FTN: Husain in exile; artists need to be protected

Source: CNN-IBN

Artist MF Husain, who has been living in self exile for the past 13 years due to threats from Hindu fundamentalists for his works, turned 94 on Thursday. But the doyen of modern Indian art still cannot come back to his homeland because of the threat to his life.

The Government has so far done nothing to bring back the artist.

CNN-IBN show Face the Nation debated: MF Husain turns 94 – should the Government bring Husain home?

On the panel of experts to debate the issue were MF Husain's counsel Akhil Sibal, MP and Congress Spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, artist Anjolie Ela Menon, and BJP member Sheshadri Chari.

Is the future for artists and the democratic expression of freedom bleak in India?

Noted artist Anjolie Ela Menon began the debate by saying, "I don’t think so because we have protested every time there is this self-appointed moral police. I remember when the incident took place I was in a television interview which had a large audience and I asked some 200 people that which of them had seen his painting. And not one hand went up. So what were they offended by? The propaganda by the VHP and Bajrang Dal?"

Not agreeing with Menon, BJP member Sheshadri Chari said, "It is not the question of propaganda. We all wish him well and many more years of painting. He is out of India on a self-imposed exile. There is nothing that the Government of India or BJP or RSS can do."

However, VHP and Bajrang Dal have reportedly said that Husain "has vilified our objects of worship"

To which Chari said, "Forget what the VHP and Bajrang Dal have said. What is the general perception? The perception is that he has painted certain Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the nude. So now it is for MF Husain to come and explain it. When he was asked why did he paint Hitler in the nude he had said those whom he hates and those whom he wants to humiliate he paints them in the nude. This is what he had said in an interview which was even publicised."

When an artist paints a God or Goddess in the nude does it convey disrespect or humiliation?

"Of course not. If you look back in the history of Indian art it was Ravi Varma who started dressing Gods in clothes of his own times. But there were times which preceded the advent of cloth," Menon explained.

So then why doesn’t the Government give police protection to Husain? When he wanted to come for the India Art Summit, the Government reportedly did not do anything.

"I don’t speak for the Government. I am not aware what the Maharashtra government has done. But as far as my party is concerned we are of the view that if Mr Husain would like to come back to the country of his birth then he should certainly do so. And if there is any threat to his life then the Government will provide him with protection," Congress Spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said.

But the Government didn’t do that. During the recently-held India Art Summit the organisers went from pillar to post within the Home Ministry trying for police protection so that they could get Husain for the summit. But it is believed that protection was never given.

"As far as I am aware any citizen who is entitled for protection can ask for it," Natarajan said.

Regarding the Home Ministry taking up the issue, Natarajan said, "I don’t think it is the highest on our list of priorities at the moment given the acts of terror against the country. We have considerable respect for Mr Husain’s artistic oeuvre, as you put it. He has put contemporary Indian art on the world map. But it is simply not the job of the Government in my view."

Politicians vs the society

The Delhi High Court has dismissed the obscenity case. The court also said that nudity is part of contemporary art and plays a significant role in India’s cultural heritage.

In the light of this judgment why doesn’t Husain come back and face the charges?

To which Husain's counsel Akhil Sibal said, "I want to clarify that he is facing the charges. He represented in court, he filed a petition saying these cases are frivolous and legally unstable and he succeeded. So he is not running away. There is no legal impediment preventing him from returning. The more important question is not whether the Government should bring him back but whether the society should bring him back. There is a fringe element which has a very shrill voice but they are not representative of the majority."

"What Ms Natarajan said is absolutely shocking. This gives out a very strong message," Sibal added.

Strongly disagreeing with Sibal’s charges, Natarajan said, "No, my words have been taken out of context. I said terrorism is high on the Government’s priority and not an art summit. I did not say that the Government will not provide protection."

"I am sorry to say but even the clarification is shocking," said Sibal.

"You have to be careful about the messaging that you are sending out. What you said cannot be the view of the Government surely and if it is then that’s absolutely shocking," he added.

Freedom of expression

There has been a tradition of nudity and cultural expression in our heritage. Then how can the Hindu groups call Husain’s paintings an insult to Indian heritage?

"I wouldn’t say it is just a Hindu group. I would go back to an interview of Husain which was conducted by a very senior journalist. He was asked why did he paint Hindu Gods in the nude. Husain had replied saying ‘nudity is a metaphor for purity and strength.’ Then the next question that was asked was that would he paint all women characters like Mother Teresa and Fatima also in the nude? Husain had then said that he doesn’t want to answer that question," Chari said.

Unperturbed by the argument, Menon said, "Husain is today 94 and we really don’t care whether he is on this soil or not. We all go to meet him and I have had a nice ride in his red Ferrari. The world has shrunk so it doesn’t really matter whether he is here or there. If you think he is unhappy then you all are sadly mistaken. Husain is a true karmayogi. His life and his religion is his work. I think everyone is just whipping up an old dead controversy. As long as he is able to work it doesn’t matter where he is."

"The entire thing against Husain was politically motivated because some of his paintings were very old. They were taken out and made into a pamphlet by DP Sinha and party. It was done just to whip up sentiments amongst people who had never even seen his paintings," Menon added.

However, the panelists agreed that the issue here is that it is the artists’ freedom that needs to be protected.

Taking about the root of the controversy Chari said, "His painting of Bharat Mata was put up for sale and was going to be inaugurated by then Governor of Maharashtra SM Krishna. But he had then refused to go when he heard that it was a nude painting of Bharat Mata. So it was not about Bajrang Dal or VHP."

Sibal concluded the debate by saying, "This is completely misconceived argument for the simple reason that Hindu art has a tradition of eroticism mixed with religion and that is exactly what the High Court has also said."

Final results of the SMS/web poll:

Yes – 43 per cent

No – 57 per cent

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