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Too Small A Country for One Great Artist


"Kitna hai baddnaseeb Zaffar daffn kei liye,
Do gazz zameen bhi na milie kooye yaar mein."
 
(Bahadur Shah Zaffar, the last Moghul King of India, (1775-1862); exiled by the British to Rangoon in 1858 after the failure of the revolt of 1857; lines written from exile, and translating somewhat as follows):
 
"How ill-fated Zaffar,
Denied two yards of ground
For burial back in native soil,
Among native sight and sound."
 
I
 
Zaffar, who knew only India for home, was exiled by the British imperialists at age 83. Since Moslems and Hindus had equally acknowledged his legitimacy and rallied against the colonial power under his uncontested leadership, the British were only too right to think that letting him return home would thwart the new imperial policy of divide and rule.
 
Thus it came to be that one who had been king was denied six feet of ground for internment in the only earth of his love.
 
A century and a half later, another iconic Indian, and a monarch in his own right, the renowned painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, has had to exile himself at a still more advanced age, driven this time not by some imperial power from the outside but by self-appointed "cultural nationalists" at home.
 
A determined falange of bigots were to discover some few years ago that a Husain painting was in existence which represented India partially in comely female form. That the painting in question dated back some three decades or more, and was titled "Bharat Mata" (Mother India) not by the painter but by an exhibitor were set aside as material facts to the case. Not to speak of the many and stunningly articulate and powerful Husain representations of many Hindu deities over the years, deties that he had grown up with as a lad and come to love, venerate, and joy in-none of this mattered to the "cultural nationalists" who had suddenly landed a meaty "desecrator of Hindu gods and goddesses."
 
That the ubiquitous erotica of so much of "Hindu" art and sculpture, including temple art and sculpture (Khajurahu, for instance, one of the biggest tourism money spinners), bespoke a philosophical/aesthetic tradition of extraordinary complexity, intellectual reach and metaphysical speculation did not matter either.
 
Indeed, asked the other day to comment on this reality of "Hindu" history and tradition, especially the eroticism of so much temple architecture in India, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pleaded that these were products of another age altogether, based on the conditions prevailing then (The Hindu, Feb.,26).
 
A position that begs the question as to why the Sangh Parivar had thought it necessary to demolish the Babri Mosque, which, after all, also was a product of another age, based on conditions prevailing then. Or, if that demolition was justified, why such "shamefully" erotic temple architectures should also not likewise be removed from sight.
 
To his eternal credit, Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul, a Kashmiri Brahmin, was to raise and scrutinize these sorts of questions with a lucidly erudite and liberal sensibility in his historic judgement on some four cases filed against Husain (see my Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul, Znet, May, 31, 2008), all of which he dismissed, enjoining upon the state to ensure that the nonagenarian painter was home and happily painting again.
 
Husain is now 94. Imperiled by a slew of legal suits filed with cruel intent by votaries of "cultural nationalism" in many different jurisdictions in the country, by threats to life that remain in active status, and not the least by a luke-warm state characteristically reluctant to do more than the minimal right and proper on his behalf (assurance of police protection etc., but with no hope held out that the cases would be withdrawn, or his berators hauled up for their brazenly communal defiance of the laws of the land, and for having vandalized his work more than once, or for holding out threats to his life), Husain we understand has now accepted the offer of citizenship made to him by the Emirate of Qatar.
 
To wit, if no exertions are made by the authorities in India to persuade this foremost Indian painter who is thought to rank among the world’s most notable modern painters to return home to India, he may equally be denied the soil he has loved and painted with maddening energy and passion for some seven decades for his last resting place.
 
II
 
A feature of Indian secularism, like it or not, remains this most pusillanimous attitude towards claims of outrage made periodically by some segment of one community or the other at something that is said or done by someone or the other that is seen to be offensive to "tradition" or some article of "faith".
 
Thus, Indian secularism which prides itself on a seemingly unique and uniquely sagacious self-definition (not a separaton of church and state, but equal regard for all faiths on behalf of the state) often finds itself in knots and conundrums, spending much of its peace-making energy in balancing one communalism against another, or indeed, one casteism against another. And in so doing, is invariably engaged in rendering the legal edifices of the constitution weak and wobbly. Not to speak of the quality of politics which its party formations carry and convey to the polity at large.
 
With sickening repetitiousness, it turns out that the claims of some self-anointed purveyors of this faith or that acquire privileges that transcend the majesty of the state and of its system of secular laws. With canny electoral calculations intermeshing with the modalities that are then used to negotiate those claims.
 
If Husain is today at the point of the Hindutva gun, Tasleema Nasreen of Bangladesh was a welcome exile among us because, after all, she had been exiled for berating the then Islamic state for its shabby treatment of Hindu minorities in a novelette titled Lajja. What could have better qualified her for the affections of the Hindutva brigade.
 
But what of Indian Muslims? Aha, they had/have small use for her, as she was duly assaulted at a public conference in Hyderabad. So how did the state in India handle Tasleema as she sought asylum? The Left Front government in West Bengal did indeed put her up for a while, but soon found that it was thereby losing the good opinion of its considerable Muslim citizenry (some 25% of West Bengal). So slowly but surely Tasleema was persuaded, first gently, then not so gently, to pack her bags. Which this mediocre writer but brave woman did.
 
Husain now offers the obverse of that case. However above board the Congress party, its gingerly correctness in the matter concerning his fate suggests yet again that it is not as indifferent to the Indian Hindu vote, qua "Hindu" vote as it would like the country to believe. And, no less ironically, the Left parties are more boldly forthcoming in speaking for Husain than they might have been in dealing with Tasleema Nasreen. After all, and thankfully, the Left could never hope to placate the Hindu right-wing ever to consider the Left anything but a sworn enemy.
 
III
 
There is another aspect to this matrix of compromises.
 
Quite the other day, another Muslim Indian artist, the equally iconic film star, Shah Rukh Khan, was sought to be pilloried for having allegedly expressed pro-Pakistani sympathies (see my Constructing Shah Rukh Khan, Znet., Feb.,03 ).
And contrary to expectations, and unlike many other stars afore now, Shah Rukh stood his ground with exemplary self-belief and courage.
 
Over the charged week or so while this was going on in Mumbai, Shah Rukh’s refusal to kowtow drew increasingly articulate support from some fellow artists, media organs, other opinion-makers, and eventually from the state in Maharashtra.
 
To the delight of the secularists and those who wish the tenets of the constitution and the laws thereof to be always implemented without dithering, fear or favour, the Putsch of the fascists to prevent the screening of Shah Rukh’s new film was successfully thwarted.
 
This needs to be strongly underlined because it is after decades of dithering that such an assertion on behalf of the state and in defence of the rights of a citizen without regard to creed has been witnessed. Something to the accomplishment of which Shah Rukh’s personal courage and conviction was the necessary centre-piece.
 
One would therefore have thought that in the matter of Husain the Congress-led government at the centre might have been more boldly forthcoming. It might have seized on this opportunity come on the heels of the Shah Rukh episode to consolidate the hold and the preemptive call of the state to not just offer protection to a beleaguered citizen-and one all of 94 years of age, and a ntional icon to boot-but to resolutely intervene to seek quick legal redress for him against the vexatious and patently sectarian harassment and threat meted out to him.
 
Indeed, it may have done more, and sent its envoy to meet Husain in Qatar, and bring him back home with full assurance that no nuisance would be allowed to happen that might impede his creative endeavours.
 
We would like to think that the state is, however sheepishly, considering these measures, especially now that a PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court of India by a doughty legislator from Jammu.
 
But equally, I must make another honest averment. Simply put, M.F.Husain, in the full knowledge that articulate and bold support existed on his behalf here in India among civil society groups, various segments of the intelligentsia, many non-governmental organizations, sections of the bench and the bar, and influential sections of the media, might just have considered, much like Shah Rukh Khan, coming home at this late hour to do India and the subcontinent another yeoman’s favour.
 
Even at the risk of some annoyance, and some irritability at interrupted work, he might have made available to a legion of steady strugglers on behalf of secularism, constitutionalism, and the rights of citizen’s liberty within those bounds a powerful conjunction to carry the ascendance of these articles of democratic faith and life further forward.
 
Dear Husain sahib, I would be dishonest to say that I, and perhaps many others, do not feel that little bit let down by the option you have chosen to take, even as we fully appreciate the suffering you have undergone. Nor do I think that in days to come you will remain untroubled by the decision you seem to have made to jettison home and citizenship, offering a somewhat ugly victory to the bigots who hound you and will hound others unless the majority of the sane take time to stand firm rather repeatedly.
 
Perhaps things are still retrievable, and all parties to the occurrence will come together and work another miracle. In the meanwhile, your exile is as much a heartbreak as was that of Zaffar.

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