Monday, March 1, 2010

Art in exile


To me he always appeared like a mystic fakir. Snow white beard, the shock of white, scraggly hair and a hermetic calm on his face. He wears dapper suits, walks bare feet (he never wears shoes) and roams around with a large size brush in his hand; to paint his famous horses and the infamous bare backs of beautiful and voluptuous women.
In my opinion, he is one of those artists who are born once in million years.The kind who are true to their art. Like Mansur and Rumi, they believe in the rapture of their calling, and care little about how the world perceives them.



Maqbul Fida Husain, popularly known as M.F.Husain, is the iconic Indian (not an Indian citizen anymore) painter who was banished four years ago for painting naked Hindu goddesses. A handful of rabid opinion makers drove him out because they felt that he has “hurt” the “sentiments” of Hindus by showing their goddesses in the buff. That these people understand art even superficially, is a matter of great debate but it is extremely unfortunate and shameful for a democratic country like India to have lost its most valuable artist, someone who has taken India to the world canvas. At the age of 91 Husain had to run away for his life due to the death threats by these same people who have no sense of art whatsoever, and the Indian government intrinsically failed in providing him the much needed protection that he craved and deserved, both.
That he has recently accepted the citizenship of Qatar that was offered to him by the Qatar government was a matter of great debate in the television talk shows. But the debates were as usual about everybody talking smart, without making much sense.
In any case, I have always found these TV talk shows to be inchoate and phony, where people talk more at each other than about the topic, adoring the sound of their own voices and more often than not, skirting around the controversial issues. This talk show about Husain was no better. They had the celebrity artists, the "intellectuals", and the celebrity politicians, along with celebrity women hosts mouthing borrowed phrases from their heavily painted mouths.
No one really spoke anything substantial about how Husain could have come back to India- with a death threat looming on his head and with an announcement of prize to any ‘patriot’ who chopped off his hands-or with any concrete solution to bring him back to his own country.
The fellow artists condemned the act, saying how shameful it is that an artist of his caliber had to accept the citizenship of another country, but they also had nothing else to say about ‘how’ he could NOT have accepted the Qatar citizenship.
A certain MP even said that Husain had as it is, alienated himself from India and did not 'want' to come back.
Alienated? Yeah right! A 95 years old man was expected to come to India, put his head in the hanging noose of 900 legal cases filed against him all over the country, and stand before the brandishing sword of the bigoted group to get killed and not take sanctuary elsewhere, but the government would do nothing to make real efforts to protect one of its most distinguished citizen.
I insist that protecting Husain is not about defending an artist, but about artistic freedom. The freedom of expression that the Indian constitution gives to its citizens. Husain was the most eminent art export from India. He was the pride of the country. An artist par excellence. And he tried, many times to appeal to the government. He tried myriad times to offer apologies to those whose ‘sentiments’ he had ‘hurt’ albeit unknowingly. Contrary to what is said about him, he wanted to come back to India. He loved this country.
But his appeals fell on deaf ears. Finally he did what he thought was best; accept what could not be changed.
So sad that we have to use ‘was’ when it comes to him being an Indian citizen. We lost him to the politics of hatred.
In this country where mythology and history are often juxtaposed and alternate each other in context according to various political agendas, no sanctuary could be provided to an artist who was its national heritage.