Hussein Ccontroversy
The Vandals's Culture

At a time when political-electoral reverses in Gujarat and UP and a spate of business-criminal scandals in Maharashtra were throwing spokes into the hallowed wheel of the Hindutva bandwagon, a `cultural' controversy was whipped up by its fascist intellectuals and their stormtroopers. A 20-year-old painting of one of India' most prominent painters, MF Hussein, was picked up from the archives of history and presented as an attempt to 'butcher' Indian culture by an obscure Madhya Pradesh magazine called Vichar Mimansa run by self-appointed guardians of Hindu morality. This was then avenged by the activists of the Bajrang Dal who burned down a number of recent paintings of Hussein, on display in an art gallery at Ahmedabad, which were not even at the centre of the controversy.

The aforesaid painting was a routine one depicting an image of Goddess Saraswati holding a lotus above 'ripples of water' with her nude, slithy frame underneath flanked by a fish on the left, a peacock on the right, Veena on the lap and lines of hair on the back. It was made during the period when Hussein was still at his 'symbolic' best - it depicted Saraswati as a sensuous nymph, or the nymph as the intellectual goddess, suggestively interpreting old images in a new light. It gave a casual, relaxed, laughingly irreverent gesture to the nudity of woman - with one thigh up and the other down, the Veena lying carelessly, the navel and the breasts sitting pretty below the outline of a bracelet in the neck. This was a gesture which demystified the aura of nudity by giving it an effortless, everyday air; at the same time, it provided a new pose which combined aesthetic and meaning, the fact that the underwater world can be beautiful and subversive at the same time - a Saraswati, or any woman, can hold a 'holy' lotus to the world 'outwardly' and bask in her world of pleasure and sensuality, 'inwardly'.

It is not certain what incensed the Hindutva die-hards to do what they did. Probably it was a case of politics, of stumbling upon a pretext of exposing a Muslim painting Hindu Goddesses in the nude. Perhaps, they had little understanding of the real nature of the painting or its meaning. But what the intellectuals and the lumpens ended up in doing was to start a general attack on the very art of Indian 'gesture' and 'sensuality'. They also began a concerted assault on the vital lifelines of Indian traditions. For, Indian miniature painting has essentially been a painting of gesture and manner; its very coming into being in the medieval era reflected the humanisation and sensualisation of tradition which humanised the whole society in the Indo-Persian age. The forces of Hindutva first wanted to erase the memory and symbols of the Indo-Persian era because of political reasons, because it represented the rule of the Muslims. Now they want to erase Indian art and culture which grew under its influence; it was after all this art which gave a new meaning and life to traditional Hindu iconography by depicting Gods, Goddesses and ordinary people in hundred and one gestures and emotions, thus lacing them with a human individuality.

The artists who sprang up in support of Hussein missed this point - they ended up defending Hussein on the point that "We had Khajuraho and Kamasutra, why can't we have MF Hussein?" They forgot that the Hindutva thought police has no quarrel with Khajuraho or Kamasutra. They are also not a puritan, silly lot. Shiv Sena's minister of culture in Mumbai, Pramod Navalkar, who threatened to arrest Hussein, is an ex-Socialist who likes to have his beer, had acted in Dada Kondke type of lewd comedies and has really nothing personal against Hussein. For him Khajuraho, Kamsutra, or even later paintings of Hussein pose few problems as they are abstract, too far back in time. Their aesthetic is too laced in general impressions to sustain an overtly subversive impact. But Indo-Persian figurative painting and its modern extensions are real - they speak in the language of flesh and blood and impart to our sisters and mothers a value of the human and the sensual.

This more pressing cultural battle for human and sensual values in art, tradition and life is something which is missing from the defence of MF Hussein himself. He is correct when he says, as he did in a recent interview to India Today, that he pities people in India don't understand their culture or are ignorant - "if I would paint a red tie, they would say blood is coming." But he is a bit off the mark when he begins to voice ancient arguments like the first marriage on the earth was between Shiva and Parvati etc. Actually of late, Hussein himself has fallen to abstraction and frivolity, painting ancient and modern Hindu images, `Parvati' and `Madhuri Dixit', with little purpose but to present a repetitive, contentless iconography of his earlier gestures. Things which were subversive in his time have now become part of the elite's drawing room - to be more precise, Hussein has been playing it safe by withdrawing even from the limits which the artists of the old Indo-Persian tradition had gone in painting and poetry. Their sensual depiction of the Gods was not to decipher or affirm a cosmic law of union but to establish the secular thisworldliness of all things Godly - their purpose was less `spiritual' and more `materialist'. Their iconography hinged on depicting Gods as humans and then going beyond the Gods to full-blooded humans. The trend in modern art has followed the opposite course - many paintings of Hussein have actually given human beings divine attributes, besides being politically naive and compromising. Remember Mrs. Gandhi as Durga?

The current crisis is only the indication of worse to come. The redefinition of indigenous society and taste along European, Victorian lines, a legacy of the renaissance and reformism of the 19th century, has left the field open for that redefinition to acquire, in the hands of the puerile offsprings of the early Indian Victorians, a fascist edge. For them India is a land of spirituality and spirituality means Bhagwat Jagran, Satyanarain Katha and the movement of Ram Janmabhoomi. They have no understanding even of the philosophical traditions of ancient Indian culture - the spirituality of Upanishads and Shankaracharya, as well as the sensuality of the Bhakti movement and Tulsidas.

To fight them one needs a very 'secular' and 'material' exposition of 'culture', 'tradition', 'religion' and contemporary life. In the debate over MF Hussein's paintings, some of his defenders exhibited the same level of ignorance as his detractors. The painter Arpita Singh wrote in the Sunday Times about Muslim invaders destroying temples in the past for they could not appreciate their sensual image. Apart from the fact that the Indian brand of composite culture itself emerged from an Islamic brand of humanism, people like Qutubuddin Aibek are known to have appreciated the sensuality of Indian temples as having much in common with the sensuality of Islamic art. These type of arguments are no defence of Hussein, they end up in the same slot as that of Iqbal Masood who argued against Hussein in the same column of the Sunday Times, on the plea that his paintings do shock the sensibilities of the puritanical, largely 'Hindu' middle classes. Arpita Singh argued, a line which India Today also took, that Hussein ought to be defended for Hindus are a tolerant lot while Islam is not. And Masood argued that the puritanical sentiments of the Hindus should not be disturbed.

Much of the problem stems from the fact that the intelligentsia of today, whether secular or non-secular, has flimsy 'roots' either in the past or in contemporary society. They simply do not know of a tradition when men and woman, Hindus and Muslims, Brahmins and Shudras broke all taboos, 'kept the priests under their swords', and yet carried the pride and aspiration of their times with them - they were 'modernists' and yet no traditionalist could ever dare accuse them of flouting tradition. They also do not understand a reality where the activity of the Bajrang Dal evoked no response from the majority of the Hindus. One Taxi driver, quoted in India Today, even said - "Narasimha Rao should be in jail, not this Hussein". And the real defence of MF Hussein on the streets was led by Hindu women the dignity of whom is supposed to be violated by nude painting and who stood up vehemently for freedom of expression when confronted by insults from the Hindutva forces while on a procession in Mumbai. The responses of ordinary people and educated opinion was also very interesting - some said that if the BJP and the VHP are so much interested in the dignity of woman why don't they speak for thousand and one crimes against them in Hindu society? Why are the same secularists, who paint woman as sensual beings, always more forthright in expressing the real pain of Indian womanhood too? Or further, why do these zealous defenders of Indian culture never raise issues such as bringing back of the Kohinoor to Indian soil from England or the removal of British plaques which still pour scorn over the martyrs of the freedom struggle?

There has been an encouraging spontaneity in support of Hussein which was missed by the painter himself - that is why his earlier belligerence petered out and he tendered an apology for hurting Hindu sentiments. Yet those, including people with strong 'Hindu' sentiments, who defended him continued to do so - they were defending a cause, not an individual. The solidarity of the artists, who struck work throughout the country on 18th October, the fact that people like Dileep Padgaonkar, former Chief Editor of the Times of India, came out on the streets along with other intellectuals, and the positive stand taken by papers like Times of India after a long time, all taken together speak of a new polarisation which will harden in the days to come. Artists had achieved a welcome and necessary level of license in a series of court decisions which had expempted them from the draconian measures of section 292. In place of the liberty thus gained extending to the rest of the society, even its meagre expressions are under attack. It is not before long that there will be calls for banning the forthcoming Basu Bhattacharya film, Astha, for it shows a Hindu woman in an extra-marital sexual relationship, for burning books with original interpretations of tradition, and for censuring anything, even Puranic and Jataka tales, folk rites, Brahminical practices etc. that do not fall in line with the views on tradition and modernity of foolish, self-seeking, ignorant and dangerous minority bearing the Hindutva label. They and not MF Hussein should be arraigned for creating communal trouble and attempting to destroy the essence of Indian culture.

This is the chance for a bold cultural forum of a political party of the Left to turn the tables on the forces of right reaction by condemning the Bajrang Dal attack and defending and supporting, wholeheartedly and unconditionally, MF Hussein at this critical hour. It should uphold the right of the artists and every citizen of India to freely express his or her views without the fear of hurting ideologies or emotions. There are no ifs and buts in the issue of right to expression; either you support it, which means supporting the right to say anything at any place, or not. This also includes the right of criticism of someone's free expression by anyone in disagreement. But it does not include censure, nor this far and not further kind of limits, or caveats like that the right to expression is all right but one should keep in mind the time, place, context and needs of the people before opening one's also for taking the liberal initiative to its logical conclusion by presenting itself as the real legatee of the Indian tradition and mobilising the people to expose the fraud and 'rootlessness' of the BJP-Shiv Sena-Bajrang Dal and the VHP. Far back, when the BJP came to power in Madhya Pradesh, the home state of MF Hussein, the artist had called for dynamiting the cultural centre of Bharat Bhawan where the BJP was introducing its distorted cultural policies. The time may have come to dynamite ideologically and culturally the foundations of the party and its allies which has thrived precisely because no one has joined issue with it sufficiently on its own ground of 'cultural nationalism'.

-Amaresh Mishra