Insult and Injury


by Sid (Faisal)
9th September, 2008 at 6:11 pm    

Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s pre-eminent contemporary artist, was cleared by three supreme court judges of the charge of offending Hindus, for his painting Bharat Mata (Mother India). The petition seeking prosecution claimed that the painting, which depicts a nude woman, was sacrilegious. Bharat Mata

“Does the sentiment of the petitioner get scandalized by the large number of photographs of erotic sculptures which are in circulation?” the judges asked. “It is an art like the sculptures. None get scandalized looking at the sculptures.”

The artist, known in India as MF Husain, told the Associated Press: “At last, the dignity of Indian contemporary art has been upheld by the supreme court as expected.” He could not be contacted today.

That’s what he thinks. MF Husain will not be returning to India, from where he has been in self-imposed exile since 2006, until the hundreds of cases claiming damages for hurting “Hindu sentiment” are withdrawn. The supreme court ruling has done nothing for MF Husain.

His other paintings have also depicted:

  • Naked Sita on the long tail of Hanuman
  • Lord Hanuman with His genitals pointing towards a woman having sexual intercourse
  • Hanuman opposite Sita sitting on the thigh of naked Ravana
  • Naked Goddess Lakshmi on the head of an elephant
  • Naked Goddess Saraswati
  • Bull copulating with Parvati, with Shiva watching

Needless to say that Hindu groups found them objectionable.

HINDUTVAVADI organisations in Maharashtra appear to have resumed their old game of whipping up anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments after a short-lived show of peaceful co-existence prior to the Lok Sabha elections.

On May 1, Bajrang Dal activists forced their way into the South Mumbai home of artist M.F. Husain and created mayhem. Husain, who had left his apartment shortly before the Bajrang Dal raid, told Frontline that he had spotted a crowd outside the compound when he was about to leave but thought that it had something to do with Maharashtra Day celebrations.

I suspect that had these discerning Hindutva art-lovers been around in the 11th century, there would be no such thing as the jaw-dropping beauty of the Temples of Khajuraho or the amazing Konark Sun Temple or indeed any of the thousands of statues that depict erotic iconography which would be regarded, in this day and age of incendiary religious sentiment, as “insulting”.


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Filed in: Civil liberties,India,Moral police






14 Comments below   |  

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  1. Rumbold — on 9th September, 2008 at 8:57 pm  

    Good to see that the courts in India are standing up for freedom of speech.

  2. kELvi — on 9th September, 2008 at 11:37 pm  

    Good to see that the courts in India are standing up for freedom of speech.

    We’ll reserve judgement until Ibn Warraq’s books are freely avaialable in India, or the reprint of Rangila Rasul, and the Last Temptation of Christ is enacted on stage.

    The freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, not simply the freedom to highlight “naughty” parts of the culture. MFH himself is a pretty coy guy, and is yet to paint Aayesha ki Aadhi Raat or some such thing. While luxuriating in Dubai the “peoples’ painter” has remained silent about the numerous strikes of the oppressed expat labour in the UAE.

  3. digitalcntrl — on 10th September, 2008 at 3:00 am  

    “That’s what he thinks. MF Husain will not be returning to India, from where he has been in self-imposed exile since 2006, until the hundreds of cases claiming damages for hurting “Hindu sentiment” are withdrawn. The supreme court ruling has done nothing for MF Husain.”

    The problem here is not that Indian courts will not stand up for free speech. It is merely that they are obscenely slow, a valid criticism nevertheless.

  4. Muhamad — on 10th September, 2008 at 11:42 am  

    Good article Sid, and lets not forget the liberal Hindu temple art depicting beastiality.

  5. kELVi — on 10th September, 2008 at 1:57 pm  

    It is irrelevant what sort of artistic tradition Hindus have. As in the case of all other traditions, it is the Hindus who should have the last word on what they consider obscene. Especially in a country like India where the central administration cancelled the visit of the Danish PM and a state assembly passed a resolution condemning Denmark, this sounds hypocritical. A liberal culture cannot be built on the backs and icons of Hindus alone. For every vandal who trashed MFH’s paintings, there are possibly 10 Hindus who are outraged, hurt, and disgusted with an wantonly reckless media. You cannot dismiss those feelings unless you want to legislate all thinking out of existence.

  6. ashik — on 11th September, 2008 at 8:47 am  

    ‘The freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, not simply the freedom to highlight “naughty” parts of the culture’.

    How far do you want to take the freedom to offend?

    Gratuitous offence without any artistic merit or social cause is just offending people for the sake of it or to make a buck. I think the ‘freedom to offend’ comes with the responsibility to consider the impact of the work on wider society.

    One has to take into account Indian society, which is mostly conservative and religious outside small bubbles of ‘India shining’ middle classes in Mumbai and New Delhi. I see no artistic merit in showing Hindu Gods and Godesses in the nude and in provocative situations. I also didn’t see any point in showing the Prophet’s wives as prostitutes in the Satanic Verses. This is simply demeaning to the religion.

    I do support genuine critiques of religions, either their doctrine, socio-culture or politics. For example, there are aspects of Satanic Verses, like allegations of verses added to the Quran by Salman the Persian which intellectuals have contended.

  7. Sid — on 11th September, 2008 at 10:35 am  

    Good to see that the courts in India are standing up for freedom of speech.

    Absolutey, very sensible supreme court decision. But then India is a very civilised country in spite of the religious nutters.

  8. shariq — on 11th September, 2008 at 10:44 am  

    Ashik,

    Sid’s last paragraph points out that these types of images are very much part of India’s history and culture.

    I think its important not to overstate the influence of the upper-middle classes, also based in the cities, who are more conservative than the rest of the country.

  9. kELvi — on 11th September, 2008 at 1:26 pm  

    Shariq

    “these types of images are very much part of India’s history and culture”

    That is irrelevant. A tradition is personal and its adherents, in this case Hindus, have the last word on how it should be represented. Hindus are not an experimental subject to test our theories of change or modernisation. Some traditions (ignoring their religious aspect) are complete and keep nothing out, recognising every emotion worth discussing. Hinduism is one such tradition. Some others, chiefly Buddhism, consider sexuality, sensual pleasure, and the desire for material wealth, almost taboo – all of which had a deep influence on Christianity – whose myths are a melange of the Egyptian (Isis and Horus), Greek, several other Mediterranean myths, and Buddhist mythology.

  10. persephone — on 11th September, 2008 at 2:58 pm  

    The artist should have an allied caption to this piece it should be:

    “does my bum look big in this?”

  11. Sid — on 11th September, 2008 at 3:08 pm  

    Hindus are not an experimental subject to test our theories of change or modernisation.

    The subject of the paintings are more to do with celebrating India and Indian culture than testing Hindus and “theories of change or modernisation” “Hindus” or religion as such.

    a) Indian art is *replete* with statuetry, which depict nudity and erotica within a sacred context, which go back thousands of years. So I’m puzzled by why nudity in images today should be regarded modernist. Have we become more pruder over the last millenium or so?

    b) Fida Husain’s work draws from a tradition of nudity and erotica that has existed in Indian sacred art for many millenia. Hindutvadi modernists seem to want to erase these images from their own tradition. Seems ironic that people who are so anti-Islam are intent on out-Talibanising the Taliban.

  12. kELvi — on 12th September, 2008 at 4:14 am  

    Sid,

    You don’t get it. Hindus have the last word how their traditions are represented. If a Hindu mandir has erotic sculpture, and decides no one else shall create a work of art like that outside a mandir or kovil, that is up to the Hindus themselves. You may be puzzled why when statuetry and art are replete with sexuality, Hindus feel prickly, sad, hurt, angry about Hussain. But that is expecting Hindus to conform to some logical standard laid by you or me or some modern/ancient principle. There is no warrant for such an expectation. Hindus do not owe that, what seems to you a consistent response, to anyone or anything. It is entirely up to Hindus to decide what is an acceptable or serious or respectful artistic representation of what they hold dear. You can call Hindus prudes, illogical, puritanical, or anything else you want.

    Out-Talibanising the Taliban? Have you any sense of proportion? Those vandals who have no artisitic sensibilities are simply a small number comapred to the millions of Hindus who feel hurt, humiliated, and belittled by such license. It is one thing to represent a yakshi as on th ewalls of Kajuraho, or an orgy as you can see inside the 1000 pillar hall in Madurai Meenakshi Kovil. It is another matter entirely to represent Parvati and Nandi in delicto flagrante with Shiva looking on. You seem to say Hindus shouldn’t feel that way, or you don’t care if Hindus feelf hurt, humiliated, and belittled. Does that matter at all to you? How sensitive are you then to others’ feeling slighted? I come from a place in India where the “rationalist” blowhards have held erotic sculpture as proof of Hindu licentiousness and justification for sexually harassing Hindus. The justification is that that is all there is to Hinduism, so it is open season on Hindu artistic representation. What makes it acutely hurtful for the silent Hindu is the delicacy with which Muslim or Christian sentiments are treated in India.

    Adherents of which religion in India have any tolerance for sexuality in the representation of their icons or traditions? Muslims? Christians? Sikhs? Buddhists? Jains? Sikhs? Dash it, in Tamizh Naadu will the DMK or DK keep quiet if you write a story on the sexual romps of EV Ramaswamy Naicker, or Karunananidhi? Why then are Hindus supposed to subject their tradition to such experimentation?

  13. Sid — on 12th September, 2008 at 10:36 am  

    I accept that I may not “get it” but I’m basing my assessment on the statement from the Indian supreme court judges, with whom I agree:

    Does the sentiment of the petitioner get scandalized by the large number of photographs of erotic sculptures which are in circulation?

    It is an art like the sculptures. None get scandalized looking at the sculptures.

    Are you suggesting the judges don’t get it either?

    Out-Talibanising the Taliban? Have you any sense of proportion? Those vandals who have no artisitic sensibilities are simply a small number comapred to the millions of Hindus who feel hurt, humiliated, and belittled by such license.

    The Taliban comparison is made of the vandals of the Bajrang Dal, who seem to think it is perfectly justified to break into the artist’s residence and trash his house or vandalise paintings in exhibitions. Smacks of Taliban tactics, don’t you think?

    Why then are Hindus supposed to subject their tradition to such experimentation?

    hmmm you don’t seem so guarded about “theories of change or modernisation” as you put it, when it concerns other faiths, judging from your very first comment:

    We’ll reserve judgement until Ibn Warraq’s books are freely avaialable in India, or the reprint of Rangila Rasul, and the Last Temptation of Christ is enacted on stage.

    So since you agree these have the right to freedom of expression, so should Fida Husain, right?

  14. kELvi — on 12th September, 2008 at 4:11 pm  

    Sid,

    Enforcing the law and moving the courts when that doesn’t happen is one thing. You still don’t get it – a judge cannot decide how Hindus must react to an artistic representation. Hindus do not need logical or judicial sanction for their feelings. To that extent the judge does not get it. The judge makes the same mistake you do. Just because an erotic sculpture at Kajuraho or Meenakshi Amman Kovil goes unquestioned, does not mean that a XXX painting of Parvati should be ignored. Do I have an opinion on what the judges should have pronounced? They should have directed the police – at the pain of contempt of court – to do their job, i.e., protect the exhibition venue and the paintings within, as they would do in any circumstance, and left it at that. And dismissed all petitions demanding that the exhibition be cancelled. It is not for courts to determine arcane matters of tradition.

    Take these verses from the Venkatesa Suprabhatam. All of Southern India, even in these days wakes up to the melodious vaachana of MS Subbalakshmi, as it has for about 50 years now. It is MS’s most popular recital among the many the grand old lady of Indian music recited in a long and distinguished career. I have grown up on it, and even if I have not learnt it by heart, its cadences are within me and I will carry it with me into the next life, and I can’t think of a better way to begin my day, as would 1000s. The first verse goes as follows,

    kausalyaa suprajaa raama poorvaa saMdhyaa pravartatE
    utthishTha nara Saardoola kartavyaM daivamaahnikaM (Twice)

    O Rama, son of Kausalya and dearest to the people. The dawn before sunrise is on its way. Rise, O Tiger amonst humans. Your divine duties beckon you.

    And then there is this verse too

    kaMdarpa darpa hara suMdara divya moortE
    kaaMtaa kuchaaMburuha kuTmala lOla dRshTE
    kalyaaNa nirmala guNaakara divya keertE
    Sree vEMkaTaachala patE! tava suprabhaataM

    Bearer of the charming and divine form surpassing the pride of Cupid (Manmatha)! One whose sight is fondly centred on the lotus bud like breasts of His beloved! The abode of auspicious and pure virtues! The possessor of Divine fame! Lord of Venkatachala! May it be an auspicious dawn to Thee.

    Is it lewd, exotic, erotic, naughty, innocent, natural? Who knows? Hussain painted Parvati seated on Shiva’s lap with Shiva’s hands on her breast. He thinks that Shiva and Parvati are the first and ultimate couple of the universe and everything in it, and there is no other way he can express the substance and entirety of the universe. Is that lewd or obscene? Who is to decide? The Indian courts have some bizarre justification for their rulings on art. Rather than uphold the freedom of expression, they have ruled by interpreting the work of art. I am not at all questioning the freedom of expression – indeed it includes the freedom to offend. If any group feels offended all they can do is to pursue the matter through dialogue and discussion. Violence is a crime and should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The state should enforce the law, stay out of the way and not take sides on dubious grounds – easier said than done. The ban on Rushdie created a precedent and thugs will be thugs. It doesn’t matter whether the Satanic Verses are offensive or Hussain is exotic.

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