September 18, 2007

MF Hussain: Why is he in Exile ?

Indian Express
September 15, 2007


by Ram Rahman *

It’s not his art. It’s that M.F Husain has become a pawn for mobilising communal political forces. And so, one of India’s greatest artists will spend his 92nd birthday, on September 17,away from his country

As a photographer and visual artist who has also been a cultural activist, I find the question of M.F. Husain and his recent travails both astonishing and frightening. Husain turns 92 on September 17. He does so away from the soil of his birth, exiled by police and court cases filed against him across the country by Hindutva forces. How has it come to pass that Husain, the best-known and publicly beloved artist our country has produced in the post-Independence era, might never be able to return to India for the rest of his life? There is a bitter irony in the fact that his first exhibition in Bombay was in 1947, and we have effectively exiled him as we celebrate the 60th year of our great democracy.

Artists have been exiled from other countries during different periods of history. For the most part, these have been writers and filmmakers, whose creative power is based on the written word. Fewer painters or sculptors have had to face such ostracism, and the reason is simple. The written word carries a direct power and meaning whose distortion or misinterpretation is difficult. The visual arts, on the other hand, and modern art more so, are much harder for a lay person to analyse, interpret and are less prone to being labelled in any fixed manner. We can understand why people in power, or those seeking power, are so frightened of the written word. But do we know of any painting or frieze or sculpture which has caused an overthrow of a government?

Why is it then, that political forces attack visual artists ?

Perhaps we could look at the history of one iconic painting from the last century, Guernica, painted in 1937 by the Spaniard Pablo Picasso (Husain is commonly called India’s Picasso).

Picasso was living in Paris and was not in political exile. But the bombing and slaughter of civilians of Guernica by the fascist forces in support of General Franco shook the world. Picasso then made this huge mural for the Republican government pavilion for the Paris Exposition on at the time. Guernica became the most powerful anti-war statement of our times. After the Second World War erupted, Picasso directed that the painting be kept at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and only to be taken to Spain after the fall of the fascist regime and the restoration of “public liberties and democratic institutions”. It thus became the most famous ‘work of art in exile’. It had a triumphant arrival in Spain in 1981. Many writers and artists were exiled by Franco — including the filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Much of the cultural avant-garde in Germany were similarly exiled in the late 1930s. Germany lost it’s entire cultural elite mainly to the US, including painters George Grosz, architects Walter Gropius and Mies Van Der Rohe, theatre legend Bertolt Brecht, filmmakers and writers. Hitler, a failed artist himself, decreed that most modern art of the German avant-garde was degenerate, Bolshevik or Jewish. 20,000 works were confiscated and over 200 artists declared as degenerate.

My purpose here is to bring some perspective to the campaign launched against Husain by the machinery of the RSS as an anti-Hindu painter. The late philosopher Ramu Gandhi lamented to the art critic Geeta Kapur just shortly before his death, “It pains me deeply that these people are attacking Husain... how can they attack him... he is like a child! He, like our toy makers, plays with line and colour and form, and like those toy-makers he will sometimes magically make an icon!” I think this is a deep insight into Husain. Here is this artist from an extremely humble background, connected unlike any other to the popular imagination and pulse of the people — who has played with paint, film, photography, architecture — and has literally exemplified the figure of the modern artist in our country.

This campaign against Husain should be seen very clearly for what it is. Unfortunately, he is a prime target precisely because he is a Muslim. The Hindutva attack on him has nothing to do with his iconography or the so called ‘protection of Hinduism’. It has solely to do with mobilising the cadres of the communal political forces. The tragedy for us is that no other political force has the courage to take a stand against these people for fear of being branded ‘anti-Hindu’.

When over 100 Indian artists, writers, directors, musicians petitioned the ‘People’s President’ last year to honour Husain with the Bharat Ratna, our letter was not even acknowledged. When a group of us sought an urgent meeting with the home minister last year, after press reports that the ministry had directed the police to investigate charges of obscenity and ‘hurt to religious sentiment’, we left the meeting dejected and disheartened, having understood quite clearly that the government was not going to be seen to ‘be appeasing the minorities’. Husain was to be left to the mercy of the courts and police investigators. The courts are supposed to protect citizens, not used as an instrument of intimidation and terror against a 92 year old man. The irony is that Husain now has to pay for the travel and expenses of his accusers, besides the huge legal defence fees, while those who have publicly called for his hands to be chopped off or his eyes to be gouged out, have had no action taken against them by the government.

While he may be enmeshed in the cynical games of politicians, we in the artist community know only too clearly that his work and his name will live on, long after those petty politicians have vanished into the dust of history. That is why we will celebrate him for ourselves on Gandhi Jayanti this year, on the street, in New Delhi, in front of his huge mural of Nehru on the CSIR building. We for one, still hold on to that dream of Tagore, and refuse to believe that we have fallen into the sleep of unreason and joined the ranks of fascist Spain and Germany.

* The writer is an artist-photographer