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July 15, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Amberish K Diwanji

Intolerant India

Rediff On the NeT has been host to a debate of sorts on the merits or otherwise of M F Husain’s nude painting of Saraswati and Sita. Umbrage has been taken at painting Hindu goddesses in the nude, and questions have been asked on the justification of a Muslim artist painting Hindu goddesses, the assumption being he will not understand Hindu feeling and culture. It is not just a question of how right or wrong Husain’s paintings are, but a question of attitudes of a society that is growing increasingly intolerant.

Throughout the years, the painting of nudes have provoked extreme sentiments. The present case is worse because the nudes are supposed to represent women considered holy by most pious Hindus, and there seem to more and more of them! What is art and what is pornography is juxtaposed in one’s culture, and culture is never fixed or permanent.

A nude can be considered just a naked woman, and certainly every naked woman painting is not a nude. It lies in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder’s view is coloured by his culture and circumstances.

Should Husain paint? It may be pointed out that the strictest scriptural interpretation of Islam bans images. If Husain were of the Taliban kind, he would not paint. And there would not be Muslim painters, singers or musicians. Does that make sense when the invention of the sitar, one of the most beautiful sounding Indian musical instruments, is credited to a Muslim?

The fact that Muslims dominate various gharanas, and have richly contributed to Hindustani music means that beyond the strictest interpretation of Islam comes the cultural influence of India. These painters and artists are Indians, not just Muslims, and they are influenced by, and in turn influence, their surroundings. This is what explains the ustads and singers, the Husains, Mohammed Rafi, and even the various Khans prancing about in celluloid.

Should he paint Hindu goddesses? Or just stick to Muslim motifs? And would he have dared to paint any Muslim holy figure similarly? First, it must be pointed out that there have been and are many Muslim painters. But Islamic art is limited by its literature and the Arabic culture (and not just the religion). Hinduism, on the other hand, is a religion rich with symbolism and images. Can any artist, living in India where Hinduism is practised with so much revelry (one only has to witness the festivals) and so deeply remain unaffected.

When artists come from abroad to paint in India, especially Hindu motifs, we praise them endlessly. Husain was born and grew up in India. Not being well off, he saw Hinduism as it is practices by the millions of devotees who have a deep faith, but who may not know the finer intricacies of the religion. He is known to visit temples regularly (especially the Vithoba temple at Pandharpur). How can we expect him, or anyone else, not to be influenced by his surroundings, the dominant culture of his country?

But is he justified in painting Hindu goddesses nude? If the painting affect the sensibilities of the people, then certainly Husain should be, and most likely would have been, more circumspect. But one must remember that Husain did not draw these paintings in the recent past. He drew them a few decades ago, and to his credit, none of his paintings then drew angry responses or cause vandals to ransack his flat.

Maybe it was the fact that no one objected that led Husain to draw more than one such painting. No artist will hold back his brush simply on the ground that in some future date his work will be considered offensive. If at all he drew them as he did, it was because he drew from the rich imagery of Hinduism.

Hindu mythology is replete with graphic images and sexual overtones, especially with reference to Lord Krishna and his antics with the gopiyas. Yet, this is considered playful and bhajans (devotional songs) are sung around Krishna’s trysts with the gopiyas. Hindus worship Lord Shiva in the symbol of a phallus and womb, and never has this been considered erotic or pornographic or dirty. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of life.

It is to the eternal credit of Hinduism that it accepts human relations for what they are. The Khajuraho sculptures only prove this. One would do well to remember that the goddess Kali (at Kali puja) is shown in the nude, her breasts and private parts covered by the garland of skulls that she wears, or at best a loin cloth.

Could anyone in the 1970s have foreseen the religious fundamentalist attitudes that so pervades society today? Unfortunately, India has undergone a sea-change. The past decade and more has seen a tremendous upsurge in religious revivalism, and any slight to Hinduism, real or perceived, has been met with responses of the most brazen kind. Thus it was that in Ahmedabad, an extremely communal city prone to riots at the drop of a pagdi, that some Bajrang Dal workers stormed into a gallery exhibiting Husain’s work and burnt them. Though this is more offensive, the reaction was muted.

The rise of the Hindutvadi sentiment through the latter 1980s and early 1990s has created a situation more akin to the strictest Islamic world, where only the literal interpretation is to be allowed. Therefore 'Sita is our goddess, we must only venerate her, ditto Saraswati.' This is why Husain had to pay the price and apologise to the Shiv Sena. Not satisfied, a person in Delhi too has filed a case. He too wants an apology, because he does not recognise the Shiv Sena (someone should tell this to Bal Thackeray)! Maybe Husain will end up apologising to every Hindu, or to at least every so-called Hindu organisation seeking its momentary brush with fame.

It is akin to the situation of Salman Rushdie who apologised for his writings in the Satanic Verses, and yet Ayatollah Khomeini retained his fatwa seeking Rushdie’s death. Rushdie has reportedly retracted his apology, but Husain is unlikely to do so because it will only aggravate the situation. It is also likely that despite a loony here or there, no one else will really bother with Husain. After all, his works or art have hardly been seen or appreciated by the common man, art still being an elitist circuit.

There have been ridiculous claims that one Sita and Saraswati is akin to a mother, and no one would like to see one’s mother in the nude. The point is that this is not literal but metaphorical. For the record, let us remember that the period during which Ramayana was depicted, the clothes people were not what is worn today. So obviously, Sita never draped a sari as is done today. In fact, according to available literature, women then moved about topless, or just wore a chemisol across. This was admitted by none other than Ramanand Sagar while making his teleserial Ramayan. But since such depiction is not possible today on a mass media (even in the ‘liberated’ west), obviously it was not shown.

Certainly if it so offends sentiments, Husain would do well to stay away. Especially since his painting, instead of bridging the Hindu-Muslim divide only appears to widening it. But Indians (not just Hindus because followers of other faiths in India are perhaps even more radical and intolerant) would do well to ponder the increasing religiosity of our nation. And to remember that whenever religion has dominated society, that civilisation has only declined.

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