Climate of Intolerance


Indian Express May 9, 1998

by Anand Patwardhan
This painting, titled Vedic, is a part of a 10-panel series Theorama by M F Husain. His canvas in the Theorama is the history and inner experience of different religious faiths. Writing about this particular painting, the artist himself notes: “Amid the diversity of the world, in the churning of the ocean of change and movement, through the stream of life and death, in the perpetual motion of the dance of creation, lies the secret of inner peace. Ponder it in the depth of your heart” 
First the facts, and crucially, a chronology:Phase 1: 1996
Dyaneshwar Nadkarni, a well-known Mumbai art critic, publishes a book on Husain which includes a drawing of the goddess Saraswati. It is not a “nude” in the sense of being realistic or sensuous but a stylised line drawing done 20 years ago.In the mid -’70s when the whole ethos of the nation was much less communal, Husain could hardly have imagined he was hurting anybody. It is a recognised convention in Indian art to depict the naked form and plenty of artists have done so over the ages. Even in 1996, with the Sena-BJP alliance in power, the Saraswati still did not obviously strike Nadkarni as being offensive. Today, there are political forces waiting to cash in on just such a situation. In Madhya Pradesh, a pro-Hindutva magazine reproduced the “nude” Saraswati as an example of the blasphemous acts of the “Muslim” Husain. The attack immediately struck a responsive chord. The Hindu psyche has been bred on stories of the “Muslim rape of the Motherland” and it was easy for the Sangh Parivar to whip up a national campaign that culminated in the Bajrang Dal setting fire to Husain’s paintings (none of them “offensive”) in Ahmedabad. The vandals were never punished. Husain, terrified as well as mortified, apologised for any sentiments he may have inadvertently hurt, and the matter rested.

Phase 2:1998
A gallery in Delhi held an exhibition of “radical art” and included a lithograph by Husain done in the early ’80s called ‘Sita Rescued’. This work was previously exhibited by none other than the Bharat Bhavan, Madhya Pradesh, where Husain was honoured with the Kalidas Samman. The work depicts Hanuman and Sita and being a two-dimensional lithograph without shadows or shading, only a pervert or a dedicated seeker of trouble would describe it as “nude” or provocative. But provoke it did. A disgruntled Delhi artist whose own work had been rejected by the gallery brought it to the notice of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Although the litho had already been removed, the VHP stormed the gallery and injured artist Jatin Das who had requested them to be temperate.

Soon photos of the offending litho mysteriously appeared in the national press leading to the Bajrang Dai’s attack on Husain’s house in Mumbai. Public sympathy for Husain is muted as many think that the artist has deliberately offended Hindu sentiments by painting goddesses in the nude even after being warned not to do so. Very few news reports have bothered to inform the public about when these works were done and how they came into the public eye.

If anyone is guilty of offending Hindu sentiments surely it is those who chose to give mass circulation and a prurient context to works which would otherwise have remained in relative obscurity. Gods and goddesses are part of religion but they are also part of mythology and folklore. Should all artists, through history, who have painted or sculpted these forms in their natural state be purged, punished and banned? Or, only the Muslim ones?

Neither Husain, nor any other artist controls the destiny of the thousands of works they may have done in their careers. Who knows how much more ammunition remains in the hands of those who are bent on twisting art and religion into a murderous political weapon.

There is a sinister pattern to all this. Last week, Shiv Sainiks disrupted the performance of the ghazal singer Ghulam Ali on the grounds that he was a Pakistani and Pakistan supports terrorism. They didn’t think it was important to know whether Ghulam Ali supports terrorism. What is shocking today is not only that M F Husain is attacked for works he did two decades ago but that the top leadership of the ruling party of Maharashtra has expressed its open support to a clearly criminal act of vandalism. Indeed an editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna, states in so many words that not only should we hail the Bajrang Dal for breaking into Husain’s house, but we should join in breaking the fingers that dare to paint insulting images of our gods and goddesses. Not just fingers, we should smash in the head that dared to even think of such a sacrilege.

The editorial in Saamna is reminiscent of its headlines and editorials that openly bayed for the blood of Muslims in December 1992 and January 1993. No one was prepared to bell the cat then and Mr Thackeray and his ilk never got sent to jail despite the rabid hate-mongering they did while they were yet to gain power. Now they are in power and their allies rule the country. Who will dare bell the cat? Who will dare speak out?

I do not know M F Husain. Nor do I know Ghulam Ali. I speak not for them but for myself and for all Indians who know that intolerance is a persona that Hitler once donned.

(The writer is a documentary filmmaker)