’s.

        About Husain’s motives, as I mentioned in one of my earlier comments above, I find it hard to imagine Husain painting a nude portrait of a Hindu goddess with a lewd chuckle on his face thinking “Wait till the Hindus see this, they are going to be super-pissed! Muahhhahaha!” 🙂 Please read this another brilliant article by Salil Tripathi in NY times (May, 2006): Meanwhile: the right to be offended

        P.S. Just to get some more idea about his work, style and inspirations, here’s Shashi Tharoor writing about Husain’s work on the great Indian epic Mahabharata: Our Stories.

  3. rags

    This is indeed a great loss for India. Not because Mr.Hussain was a great painter. That is quite immaterial to the issue here. What is appalling is how some religious right wing fringe groups have been able to take the civil society for a ride and made sure that artists live in perpeptual fear of expressing themselves.

    Artists should be allowed to paint what they want (after all an art exhibition has a very restricted audience and most people wouldn’t have seen Mr.Hussain’s paintings if not for the controversy). And yes, people who don’t like the paintings can close their eyes and mind. No one’s forcing anyone to see those paintings. And even if someone finds something really objectionable there are always the courts to settle matters.

    All those who oppose those paintings probably close their eyes in fear whenever they visit any Indian temples I’d assume. If anything it is these temples which celeberate the human body in all it glory. Mr.Hussain’s work pales in comaprison.

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