How to get things wrong without even trying


by guest
18th July, 2009 at 2:28 am    

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 Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus tells the reader: “I 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 use—silence, exile and cunning.”

For the Indian artist Maqbul Fida Husain, these words now carry a special meaning: opposition to him and his work has now travelled beyond India’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 couldn’t Hindus do the same with Husain’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 India’s ‘greatest modern artist’ and added, ‘Husain’s career and success mirrors closely the meteoric rise of contemporary Indian art on the international stage’.

* * *

At the heart of the activists’ complaints against Husain’s art is that he paints Hindu deities (…) 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 Hinduism’s moral Taliban.

* * *

But [as Justice Kaul’s judgment in the Husain case shows] vulgarity lies in the eye of the beholder. Husain’s paintings aren’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 India’s millennia-old heritage, where gods and goddesses are ‘pure and uncovered,’ as he puts it. Indian painters, he adds, are the ‘direct descendants of that golden era . . . of great vision that transcends the mundane reality’ where the human form turns into a metaphorical structure. ‘My work goes beyond reality; it does not recreate reality,’ 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 India’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 world’s attention when they are offended by images they consider blasphemous—a concept alien in Hinduism—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 Shiva’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 AD200–1100 and the colonial period that follows, Banerji explains: “There was an open, almost celebratory eroticism (in the earlier period) to just about everything: art, music, dance, literature, philosophy, religion and regular norms and customs…. The basic change in the colonial period lay in the disassociation of sex and the sacred, through the religions of the colonizers.”

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 today’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 tradition….. It is clear that what runs against the Indian ethos is not Husain’s art but the activists’ 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.


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Filed in: British Identity,India,Moral police,South Asia






16 Comments below   |  

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  1. pickles

    New blog post: How to get things wrong without even trying http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/5187




  1. Rumbold — on 18th July, 2009 at 10:44 am  

    Yes, it is rather odd complaining about the painting of Hindu deities sans clothes.

  2. Vikrant — on 18th July, 2009 at 11:49 am  

    Yes, it is rather odd complaining about the painting of Hindu deities sans clothes.

    No its not just that, the paintings depict Hindu godesses having engaging in bestiality, they were meant to blaspheme and I can see why observant Hindus would be annoyed. While I couldnt care less about what Hussain draws, his stance on freedom of speech has been hypocritical, he withdrew his film Gazgamini when Muslim groups protested against it.

    But some Hindus are seething over a peculiar injustice: Muslims command the world’s attention when they are offended by images they consider blasphemous—a concept alien in Hinduism—and they now want equal treatment. That is, they want the right to be offended.

    Hindu Forum doesn’t represent anyone, atleast not this British Hindu. Most Hindus coudln’t careless… conflating this with the Danish cartoon protests is gross mischaracterisation. As for “police arresting him in India”, I think Supreme Court exonerated him plus the India is a country where Taslima Nasreen got booted out and Satanic Verses was first banned, comptetive intolerance is what it is…

  3. Bobsy — on 18th July, 2009 at 1:56 pm  

    GO KALI !

    There’s shop selling Hindu religious claptrap in Dubai. When asked for a picture of Kali the chap glances around and produces a picture from under the counter, like a furtive dealer in child pornography.

    Go Kali!

    Good news that militant Hindus are running amok in London and engaging in iconography!

    When are the Zoroastrians going to start bitching and moaning about something or other?

  4. Edna Welthorpe — on 18th July, 2009 at 2:32 pm  

    Goddesses engaged in bestiality like that Danish woman Bodil?

    Digraceful!

    We’ll be seeing them at it on T-shirts next!

    Good for the Hindoos!

    Surely it’s time that the Zoroastrians got off their contented arses and began making a noisy fuss about something or other!

  5. Arif — on 18th July, 2009 at 3:00 pm  

    It isn’t really for non-Hindus to say what Hindus should or should not be offended by – we can ask “Why?” if there seems to be some inconsistency in their behaviour, but then to say they have misinterpreted their own tradition seems more colonial to me than what the Hindu “fundamentalists” are accused of.

    But many groups have attachments to symbols which they want to protect – and they might not make sense to outsiders (eg the star spangled banner, particular ways of treating the coffins of dead British soldiers, the pretence that there was no question of genocide of Armenians in Turkey).

    We might all have suspicions about why symbols are so emotionally protected by their guardians (I definitely do) – but it is possible to empathise to some extent by reflecting on our own attachments and how we want them respected, and how we would feel if our attempt to gain such respect were ridiculed.

  6. Yahya Birt — on 18th July, 2009 at 4:53 pm  

    I think this is part of a series (which I haven’t read any of as yet). Kamila Shamsie, the novelist, did a short essay too on offense from a Muslim perspective.

  7. munir — on 18th July, 2009 at 5:10 pm  

    ” 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 couldn’t Hindus do the same with Husain’s art?”

    Utter garbage. Husains house was attacked in 1998 by Hindu fanatics.

    “The controversy escalated to the extent that in 1998 Husain’s house was attacked by Hindu groups like Bajrang Dal and art works were vandalised. The leadership of Shiv Sena endorsed the attack. Twenty six Bajrang Dal activists were arrested by the police.[15] Protests against Husain also led to the closure of an exhibition in London, England.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._F._Husain

    and the Danish cartoons werent banned

    You really think Hindu Nazis who want to expel all Muslims from india need an excuse?
    What excuse are you going to come up with for them commiting genocide against the Muslims of Gujurat in 2002 , destroying Gujurats Islamic heritage destroying and indulging in mass rape of Muslim women?

    “In other words, the behaviour of today’s Hindu nationalists mirrors the behaviour of the colonizers, and not a continuing tradition;”

    This is the language of Hindu facism not of Pickled Politics- blaming Muslims for everything or referring to Muslims as “colonizers” -it basically says Indian Muslims (the second largest Muslim population on earth) are eternal aliens in their land. Hinduism is a much a colonizer of India.

    If you are so anti-the Muslim rule of India why arent you demolishing the Taj Mahal, or eradicating the huge influence in language , food, arts etc that it brought to India?

    The funniest example I know of this is the HinduNazi BJP condemning Sonia Gandhi for not being truly Indian because she couldnt pronounce the word “watan” (nation”

    watan of course being an Arab word brought to India by Muslims :)

  8. Edna Welthorpe — on 18th July, 2009 at 6:46 pm  

    Ya Munir -

    The national anthem of the place where I am living and working now is AL WATAN and the yarn is that it was composed at really short notice for King Farouk’s visit to King Abdul-Aziz, like Handel composing HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO COMES for William, Prince of Cumberland, after Culloden.

    PLUS Al Hind – with all its faults* – is an open crude noisy democracy and even the daftest would be appalled to think of destroying India’s heritage – especially if the heritage concerned is a real tourist attraction

    * The Indian press is arguably the freest in the world and as stuoid and irresponsible as that of the Philippines

    ————————————-

    And – yes – we know about Manali and the Kulu Valley where the groovy and laid-back locals murdered every last one of their Muslim neighbours at the time of Partition, according to Penelope Chetwold

  9. Edna Welthorpe — on 18th July, 2009 at 6:57 pm  

    ARE WE STRAYING OFF-TOPIC ?

    One might argue that a Christian – Zoroastrian Coalition of Philosopher Kings ought to run India for the next fifty years.

    As for ART – public-art ought to be polite and private art ought to be private

    BUT ANYTHING GOES ON THE INTERNET RIGHT?

  10. Celtlord — on 18th July, 2009 at 8:59 pm  

    guess not

  11. dave bones — on 19th July, 2009 at 3:18 am  

    Wow. What a great article. Cheers!

  12. Anna Pauker — on 19th July, 2009 at 7:21 am  

    Always a pleasure to see an upsurge of public interest in the arts.

    It’s not so long ago that Esther Rantzen threatened a citizens’ prosecution if someone of other went ahead with the entire Mapplethorpe exhibition on the grounds that a naked lttle boy and a semi-naked little girl were among those depicted in Mapplethorpe’s collection.

  13. Celtlord — on 19th July, 2009 at 7:58 am  

    munir

    This is the language of Hindu facism not of Pickled Politics- blaming Muslims for everything or referring to Muslims as “colonizers” -it basically says Indian Muslims (the second largest Muslim population on earth) are eternal aliens in their land. Hinduism is a much a colonizer of India.

    that is soooo rich (that’s baseline irony for inbred pakistanis reading this … it’s not my fault your parents are first cousins)
    What the hell else is islam in India but a colonizing force, you can find histories written by muslims celebrating the terror, brutality, destruction, enslavement(the slave markets of Baghdad did brisk business, the invasion and conquest of India. Indian muslims when in power slaughtered millions of Hindus… millions. Remember polytheists(like Hindus) rank number one in the islamic hierarchy of hate, though once it became clear that there were to many to exterminate, conversions weren’t happening fast enough, and they were the economy Sikhs started out as pacifists, at one point the islamic state had a price on every Sikh head… man, woman, and child. Following that fraud prophet, mohammed, muslims sought to terrorize non-muslims into submission, Sikhs picked up the sword to defend themselves and others from the brutality of their muslim oppressors, even today Sikh families are most often horrified if their girls have muslim boyfriends, in fact said boyfriend is bound to get a serious beating if the girl’s male family members catch him,and unfortunately so will the the girl. So much of islamic history is nothing but tales of terror, rape, enslavement, murder, and destruction of non-muslims, while today’s europeans trip over themselves in a hurry to disassociate and condemn their ancestors, while remaining ignorant of the same or worst crime committed by others, they cower in fear at being labeled as racists, and eat shit from people whose background is just as bad, or in the case of islam worse. I say worse because we admit shit happened, tens of millions of native north americans most likely died as a result of european discovery and exposure to disease for which they had no immunity, about 10 million africans were takin’ in chains to be slave in the new world. their descendants still live there The same if not more were taken enslaved to islamic lands, where are their descendants? raped and work to death. the saudis didn’t officially out law slavery until the 60′s and organizations fightin’ the enslavement of humans still say the practice continues… let’s not forget that it was the efforts of British and French navies that forced the turks to stop their slave trade.

    Arif – I really like this line of yours it makes the point about muslims’ in ability to admit the crimes that they perpetrated, “the pretence that there was no question of genocide of Armenians in Turkey”. You little worm the only ones who claim that this crime are muslims and those on their pay roll, some brave souls in turkey are coming forward with the truth, and these for the most part are secular turks, the Germans have admitted what happen in the holocaust and sought to atone, muslims imprison or murder their own who admit their crimes.

    White supremists are morons at best, some are pure evil. Islam is very much a vehicle for arab supremists
    and colonization, Britain coloized India and helped create the worlds bigest democracy, muslims colonized India, committed a genocide on the scale of the mongol invasions of China and gave the world beef curry.

  14. Celtlord — on 19th July, 2009 at 7:59 am  

    munir

    This is the language of Hindu facism not of Pickled Politics- blaming Muslims for everything or referring to Muslims as “colonizers” -it basically says Indian Muslims (the second largest Muslim population on earth) are eternal aliens in their land. Hinduism is a much a colonizer of India.

    that is soooo rich (that’s baseline irony for inbred pakistanis reading this … it’s not my fault your parents are first cousins)
    What the hell else is islam in India but a colonizing force, you can find histories written by muslims celebrating the terror, brutality, destruction, enslavement(the slave markets of Baghdad did brisk business, the invasion and conquest of India. Indian muslims when in power slaughtered millions of Hindus… millions. Remember polytheists(like Hindus) rank number one in the islamic hierarchy of hate, though once it became clear that there were to many to exterminate, conversions weren’t happening fast enough, and they were the economy Sikhs started out as pacifists, at one point the islamic state had a price on every Sikh head… man, woman, and child. Following that fraud prophet, mohammed, muslims sought to terrorize non-muslims into submission, Sikhs picked up the sword to defend themselves and others from the brutality of their muslim oppressors, even today Sikh families are most often horrified if their girls have muslim boyfriends, in fact said boyfriend is bound to get a serious beating if the girl’s male family members catch him,and unfortunately so will the the girl. So much of islamic history is nothing but tales of terror, rape, enslavement, murder, and destruction of non-muslims, while today’s europeans trip over themselves in a hurry to disassociate and condemn their ancestors, while remaining ignorant of the same or worst crime committed by others, they cower in fear at being labeled as racists, and eat shit from people whose background is just as bad, or in the case of islam worse. I say worse because we admit shit happened, tens of millions of native north americans most likely died as a result of european discovery and exposure to disease for which they had no immunity, about 10 million africans were takin’ in chains to be slave in the new world. their descendants still live there The same if not more were taken enslaved to islamic lands, where are their descendants? raped and work to death. the saudis didn’t officially out law slavery until the 60′s and organizations fightin’ the enslavement of humans still say the practice continues… let’s not forget that it was the efforts of British and French navies that forced the turks to stop their slave trade.

    Arif – I really like this line of yours it makes the point about muslims’ in ability to admit the crimes that they perpetrated, “the pretence that there was no question of genocide of Armenians in Turkey”. You little worm the only ones who claim that this crime are muslims and those on their pay roll, some brave souls in turkey are coming forward with the truth, and these for the most part are secular turks, the Germans have admitted what happen in the holocaust and sought to atone, muslims imprison or murder their own who admit their crimes.

    White supremacists are morons at best, some are pure evil. Islam is very much a vehicle for arab supremists
    and colonization, Britain colonized India and helped create the worlds biggest democracy, muslims colonized India, committed a genocide on the scale of the mongol invasions of China and gave the world beef curry.

  15. Arif — on 19th July, 2009 at 12:13 pm  

    Celtlord – on the question of Turkish prosecution of people who talk about crimes against humanity in founding the Turkish State, somehow Western countries go along with this denial, or tread softly around it. I think it hardly registers in the politics of Muslim countries at all. I brought this example up as I want to make clear that my own preoccupation for human rights does not blind me to the fact that people seem to use their sensitivities to undermine human rights.

    I agree with Edna’s formulation that public art should be polite and private art should be private – and would add there should be a space for private art.

    The lines of what is considered polite and impolite is more relevant to the issue that the article raises – that “vulgarity is in the eye of the beholder”. So who has the power to draws the lines according to their standards of vulgarity? How do they legitimise this power?

    I am arguing that decisions you agree with will seem legitimate and those you don’t will seem illegitimate. So to me Turkey’s rules on discussing the treatment of Armenians as insulting to the Turkish nation seems illegitimate, as do its rules on wearing headscarves in public institutions (even though the rule was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights). Rules preventing libel and spreading hatred seem to me to be legitimate.

    The lack of consistency in standards of free speech shows me there is probably no high principle involved really, it is more about negotiating emotions, dealing with fears and – in the end – if we ignore emotions and fears (or a State is unequipped to deal with them), the use of force.

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