M.F.Husain’s Exile: Battle for Art or Religion?

M.F.Husain’s Exile: Battle for Art or Religion?
By Farzana Versey
Countercurrents, February 27, 2010

M.F.Husain is not an Indian anymore. He has accepted to become a citizen of Qatar. Why did he do it? The general answers you get are that he was hounded out of the country with threats to his life and his art by Hindutva fundamentalists. True. But he is not the first one. Fundamentalists of all stripes force out dissenters, whether they are political, from the field of art or literature.

It is not a pleasant life. There is solitary confinement, lack of avenues to express the very words and paintings that brought them to such a pass. Closer home, think Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Ahmed Faraz. They were made prisoners but stayed with their national identity, and it is not even an ancient one.

When news reports mentioned a handwritten fax by the painter stating, “I, the Indian origin painter, M.F. Husain at 95, have been honoured by Qatar nationality”, one thought he would not agree to it. It was conferred on him by the first lady Shiekha Mozah bin Nasser al Misned, wife of Qatar ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, after commissioning him to work on a series of sculptures.

There is a sort of succumbing to power here. Will he experiment with those sculptures? Unlikely.

His supporters are consolidating the view of the artist as someone who toes the line. Lalit Kala Akademi chairman Ashok Vajpeyi said that he is “the only Indian painter in history who has extensively painted both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata”. Not only is this untrue but it begs the question: why must he be protected by a government that is using the occasion to co-opt him into its own agenda? And why is it important to paint what is considered sacred by some?

The war is between art and religion, with patriotism as the undercurrent. Husain’s nationalism depends on his religion, or at least what a person of his religion can do to what belongs to another religion. In bringing this up, we assume that the dominant religion of India is also what drives its nationalism. Therefore, the ‘Save Husain’ brigade is equally culpable.

I was quite surprised to read the comment made by artist Satish Gujral: “Few have contributed to popularising Indian mythological heritage as has Husain through his paintings. I strongly condemn the government’s attitude of not helping him in the strongest of terms.”

Flashback to the early 90s when Gujral had stated, in a sense denying his own stand regarding socially-committed art, “I see only hypocrisy here”. His major grouse was that, “He painted this devi figure in Calcutta and then covered it with white paint. This only proves how much emotional link he has with what he paints. When an artist paints something he has total emotional subservience to it. If he had written Allah would he then have to destroy it? It is because Hindu society is more tolerant.”

It is not whether he used an image from Hindu mythology instead of firmans from the Quran. If anything, this sort of emphasis reveals more about the mind of the accusers. As Gujral had stated then, “Both Husain and Raza wasted talent on depicting a mythology they were not brought up on. Why did Raza have to take to Tantric art? He was trying to build up a false background.”

He had even provided a reason for it. He believed it was because in post-Partition times the patrons were essentially Hindu. Inadvertently, he answered his own question. Would Husain, who depends heavily on these patrons, dare to antagonise them?

Let us ask aloud why Husain did not tarnish an image of Allah. For one, there is no image. Besides, the dominant principle in Islamic art is to be found in the Mughal miniatures and it will be agreed that defacing those can have virtually no impact on an already deadened psyche. The all-male religions have produced no religious imagery and in fact forbidden it.

Art can never be a religion or gain that kind of legitimacy because it is an individual activity given to personal interpretation. Religious icons as art works have to bear the brunt of being mauled at museums. Is that not a slight? Is what Husain does with his interpretation worse than what the general public does with religious iconography at caves and temples? These are often people who have been brought up on the very mythology they are debasing. Where is their emotional involvement?

Whoever said that art and religion were two roads by which men escaped from circumstance to ecstasy obviously did not know the rules of the bazaar. Why could one not look at Husain’s erasing of a religious image as one more gimmick from the artist’s considerable oeuvre? Besides, why does Husain have to tread carefully where religious issues are concerned when art is, in the words of Roger Fry, “significant deformity”?

The artist cannot be expected to be a realist simply because not only does he colour the sky red as his whims dictate but he can also turn reality upside down to make a point. Likewise with religion; reality is not as it is experienced but felt. However, while religion lays down our social mores art rarely, if ever, reflects it.

Temple sculptures were not mere artistic indulgences; they were created for the purpose of reverence. Art today is created for the buyer, even if it is the artist’s peculiar vision. Therefore, it is ridiculous to equate art with religious fervour.

Once one takes a moral position, then one has to forgo the right to be a dissenter in any area. As someone once said, “The artist, like the idiot or clown, sits on the edge of the world, and a push may send him over it.”

Qatar really is not the edge of the world, so M.F.Husain made the choice to find another market. As an icon himself, he is worshipped and debased in equal measure.


  1. The bjp & rss are forcing this issue.The congress will have to protect this living legend.It is very sad he has to become citizen of some other country because of threats.threats don't think he was insulting Hindu religion

  2. FV,
    This stuff still goes on.

    Just today some book publisher is being pursued for arrest because there were textbooks printed with Jesus drinking beer and cigarettes -- this was a cursive writing textbook for elementary school.

    Why do religious beliefs of people get more rights than the people themselves? I'll never understand.

  3. All of the fundamentalists seem to think that the answer to someone else's fundamentalism is to create fundamentalism of another flavour, ignoring that such tactics never work in a civil society -- all it does is exacerbate existing fractures between groups of citizens.

  4. Al:

    Yes, this goes on and my problem is as much with the liberals as with the fundamentalists. However, it is the people, if they are well-known, who become the issue. The more germane subject of free speech, art, religion , iconography, perception just get pushed away.


    We have seen how some absolutely marvelous contributors, especially in the field of cinema and art have died in penury, so I don't quite buy this living legend business, and business is the key word. The Congress party or any other will merely use this. An artist cannot become a puppet (the euphemistic usage is 'protected'). Husain is no dissenter in the real sense.


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