This is an extract from London based journalist Salil Tripathi’s new book: ‘Offence – The Hindu Case (Manifestos for the Twenty-first Century)‘
Near the end of James Joyceâ€™s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus tells the reader: â€œI will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to useâ€”silence, exile and cunning.â€
For the Indian artist Maqbul Fida Husain, these words now carry a special meaning: opposition to him and his work has now travelled beyond Indiaâ€™s borders. In 2006, a group of Hindu activists attacked two of his paintings at an upscale art gallery, asserting that if Muslims could ban cartoons of Prophet Mohammed made by Danish artists, why couldnâ€™t Hindus do the same with Husainâ€™s art?
What was unusual about this act of vandalism was that the gallery was in central London, at Asia House near Oxford Circus.
Ironically, even as various police officers in India were issuing arrest warrants against Husain, the then Indian High Commissioner in London, Kamalesh Sharma, was inaugurating the show, where he called Husain Indiaâ€™s â€˜greatest modern artistâ€™ and added, â€˜Husainâ€™s career and success mirrors closely the meteoric rise of contemporary Indian art on the international stageâ€™.
* * *
At the heart of the activistsâ€™ complaints against Husainâ€™s art is that he paints Hindu deities (â€¦) without clothes. Such a complaint could have merit, at least on cultural grounds, if nudity were an alien concept in Hindu art. But Husain is hardly a pioneer here; for millennia, Hindu divinities have appeared unclothed in art. When Husain depicts a Hindu deity in the nude, he is following an aspect of Hindu, or Indic, tradition; he is not insulting it or defying it. By challenging his art and attacking him, his critics are going against the grain of Hindu tradition; they are acting as Hinduismâ€™s moral Taliban.
* * *
But [as Justice Kaulâ€™s judgment in the Husain case shows] vulgarity lies in the eye of the beholder. Husainâ€™s paintings arenâ€™t meant to titillate; these are not classic, voluptuous human forms in the conventional Western sense, drawn realistically in identifiable settings. Rather, they elevate the body to an abstract realm, suggesting the formlessness of divinity. Hinduism has a concept, nirakara, describing just that.
Such an explanation, however, is too abstract for the fundamentalists. Husain understands that and has apologized to those whose sentiments are hurt. Explaining his motives, he traced his art to Indiaâ€™s millennia-old heritage, where gods and goddesses are â€˜pure and uncovered,â€™ as he puts it. Indian painters, he adds, are the â€˜direct descendants of that golden era . . . of great vision that transcends the mundane realityâ€™ where the human form turns into a metaphorical structure. â€˜My work goes beyond reality; it does not recreate reality,â€™ he says.
That a Muslim artist in Hindu-dominated India can paint Hindu deities freely is something to celebrate. It shows not only the high degree of artistic freedom in India, and its composite ethos, but it also projects Indiaâ€™s liberalism at its best. As a recent exhibition of the Ramayana at the British Library showed, manuscripts were often painted for Hindu kings by Muslim artists. Muslim classical singers in India have routinely sung divine songs invoking Hindu gods.
But some Hindus are seething over a peculiar injustice: Muslims command the worldâ€™s attention when they are offended by images they consider blasphemousâ€”a concept alien in Hinduismâ€”and they now want equal treatment. That is, they want the right to be offended.
What these activists forget is that the sacred and the profane have always coexisted in India. India gave the world Kama Sutra and millions of Hindus worship Shivaâ€™s linga, or the phallus. As a faith, Hinduism is broad enough to include some sects that think that sex is the primary way to attain enlightenment, and understands that some ascetics are preaching abstinence when they roam around naked, their bodies smeared with ash, during major religious congregations.
Art historian Rita Banerji suggests that a good section of British and most Muslim colonizers found the sexual sensibilities and ways of Indians to be unappealing and unaesthetic, besides appearing to be immoral. Pointing out the difference in the general perception towards sex and sensuality between AD200â€“1100 and the colonial period that follows, Banerji explains: â€œThere was an open, almost celebratory eroticism (in the earlier period) to just about everything: art, music, dance, literature, philosophy, religion and regular norms and customsâ€¦. The basic change in the colonial period lay in the disassociation of sex and the sacred, through the religions of the colonizers.â€
After the Muslim occupation of northern India, erotic temples and worship emerged in areas that the Muslims did not occupy or that held out against occupation for a long time, such as Hampi and the Kamakhya temple in Assam. Areas of India with minimal contact with Muslim rule also did not see women adopting the veil. Many Muslim rulers adopted the shariah in the parts of India they ruled, even though they were privately self-indulgent, and imposed censorship on Hindu literature, arts and poetry of this period. The British took that much further, banning books, sanitizing scriptures, branding as obscene certain forms of theatre, even sending the police to stop performances.
In other words, the behaviour of todayâ€™s Hindu nationalists mirrors the behaviour of the colonizers, and not a continuing tradition; if anything, it is Husain, and other artists, who are the true inheritors of that traditionâ€¦.. It is clear that what runs against the Indian ethos is not Husainâ€™s art but the activistsâ€™ fury. While what Husain paints may not be sacred, what the fanatics are doing is profane.
With permission from the publisher Seagull Books (Calcutta/London/New York).
Offence: The Hindu Case will be available in bookstores from August. It is distributed worldwide by the University of Chicago Press and available for pre-order from Amazon.
|Post to del.icio.us|
Filed in: British Identity,India,Moral police,South Asia