ARTICLE : The case against Husain

Title : The case against Husain
Author : Arjun Bhagat
Publication : The Pioneer
Date : October 15, 1996

M F Husain has been painting (literally) the country  red 
by depicting Goddess Saraswati without any garbs.  So let 
us  talk  about artistic expression and  its  "limitless" 
horizons also referred too as poetic or artistic licence.  
The debate on Husain's depiction of the goddess Saraswati 
has become skewed and out of perspective.  But if the  so 
called  rightist  parties  have blown the  issue  out  of 
proportion  by ransacking and burning Husain's  paintings 
in the Ahmedabad 'based Heretiz Art Gallery, so have  the 
tribe of "intellectuals", "artists", "writers",  "column-
ists" et al that now comprise of the Husain defence team. 
,They  have effectively hi-jacked the Husain  controversy 
and  given it the outlook of a sinister  conspiracy  even 
while  they brush aside any view that contends  that  the 
artists has hurt a people's sensibilities.

Seema Mustafa in the Asian Age writes, "The rabble rouser 
following  his  master's  instruction at  Mumbai  is  not 
interested (in the rational of the painting).  He has got 
a  Muslim to beat a minority with, and that is  all  that 
really  matters.   That is all that this hue and  cry  is 
really  about.  It is to focus in on minorities as  being 
not  just anti-national and anti-Hindu, that  is  mundane 
when compared with this deliberate attack on the religion 
itself..."  Why  must  every issue  and  argument  centre 
around secularism being threatened in India?  The  fabric 
of  Indian society is not so fragile as some lead  us  to 
believe;  that a simple controversy of an artist and  his 
work  will  make the edifice  of  India's  constitutional 
framework crumble.

Artistic  licence  is said to be the unwritten  right  of 
artists  to  express their creativity in  any  form  they 
please, after all art is what the artist does.  But  does 
that  give them the right to trample over  other  peoples 
sensibilities?   And when they do why can't the topic  be 
discussed  and  debated?  Why should  all  arguments  and 
views  not  conforming to the wishes of  the  politically 
correct  lobby  be  scuttled  as  non-secular  propaganda 
threatening  the entire secular edifice of  the  country?  
Unfortunately  even  Husain  takes up the  same  line  of 
argument in his apology letter as we shall see later.

Soon after the controversy arose Husain issued a spirited 
statement brushing aside claims that his Theorama  series 
were .,obscene" and "distasteful" and "capable of hurting 
religious  sentiments ", and vowed to  continue  painting 
what  he liked.  But on October 12 Husain  turned  turtle 
and faxed his apology to newspaper offices in India.

Husain's  apology is veiled in the same  scare  mongering 
facade that many of his supporters are susceptible too, " 
India's  democracy  is threatened" etc.  After  all  even 
words  are expression of art.  Husain states, "If any  of 
my  works have hurt the sentiments of some people, it  is 
not  all  deliberate and intentional.  It is not  that  I 
love art less, I love human beings more and therefore,  I 
want to say this clearly: All the paintings convey  great 
respect to the subject and I have done it with faith  and 
conviction. My language of painting is highly poetic  and 
deep  rooted in the composite culture of our great  coun-


However  if  we  are to believe the words  of  Shoba  De, 
India's  self  proclaimed  diva  of  sexuality,  Husain's 
intention  was  deliberate  and  veered  towards  hurting 
sensibilities,  perhaps even hoping (and  succeeding)  to 
get  to  mileage  out it; I do not know  Husain,  but  De 
"knows"  him quite well, so we'll take her word  for  it; 
"Mr  Husain does not require my services as  his  defence 
council  ...  knowing  him, chances are  he  is  enjoying 
himself  while, this report is being riled, in  anticipa-
tion  of the hammer coming down at the Sotheby's  auction 
being  conducted  in London, even as a  motley  group  of 
voluble  demonstrators cry themselves hoarse outside  his 
Mumbai residence..."

But  let us continue with Husain's apology letter, "I  am 
very  grateful to my friends and artistic colleagues  for 
speaking  out in my favour..." Well and good, but  Husain 
really  out does himself as he continues "..and for  sake 
of sanity at this difficult hour, when the whole basis of 
Indian  democracy  and cultural freedom is  under  threat 
from  a  small minority who are determined  to  turn  the 
clock  back  and not forward as the  majority  of  common 
sensical people want..."

Husain  would  have us believe that at  stake  is  Indian 
democracy  and  its cultural freedom and his  apology  is 
directed to restore the "sanity at this difficult  hour." 
India  has passed through many trials  and  tribulations.  
Have  we forgotten the emergency years?; the  years  that 
tore apart Punjab, the demolition of Babri Masjid,  sepa-
ratist  movements in Kashmir, Nagaland, Assam?; the  list 
is exhaustive.

An issue such as Husain's controversial painting does not 
even  come close to threatening India's  democracy.   The 
nation  has  weathered  far  greater  challenges.   If  a 
"minority of people" as the artist points are  protesting 
against his paintings or senselessly destroying art, does 
that  amount to the collapse of India?  And if Husain  is 
truly  worried  about the threat to cultural  freedom  he 
should  be  in India defending his work  and  not  faxing 
apologies  from London.  In a nut shell Husain's  apology 
has all the ingredients of a politicians defensive salvo; 
embracing extraneous explanations to qualify his predica-
ment and wriggle out of an uncomfortable situation.

Reacting to Husain's apology, writer Kuldeep Kumar writes 
in  The Pioneer "That an artist of Husain's  stature  and 
accomplishments  felt compelled to apologise in the  face 
of  daily  demonstrations in front of his  residence  and 
destruction  of his canvases is a testimony to  the  fact 
that  space for democratic discourse in shrinking  fast." 
Let us for a moment delve into the argument put forth  by 
Mustafa,  Kumar, De that the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena  etc, 
are  making  a political issue out of  Husain's  innocent 
artistic  impression  of  a naked  Saraswati,  the  Hindu 
Goddess of learning to divide Hindu's and Muslims.  These 
are  the same people who never fail to remind us  of  how 
fragile  India's  secular democracy is and  anything  can 
spark  a fire.  In this light should Husain not  be  held 
responsible  for going too far with his artistic  impres-
sion?   For adding fuel to fire?  Are we to believe  that 
an  artist  with the maturity of Husain  would  not  have 
forseen the reaction that he is now getting from  certain 


Whatever be the accomplishment, however great the artists 
stature,  it does not give him the right for  thoughtless 
actions.   Artists  of Husain's stature cannot  be  above 
responsibilities,  they have a special duty.  For  it  is 
their  work  that  gets noticed. Millions  of  Indians  - 
Hindus,  Muslims, Sikhs hold religious beliefs  close  to 
their heart - they do not have to be told by others  that 
their  gods  have  been depicted in an  offensive  and  a 
distasteful manner.

They  know  what amounts to religious desecration  -  the 
tearing  down of Babri Masjid, or operation Blue Star  on 
the Golden temple, or in this case the lewd depiction  of 
Saraswati  by  M F Husain.  All of them are in  the  same 
league.   It  would  be difficult to make  the  tribe  of 
intellectuals  see  the view point of the common  man  or 
women  in India.  After all for them the question of  how 
someone's sensibilities can be hurt by "just a  painting" 
remains a riddle.