M. F. Husain - Expression under Attack

Figure 1.   Mother India, the painting at the eye of the storm

"Naked Bharatmata - Hussain has shown naked woman with names of states written on different parts of her body. He has used Ashok Chakra, Tri-colour in the painting. By doing this he has violated law & hurt National Pride of Indians. Both these things should be of grave concern to every Indian irrespective of his religion."                                        

Are we becoming freer or more constrained by social norms? Artists have been challenging conventional sexuality as presented by religious orthodoxy for centuries and they certainly are still at it!  When the guardians of the "now" want to put an artist in prison or banish him/her for offering a new take on an old theme, the artists in question are frequently speaking from the future.

M.F. Husain, who is a Muslim, has generated criticism from some quarters because of the manner in which he has portrayed Hindu gods and goddesses. Husain has always asserted the influence of Indian art styles on his work and he continues to be inspired by a wide range of Indian themes. In his quest for new modes of artistic expression, the artist has found transcendent imagery, compelling visions, and universal significance in the Mahabharata.

In the 1990s some of Husain's works became controversial because of their portrayal of Hindu deities in the nude. The paintings in question were created in 1970, but did not become an issue until 1996, when they were printed inVichar Mimansa, a Hindi monthly magazine, which published them in an article headlined "M.F. Husain: A Painter or Butcher". In response, eight criminal complaints were filed against Husain.

The controversy escalated to the extent that in 1998 Husain's house was attacked by Bajrang Dal and art works destroyed. Protests against Husain also led to the closure of an exhibition in London, England.
In February 2006, Husain was arrested and charged with hurting sentiments of people because of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses.

There were also reportedly death threats. The artist left the country stating that "matters are so legally complicated that I have been advised not to return home."  Now living in Dubai and London, he continues to stay away from India, but has expressed a stong desire to return, despite fears that he may be arrested in connection with these cases.    A recent Supreme Court order has suspended an arrest warrant for Husain. The law ministry has examined half-a-dozen works by Husain and told the government that prosecutors would have a strong case against him if they sued him for deliberately hurting religious feelings.

The attacks on artistic expression continue.  The following article appeared recently in the New York Times  about another artist, Chandramohan, recieving similar treatment.

At a University in India, New Attacks on an Old Style: Erotic Art

It's a heady time for Indian contemporary art. Never before has it fetched such extravagant prices and acclaim abroad. Never before have Indians at home been so prosperous as to support a proliferation of galleries, exhibitions and even investment funds devoted to art.

But art and its inevitable transgressions continue to provoke fury in Hindu nationalist quarters, leading stalwarts to shut down an exhibition, drive an artist out of the country or, in the latest case, send a young art student to jail for a final-exam project deemed offensive. The student's arrest has prompted protests from prominent artists across the country and dominated newspaper headlines in recent days.

Other Works by Hussain

Figure 2.   Mahabharata, 1990

Figure 3.  Holi

Figure 4.  Duryodhana  Arjuna Split, 1971

Biographic Snapshot

Maqbool Fida Husain, (born September 17, 1915, Pandharpur) popularly known as M. F. Husain is India’s most renowned living artist. During a career that has spanned almost 70 years, his richest source of inspiration has been the vast cultural landscape of his native land.  He has been called the "Picasso of India." After a long, successful career his work suddenly became controversial in 1996, when he was 81 years old, following the publication of an article about nude images of Hindu deities painted in the 1970s.

Husain comes from a Muslim Indian family.  In 1935, he moved to Bombay and was admitted to the Sir J. J. School of Art. He first became well-known as an artist in the late 1940s. In 1947, he joined the Progressive Artists' Group, a clique of young artists who wished to break with the nationalist traditions and to encourage an Indian avant-garde, engaged at an international level. In 1952, his first solo exhibition was held at Zürich and over the next few years, his work was widely seen in Europe and USA.   In 1966, he was awarded the prestigious Padma Shree prize by the Government of India. In the following year, he made his first film, Through the Eyes of a Painter. It was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and won a Golden Bear.

Husain went on to become the highest paid painter in India. His single canvases have fetched up to 2 million dollars at a recent Christie's auction. In recognition of his distinction, he was appointed to a term in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of India's parliament.  The Peabody Essex Museum (USA, Massachusetts) featured a solo exhibition from November 2006 to June 2007. He has also produced & directed movies, including Gaja Gamini and Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities . His autobiography is being made into a movie tentatively titled "The Making of the Painter."


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