Some notes on the controversy regarding artist M.F.Hussain(Originally appeared on Sarai Readers list in August 2008)
I would appreciate if people realise that M.F. Hussain's intention (while drawing the deities in the nude or otherwise) may not be to insult the Hindus. I am not a defender of Hussain, but would like to put across a few points. Many people have pointed out that Hussain never drew any Muslim character (such as the Prophet) in the manner he drew Hindu deities, and therefore his intention must be to insult the Hindus. They also say that such an act by any artist in a Muslim country (like Saudi Arabia) would result in death penalty, and so on.
But I feel that maybe Hussain did not draw an Islamic character in an "immodest" posture simply because such an image or icon doesn’t exist in the Islam's visual cultural tradition. If he does it, then that would be deliberately provocative (although I am not saying it shouldn't be done). But he could draw a Hindu deity in the nude because such a tradition exists in our Indian visual culture. I doubt if he avoids the depiction of Muslim themes because he is scared of the Islamists. Maybe he simply can't relate to it as an Indian and as an artist.
If I as an artist cannot express my certain feelings in the language that has been taught to be me by my parents, and I suddenly discover a new language that allows me to express that peculiar feeling in a much better way than what my mother tongue did, I would be happy to use the new language. There are thousands of poets and artists who found a new way of expression in a language which every one in their midst had found "inferior" – I am talking for example of the tradition of Persian poets of South Asia who also wrote verses in Hindi or Hindavi. While poets such as Masud Sa'd Salman, Amir Khusrau, Abdurrahim Khane-khana, Ghalib, or Iqbal became famous for their exquisite verse in Persian, their heart pours out better in their Hindavi, Urdu or Braj poetry where they can come down to the earth from the lofty royal palaces. We often say, "Unki Hindi shayeri mein mitti ki khushbu aati hai" (one can smell the earth in their vernacular poetry). And I think Hussain is no different from them. He cannot draw an Islamic character in the nude because it's probably not in his palette, or doesn't touch his heart. (And we cannot force him to do it to become more politically correct).
You may say that some semi-pornographic scenes have been drawn in Mughal or Persian miniatures, and he could have followed that. But that's not the point. Hindu deities are flexible enough for us to turn them around the way we wish, to express a certain feeling that cannot be expressed any other way. So why not appreciate and celebrate that fact. I maybe a Muslim but I appreciate the fact that you can literally play with many Hindu deities. Just the other day I heard Pandit Jasraj sing a khayal in which the lyrics repeatedly referred to Krishna as a chor (thief). Does that insult a Hindu? Or would it insult a Hindu if this khayal was sung by Ustad Amir Khan? (Incidentally, a large number of traditional Hindu devotional lyrics sung in classical music have reached us via Muslim musicians, and much of devotional Hindu visual mythology has come to us via patwa artists of Bengal who are all Muslim). Can M.F.Hussain be detached from that continuity? Much of the popular calendar and poster art of 20th century showing Hindu deities was drawn by an artist called Hasan Raza Raja of Meerut. And the manner in which most Hindu deities are visualized today comes from the pioneering work of Raja Ravi Varma who was clearly inspired by western style of art where human models are used to visualize the gods and goddesses. So, does all this insult the Hindus? And what is the "original" Hindu way of imagining the deities any way?
Many Hindu poets have written/announced their emotive affiliation with Prophet Mohammad in the same way as say with Krishna. I doubt if such actions in the past may have met with much resistance as it may today – such examples were a norm in the past. There are many Hindu poets who wrote marsiyas full of pathos for Imam Hussain's martyrdom, and many Muslim poets who composed adorable songs for Krishna. I don't think it was too hard to cross the road in those days. So, why are we busy throwing stones onto each other from the two sides of a road?
I agree that some Hindus have been offended by Hussain's paintings, and they are not always at fault. Maybe they have not been trained to appreciate the nuances of the medium or the message. And the art fraternity seldom makes an effort to explain to their audiences what they do in art and why. The politician of course is too happy to cash in on the ignorance of the public. Incidentally, countless provocative/blasphemous art or statements have been made in the past but not all of them led to a public outcry. Almost all known cases where a piece of art/literature has led to violence, are those where somebody (or some political party) used them to spread the flames. In most cases, the protesters haven't seen or read what they have been protesting against. So, should the artists make such provocative works only for themselves or their closest friends, and never allow them to go public. Or should they (and their institutions) create an atmosphere of awareness where the public can appreciate their art and not tear it apart? I don't find a third option.