Leading art auction house Christie's on Thursday sold artist MF Husain's paintings, including one for a hammer price of $ 1.4 million.
Outside the Christie's building in New York, up to 30 supporters of the Indian American Intellectual Forum staged a two-hour protest chanting 'Shame, shame, MF Husain' and 'Boycott Christie's!'.
At least 12 of Husain's paintings were auctioned, where the theme was South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art.
The row escalated earlier in the week when activists petitioned Christie's, the world's best known and largest arts business and auction house, not to oversee transactions of any of Husain's work.
Christie's rejected the demand, with spokesperson Sara Fox saying, "Art and culture embraces multiple interpretations and re-interpretations of religious and ethnic symbols that are often highly individual expressions."
Narain Kataria, president of the IAIF, told rediff.com, "Husain is a Muslim who was born in India, and he knows the significance of what he's done. His hatred for Hindus is obvious in his actions and vulgar art, if you can call it art. It's borderline pornography, not anything a normal person would consider art. By painting vulgar, sexual images of our great goddesses like Durgadevi, Lakshmi, and Saraswati, he deliberately insults Hindus' sentiments. It's as if he's insulted our mothers. Why has he not painted these images of Christ? Of Mary? Why is he running from India? It's obvious he is a criminal and a coward."
Arish Sahani, one of the group's co-founders and a current official, echoed the sentiments, "My thoughts on this issue are simple and clear. He's an Indian Muslim who has shown willingness to betray his country. By fleeing to Middle East, he's shown that he is afraid of the rule of law. Therefore, I must question all Muslims in India, and around the world. Hindus should boycott Christie's for aiding and abetting hate crimes against us."
Bhavna Shinde, a female protestor, said, "If Christie's is only supporting free speech, then I want to know: Would they sell a painting of the Danish cartoons that showed Prophet Mohammed in a bad light? Hindus are committed to free speech and free expression. This is not free speech; it's an attempt to hurt the sentiments of an entire religious group, under the lie that it is artwork. His message is simply one of hate."
Protestors wore large placards slung over their necks, with messages in large, bold font on both sides, which read, "Down with MF Husain!" "Anti-Hindu Coward" "MF Husain: Fugitive from Indian Law" and "Stop auctioning MF Husain". They distributed pamphlets to onlookers and to those entering the auction house.
Representatives from Hindu Janjagruti Samiti also joined. They said, "Christie's is aiding and abetting hate crimes against Hindus."
Kamal Pande, a Nepali-American Hindu, described Husain's works as hypocritical.
"True art is not offensive, irresponsible, and unethical. This is not true art. He's taking the liberty of painting our deities in vulgar positions; but he'd never do the same with other religions. This is the very height of hypocrisy!"
But inside the auction room, one Hindu man, wearing white and saffron silk kurta pyjama, a collector and purveyor of Husain's art, termed the protest "a circus and a joke".
Asked about a Husain's painting being auctioned, titled 'The pink elephant and Maya', which shows a nude Maya on a bed with a pink elephant on her knee, the art-lover said, "It's a beautiful, thought-provoking piece. I don't see anything offensive. I've been a practising Hindu all my life."
Many art-lovers consider the 92-year-old artist as 'India's Picasso'.
Charges have been filed against him in the past for the paintings, including a February 2006 claim that he has willingly 'hurt the sentiments of people'. Shortly thereafter, Husain left India, and now splits time between Dubai and London.
Husain has seen increasing success in international auctions throughout the controversy. Recently, he joined the exclusive 'one million dollar club', for artists whose individual pieces have been auctioned at over $1,000,000. He's also established himself as a heavyweight in the South Asian Contemporary and Modern Art world, and his work demands a premium price.
The trend continued today, as his highest priced piece was the $1.4 million 'Battle of Ganga and Jamuna"; experts were surprised at the number.
"The worldwide economic recession has lowered prices in auction houses for fine arts," said a woman near the bidder's counter.
"This piece came in only valued at around $800,000; so I'm very impressed. It shows people still find Husain's work relevant and valuable, even in the 21st century. I don't understand why people are protesting the nudity in his works. Just downstairs, there's a statue of Kali, an Indian God. She's depicted as fully naked, and that piece dates back a 1000 years."
Image: A man protests against M F Husain outside Christie's in New York. Photograph: Snaps India.