By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
NEW DELHI -- In the heady celebration of the boom in India's contemporary art market in recent years, an iconic artist has been conspicuous by his absence. Maqbool Fida Husain is hailed by many as India's Picasso, and the 94-year-old artist's paintings are coveted at international auctions, but galleries back home are afraid to show his works.
His paintings have drawn the wrath of hard-line Hindus who are incensed that some depict Hindu goddesses in the nude.
Angry protests, hundreds of court cases and arrest warrants drove the Muslim artist to exile in Dubai three years ago. And for the second year in a row, Husain's paintings were not displayed at India's biggest art extravaganza, which closed Saturday in New Delhi, triggering a renewed debate about creative freedom and religious sensitivities in this fractious Hindu-majority secular nation.
"M.F. Husain has become the symbol of freedom of expression in India today. Intolerance is on the rise, and displaying Husain in India is seen to be unsafe," said K. Bikram Singh, author of an illustrated biography of Husain. "We say we are a multi-religious, multi-cultural society. But our secular values are hollow."
The organizers of the India Art Summit said it was too risky to display Husain's works without police protection against Hindu groups that have vowed to destroy them.
"We are not censoring Husain. The problem with displaying his works has been around for some time. We are victims, too," said Neha Kirpal, associate director of the art fair.
The religious outrage over the nude paintings of Hindu goddesses, which came to light in the 1990s, is not unlike the anger in the United States that followed the 1989 exhibition of a photo of a urine-soaked crucifix by Andres Serrano. Since then, some Hindu groups have carried on a sustained campaign to attack auctions and exhibitions of his works and even of his reprints. His effigies have been burned on the streets and art galleries now tuck his works away from the public eye. Hundreds of police complaints and court cases are pending against Husain.
In 2007, a southern Indian state announced an award for Husain, but quickly canceled the ceremony when Hindu activists threatened not to allow Husain to step on Indian soil. Instead, a state official flew to Dubai to hand Husain the award.
This month, members of the Hindu Public Awakening Organization in the western beach resort of Goa sent a memorandum to the state museum directing them to take down his art.
The flamboyant, Ferrari-driving artist, who liked to show up at elite Indian clubs barefoot, divides his time between Dubai and London now. His large body of work runs into several thousand pieces and includes a series on the British colonial Raj, Hindu epics, Mother Teresa, Bollywood cinema and horses. His bold brushstrokes and vibrant colors hark back to his very early days of struggle when he lived on the pavements and painted cinema billboards, known as hoardings, for a living.
Last year, his painting "Battle of Ganga and Jamuna" sold for $1,609,000 at a Christie's auction.
"It is shameful that the art dealers and galleries that became rich on M.F. Husain for years are so cowardly today," said Sadanand Menon, an independent cultural critic. "The so-called 'friends of Husain' hold tributes occasionally. But the art community, students, writers and the academia are largely silent on this issue."
Husain recently said in London that he was "dreaming all the time to return to India," reported the Press Trust of India. But his return looks increasingly difficult.
"M.F. Husain is an absconder under Indian law. If he believes he has not sinned, he should come back and face the anger of the Hindus," said Surendra Jain, spokesperson of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council). "He repeatedly insults our faith. We have a right to be angry. He paints his own mother fully clothed, but paints Hindu goddesses naked? It cannot be tolerated in the name of artistic freedom."
An ongoing exhibition of paintings by Pranava Prakash in New Delhi shows Husain in the nude, with the provocative title "Your Turn."
A new exhibition by contemporary artist Ravi Gossain opened Thursday as a tribute to his "art guru" Husain. He said Husain may have committed a few mistakes when he named the nudes after Hindu goddesses but his place in the Indian art canon is unquestionable.
"Husain is the engine that drives Indian art globally. You can box him for painting nude goddesses. But his life, his art is too big," said Gossain. "The hate will not survive, and a few paintings will not bring down our great Hindu culture."