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June 26, 1998


E-Mail this story to a friend Ashwin Mahesh

The Art and Science of Nude Paintings

What sort of guardians of free expression would turn devotion into a soap opera without once asking any of the questions that are so obvious? Of late, I've asked myself that question quite a bit, and in the process, come up with some other ones which are just as revealing. Yes, this is about M F Husain's much-discussed paintings, but instead of rehashing the particular religious sympathies of various groups, I'd like to present the issue with an off-color lens. No Hindu-Muslim stuff, just civics, common sense and rationale, the kind of genuine secularism that hardly makes it to such debates.

As a scientist, I tend to get caught up in very many of those hypothetical arguments that fellow scientists find so comfortable, but everyone else finds such a distraction. Forgive me the approach this once, I ask your patience while I run through the options that popped in my head. More than anything else, it is the logic of the argument that I will put forward that I want you to consider, even if you disagree with the approach. And in doing so, I urge one other consideration -- a genuine argument founded in constitutional law and propriety must stand independent of religion. Let us pose the question without referring to particular faiths, then, and see what it might reveal.

Why did M F Husain paint Saraswati in the nude? Precisely what was he thinking about the potential for provoking the sensibilities of others? It has been several years since the painting first appeared, and even Husain, I'm sure, no longer fully knows all the answers. But for our examination of the social tensions it unleashed, the answer does not matter, for we shall consider all the possibilities.

Assume Husain considered the possibility that his paintings might be offensive to others. Along this line of thinking, there are two possibilities. Either Husain did not realise that painting goddesses in the nude might be offensive and therefore he finished his painting in ignorance, or he did know that such paintings would be offensive to some, and he painted them anyway. If the latter is true, then the secularists should shut up, for there is no defending deliberate insults.

However, let us give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he, quite frankly, did not know that his paintings would be considered offensive. That begs an even more pertinent question -- why not?

We can all reasonably imagine that painting the gods of other faiths in the nude would be insulting to devotees of those faiths. This does not stretch the imagination at all; au contraire, it is perfectly obvious even to those who are not particularly faithful. We can see quite well that painting the Prophet, Moses or Christ in the nude would be completely unacceptable to faithful persons of different religions. Knowing this much requires very little intelligence, bordering on the non-existent.

Let's regroup. We had two choices, and we examined one first. The roads it led to have led us to conclude that Husain either behaved with inexcusable audacity, or that he lacks the average intelligence needed to see that such a painting would be improper. We shouldn't forget, however, that I might have picked the wrong premise when I began, so before drawing any more damaging conclusions from the one I already examined, I'll turn to the other possibility.

This leads even more directly to the conclusion that Husain didn't have the average intelligence we find so desirable in persons of his repute. For if it never occurred to him that his painting might be such a bag of dirt, one has to wonder why not? By what measure does he appreciate the world around him that even its obvious manifestations do not strike him? What can we say about his presentation of various themes if what is perfectly obvious to any sane person is not even on the radar screen of this painter?

But then, you say, what do I know about world views? Am I an artist, that I can imagine the unimaginable? Can I fathom the depth of Husain's artistry and vision? Possibly not, but if that's the counter-argument, i e, that we must let individual painters decide what is acceptable presentation of the worlds they see in their mind's eyes, then I contend that this is not art. By what measure of style and content is the presentation of totally off-radar material to be considered art? And is such a measure applied consistently?

What exactly is art, anyway?

Not being an artist, I am eminently qualified to answer this question. Don't laugh, let me explain. If art is coin for exchange in a mutual admiration society of creative persons, then it really ought not to be worth the megabucks it rakes in, or discussion in outside fora that spreads the artist's fame wide and far. If instead, art is a game that society has perfected to keep up with the Joneses, then voila, enter the illiterate connoiseur, for I too have been watching the Joneses. And, on the assumption that vast majority of you are not artists either, we are gathered in perfect harmony, to discuss stuff which we know very little about, but which is still of some value in the social games of our times.

It is in this context that M F Husain's painting assumes huge proportions. Ultimately, you and I, the buyers, (or potential buyers, in the case of such less well-off persons as yours truly), decide what is worth paying for, based on our appreciation of what is worth presenting in our living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, lawns, offices, and public places. Now, let's look at what we, the judges of what constitutes art, have to say.

Fully 80% of the readers who responded to Saisuresh's article on Husain's painting said he was completely clueless about Hinduism and tolerance. A significant number said the presentation of such material would not be considered art if the same portrait was passed off as a deity of another faith, specifically the Prophet Mohammed. Even Vir Sanghvi's much stronger arguments held water only for a few. I am not about to get into the details of what offends Hindus or Muslims, but let me press on with the point I have made above. If we are the judges, and 80% of us think Husain's paintings of nude goddesses is not art, then it must not be.

That's not to say that Husain does not have the right to paint it. Instead, we merely affirm that his portrayals, although they are made under the protections afforded to art, do not meet the standard generally applied to such expression. Still, the preservation of such off-key material is sought under various clauses outlining our constitutional rights. Notably, we hear, it is precisely because the content is unpopular that it requires the protection guaranteed by the right to free expression. For, as we all know, popular speech hardly needs such protection. However, is such a right not regulated on various grounds, even in our Constitution? Do we allow free speech to permit us to yell "fire" in a movie hall, for example?

A further examination of the minutiae reveals even more startling truths. When exactly does an artist cross the line between merely expressing himself and his perceptions, and antagonising sections of the population? If I painted a religious figure in the nude, framed the picture, and merely hang it in my living room, is it art? If I hang it on my balcony, if I show it at a gallery, if I paint it on the walls of a place of worship, is it still art?

To say that art must survive with free expression for its own sake begs the question -- why? Hitler was a great orator, do we hear anyone pressing the case that his oratorical style, or the message in his oratory, if such it is, must be preserved and taught to future generations? Sure, I can tolerate the expression of such views, but the very least we must admit is that in a civil and sane society, those who express such dubious messages are usually considered idiots at best, and fanatics if worse.

If it is the protection of Husain's right to free expression that is paramount, then it is reasonable to expect that such expression must be subject to the safeguards applied to other forms of speech. Equally, he is obliged to consider whether his expressions are consistent with such safeguards, and mere ignorance will not pass muster. If instead, we choose to consider unwitting or even deliberate provocation of others as a fundamental right to be safeguarded, we will be hard put to explain why hooligans spraying graffiti on Husain's paintings are not similarly protected.

Make no mistake, I have little sympathy for the goons who took the law into their own hands. Put them away, by all means, but don't deny them their outrage simply because our games have no place for them. After all, even a secular person might be expected to wonder why the defence of our pluralism does not include the defence of the very creed that defines it. One has to ask why the retrograde notions that produce nude Saraswatis have to be upheld as virtues in any society, Hindu or not. At the very least, it must be obvious that if a person cannot identify with even the most rudimentary sensibilities of society, he is hardly likely to produce meaningful portrayals of it.

The shame of it all is that the real artists, whose expressions truly reflect imaginative ways of seeing our world, are not outraged that Husain's painting is clubbed with their work. Have they even paused to ponder their stance, I wonder? Would they find Bharathanatyam in a bikini to be art, would they find dismembered body parts stuck together in weird ways to be acceptable collage? Regrettably, all they have done is shout from the rooftops, offering sermons on the sanctity of their work and demanding absolute protection for Husain from retribution. Shame. Is art little more than a vigorous mix of an idiot and his brush? Is there anything at all that artists and their defenders will find unacceptable?

Yes, Husain's painting is offensive. Not because he is a non-Hindu meddling in the affairs of Hinduism's holiest goddesses, and certainly not because the sensibilities of some people are outraged by his portrayals. For my argument is not based on my faith or his. It really doesn't matter that some folks make excuses for this stuff in the name of free speech, and it doesn't matter the least bit whether such paintings are within the bounds of plural Hinduism or not. If there is one reason to think Husain's painting just flat out stinks, it is that he has the temerity to call it art.

Ashwin Mahesh

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