Canvas of Controversy (Mint)

This piece appears in Mint.

Canvas of Controversy

A Hindu group in London had complained that the show was being put up—they were offended, presumably, by the images of nude Hindu deities Husain had painted, among many other things

Remembrances | Salil Tripathi

He should have died peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, in the city he loved, Mumbai, at his apartment in Cuffe Parade, where the air carries the scent of the sea, the monsoon breeze reminding him that it was time to get the umbrella out.

Also Read | A writ against intolerance

How an artist was shorn

It did rain lightly last night in London when I was at Asia House, listening to Amitav Ghosh speaking eloquently about the Indian complicity in the Opium War, and the Chinese grace in not bringing it up, as he launched his new novel, River of Smoke. Whenever I go to Asia House I can’t help thinking of Husain, because five years earlier, as Asia House was about to open an exhibition celebrating his work, unknown assailants managed to damage some of Husain’s paintings, and the show had to be cancelled. A Hindu group in London had complained that the show was being put up—they were offended, presumably, by the images of nude Hindu deities Husain had painted, among many other things. (They hadn’t protested when the Royal Academy had put on a magnificent show of Chola bronzes, including many nude Hindu deities, at that time, but then consistency is hardly the virtue of fundamentalists.) The Indian high commissioner at the time, Kamalesh Sharma, had called Husain “India’s greatest modern artist”, adding that his career and success mirrored closely “the meteoric rise of contemporary Indian art on the international stage”, even though police officers in India were preparing arrest warrants for Husain, should he return to India.

And so he left India. We didn’t know Husain was in London, and in the twilight hours of his life, but later that night, as Ghosh and I had dinner at a Turkish restaurant on Marylebone High Street, we talked about the exceptional rise of intolerance in India. He finds the narrowing discourse dangerous; I agreed, and said it infantilised India. We thought many of the attacks were outrageous, the complaints frivolous, and recalled how Husain was driven into exile.
Indeed, vigilantes have been acting with impunity and they don’t let writers write, painters paint, thinkers publish, and film-makers show their films. They force people to write less, differently, or not at all. Or, express and suffer consequences. Those consequences are not only abuse by trolls on the Internet or peaceful demonstrations, both of which have a place in a free society, but worse has happened.

Take Husain’s case—the ransacking of an art gallery, the attack on a television studio, which asked its viewers to vote on whether Husain deserved the Bharat Ratna, the verbal threats of violence should he return to Mumbai, the acquiescent police willing to prepare an arrest warrant and pursue spurious cases against him, and the unthinking judges admitting writ petitions by people who hadn’t seen his art at close quarters, but used Victorian-era laws to curb free expression on the grounds that the art offended their sensibilities. True, the courts finally ruled in Husain’s favour, but by then Husain had grown tired; he wanted to paint in peace.

The emphasis on a few paintings—such as the nude Saraswati and Bharatmata— introduced alien concepts such as blasphemy to Hinduism or Indian thought, and disregarded his vast body of other work: those galloping horses, the lament over the Andhra cyclone, the series on singers and artists, the celebration of that syncretic identity, Indian-ness. Garish, loud, huge, noisy: his canvas mirrored India.

Husain’s attackers stayed fossilised in the mind-set of Victorian Britain, considering sex to be shameful, where pomp and circumstance could not be ridiculed and you couldn’t say that the emperor had no clothes, and where laws were passed, after the 1857 War of Independence, to keep emotions of volatile elements of communities calm. It was an India where the deities were presumably so vulnerable that faithful vigilantes had to protect them.

Husain, on the other hand, was reminding India of its liberal, freer, ancient traditions, where you could laugh, sing, dance, joke, worship, or lament the rich life around you, in your own way, in your own rhythm, in your own colours—there was no one unitary view of “India”, but collectively, when you put together the mosaic, the fine image of India emerged.

Fundamentalists hated that pluralism. They wanted Husain to be more sensitive, less offensive to them, equally offensive to other faiths, and atone for his art. Instead, he left India, because it was no longer the India he knew.

Now he is gone. But we have his art.

Salil Tripathi, who writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere, is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull 2009), which deals with Hindu nationalist attacks on writers, historians and artists, including Husain.

Your comments are welcome at


16 comments on “Canvas of Controversy (Mint)

  1. Steve says:


    perhaps you were aware also of the Muslim fundamentalists who complained about a song from Hussain’s Meenaxi considering it blasphemous. The song was banned to appease to them.

    Hussain was smart enough to know the group wouldnt entertain nude portraits of the prophet (PBUH) and never indulged in his fantasies.

    The govt did offer him Z level security on par or better than offered to a lesser obscure undeserving artist like Taslima Nasreen. But Hussain personally chose to be in self exile and one of his famous quotes was about a world without boundaries and fittingly the global citizen died in London and was buried there – again out of personal choice, not for any lack of support from the Indian Govt to allow him a burial in India.

    I too find the Hindu fringe’s outrage ridiculous. But I get offended when the perspective is limited and one-sided and we equate this zeal with a far more rabid and dangerous phenomenon. Can we have a balanced perspective please?

    • salil61 says:

      Thanks for writing, Steve.

      It was upto Husain to decide which battles to pick, and which not to, and make his assumptions based on the outward reputation of the people opposing him. He may have rightly concluded that Muslims would react harshly to his works; he wrongly assumed Hindus would be tolerant.

      He lived by his choices – when to leave India, where to be buried. I can’t speculate his motives, and should not speculate his motives, but why should he want burial in India, after the way the Indian State failed to protect him and his art?

      I’m glad we agree on the Hindu fringe’s outrage. If I haven’t written about rabidity from others, it is because the rabidity of one does not justify rabidity of the other. The attitude of Hindus should be judged on their own terms.

      Thanks again.

      • Rahul says:

        You are taking his choice of getting buried in India as if he was to do a great service to our nation by getting below the earth here? Or did he wish to see a tomb made over his last remains, where people would offer flowers? You know this concept of tombs and kabr-worship is special version of Islam, seen only in India.

        He made his choices, so why don’t we leave it at that. Why blame govt of not protecting him, when the man ran out of India when served with a warrant. When he shows no respect for Indian legal system, why should Indian legal system care to protect him.

      • salil61 says:

        Sorry, I just saw your old comment. I have no comment on the issue of tombs. As regards your second point, I’d blame the government every time it fails to protect anyone’s rights; it is not specific to Husain per se. Governments can’t choose whose rights to protect and whose not to protect, even if the one “shows no respect for Indian legal system.” Governments in democratic societies should be judged by the highest standards.

      • Rahul says:

        I would agree to what you say, “Governments can’t choose whose rights to protect and whose not to protect, even if the one “shows no respect for Indian legal system.” Governments in democratic societies should be judged by the highest standards.”

        So even if an MF Hussain has no respect for Indian law and Indian judicial system (hence stops being Indian when faced with a warrant), our govt. should protect his “right to show no respect to our law”. That is something. He left our country showing contempt to our legal system and yet our ministers kept inviting him back to India, assuring him that he will be protected; is not that something really higher a standard? Anyways, discussions on our government’s selective response would get too long. But I would like our journalists to show us the other side of the story… The other side of MF Hussain… We have been forced to accept his art to be as great as Picasso’s and his personal character blot-less while evidences are on the other side if we dive a little… (I had read what Khushwant Singh had said on the man’s character…)

      • salil61 says:

        I think there has been commentary critical of Husain’s work in the Indian media. Even other artists have been critical of him, but when he was attacked, they showed solidarity. Anyway, thanks for writing, and I hope you agree that discussing these issues works much better in longer formats than on twitter. Twitter implies a pithiness that is sometimes misunderstood for rudeness, and because it has to be brief, it requires people to be banal, effusive, or provocative, and none of that really makes discussions meaningful. I appreciate your writing. Best regards.

      • Rahul says:

        I agree. The longer format is better and worth the efforts… Twitter is like shouting; blogs and pages are like discussion…

  2. Rahul says:

    The problem in MF Hussain’s case was not with ‘nudity’, because Indians are comfortable with it. The problem was the way the nudity was presented. His paintings were not only presenting nude pictures of Hindu deities, but also were ‘suggestive’ in nature (Sita sitting near Hanuman, and some others). He was a pervert by all definitions. And his art only represented it.

    I think a few persons like MF Hussain attained to do what so many Muslim invaders couldn’t do – to provoke Hindus to the extent of comfortably labelling them as ‘intolerant’. Hindus and Indians are tolerant by nature. But everything has a limit. Hussain discovered it a hard way.

    I find no words to praise the ‘mahatma’ MF Hussain. I call him mahatma – because columnists and so called intellectuals are bound to make him appear him like having a ‘halo’ around him. He painted for money that he earned in abundance. He gained popularity by painting on controversial subjects. He was not a law abiding citizen – he ran out when served with a non-bailable warrant. I don’t want to touch his personal life and infatuations. At an age where he should be graceful to inspire the youth, this pervert was running behind Madhuris and Meenakshis. Hardly a figure to inspire any respect.

    I support freedom of art and literature, but what if one runs to provoke and paint honourable figures one after the other, from a selected target? Show me where Hussain has painted some Islamic or Christian figures, in nude, and in suggestive gestures? Why only Hinduism? This point alone makes him unprotectable.

    We shall remember Hussain as a painter who earned fame but lost respect, in his life. Hardly an inspiring life.

    • salil61 says:

      Thanks for writing, Rahul.

      There are several fundamental points on which I firmly disagree with your thoughts, and I suppose we won’t have an agreement. But for what it is worth:

      * You’ve said Husain was “a pervert”. Perversity, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Most people can see a Playboy centrefold and probably conclude that the image is meant to titillate. Only a few would reach such a conclusion after seeing Husain’s drawings – where, sometimes, given their cubism-derived elements, it is hard to tell where the human form begins.

      * I disagree that tolerance has limits. You are tolerant, or you aren’t. And there are many millions of Hindus who had either no view on Husain’s art, didn’t care, liked it, or championed it. By definition, then, the Hindus who objected to his art, were a minority. And if so, they cannot, and should not, get away with imposing their will on the majority, including non-Hindus.

      * Nobody calls Husain a Mahatma. Not me; nor any art critic or writer. Nobody deserves a halo, while people do place halos around all sorts of people. Some have even placed a halo around Ramdev. Others place it around Sachin Tendulkar.

      * You may find his relationship with Madhuri Dixit or Meenakshi or Tabu distasteful; the women concerned didn’t. And in a relationship between adults, so long as whatever happens takes place with consent, others have no business to interfere.

      * Freedom of art or literature – if it doesn’t provoke, it is dull as dishwater.

      * There is no reason why Husain should paint any other deity, from any faith, in the nude, in order to paint Hindu deities in the nude. A cricketer doesn’t have to score goals in hockey to be able to play cricket. So “this point alone” as you say, makes him unprotectable, is fundamentally flawed. He deserves protection precisely because he wants to express – no ifs, no buts, no caveats.

      Thanks for writing.

      • Rahul says:

        Thanks a lot for your reply Salil. While the first few points are subjective – as you say one can call him a pervert while others can say no-pervert, as it is subjective, so no debate on that. You say either one is tolerant or s/he is not. It is like saying everything is either black or white – which no one would agree with. I feel there are limits to tolerance, just like there are limits to everything in this world. Every single thing has limits. This is why we have experts, like the judicial system, which makes the limits appear clear. Anyways, these were silly points in comparison to what I said in the end.

        You say, “There is no reason why Husain should paint any other deity, from any faith, in the nude, in order to paint Hindu deities in the nude.” I am not saying that Hussain had to paint other religions deities in the nude “in order to paint Hindu deities in the nude”. What I said was a pointer to how to differentiate a pervert from a normal artist. A normal artist would not pick “one religion” to paint all figures in the nude, while he paints figures from other religion fully clothes. But a pervert (I am not using this term in sexual sense) would do that – this is why I said it was a “sign” or “mark” of Hussain’s rudeness towards Hinduism.

        Also, I had asked one thing: people say art should never be banned. I call these people fundamentalists, because the definition of the term makes them so. Even you are a fundamentalist because you demand a sacrosanct status for art – no artist ever should be stopped – and no art banned. This is fundamentalism. Anyways. So my point was that if no art should be banned, then how to deal with a guy who is also an artist, who starts painting all religious figures of a particular religion in the nude, with suggestive gestures, while he paints all “sane” paintings of the other religions? Should not law catch him somehow, because they guy is doing all this with an “intention” to hurt a particular set of people, and hence he is abusing his privilege! Why do you think such a person should not be touched?

      • salil61 says:

        Again, what’s a pervert or normal artist is a matter of individual opinion. What is “normal”? Following social norms? That would make an artist very boring. Secondly, if you call me a fundamentalist on free speech issues, maybe I am. That’s one “fundamentalism” I don’t have too much problem with. Intent to hurt, going after one religion and not the other – even if all that is true, there’s a simple response to that: don’t see that art.

      • Rahul says:

        I had a discussion with you on Twitter about this suggestion of “don’t see MF Hussain’s offensive art in order not to get offended”. I said there that if we apply the same suggestion to the journalists then will we have a more peaceful world? It is impractical suggestion to remain silent when I see someone murder an innocent in my neighborhood. “Close your eyes” as one of the Gandhian monkey depicts, is meant as a higher spiritual message, not in day-to-day workings. (you will say that his art can’t be compared to murder; then I will repeat your statement itself – justice should not look at small or big issue in order to judge. Every crime should be addressed by justice, no matter how small.

        Should someone make a nude picture of someone else’s mother/father and sell it for crores and the other person remain silent? In India, we have personal relationship with our gods. Our gods are not impersonal. We treat our gods as our own family members. It is highly likely to get offended by a nude saraswati or durga or bharat mata…

      • salil61 says:

        So a couple of quick responses to this.

        1. If you want to protest a work of art by speaking against it, writing against it, doing an alternative art, or picketing in front of an art gallery, that should be fine. That’s an expression of your right to oppose something. If you seek its ban, you cross that line. If someone attacks that art, besides being destruction of property, it violates rights.

        2. Yes, I will say art can’t be compared to murder, because nobody gets physically hurt by art.

        3. If someone sells a painting of someone’s mother/father and makes millions – that’s their choice/problem. In India you may think we have personal relationship with gods, but the same gods told Vivekananda that that gods are there to protect us, who are we to protect gods? I don’t deny that someone gets offended if he or she sees a nude saraswati or durga. But then life is unfair; tough luck. I see and hear many things I find offensive. I don’t go around seeking to ban them. That’s basically it.

      • Rahul says:

        I agree that protesting should only be to the intellectual and informative level. For ban, it happens that when there are so many people who feel something is wrong, then they think why not implement it. (there are many forms of “ban” perfectly acceptable to all. Like murder is banned, rape is banned, beating someone on the streets is banned, is not it so? We only don’t use the word “ban” but it works all the time without anyone noticing).

        I believe Ban should not be imposed because someone is offended by something. I am sure there would be many people who would get offended no matter what one does. There would be such persons. But a ban should happen in case something is wrong; let us not call it ban but let us call it the judiciary asking that person to stop that act. Otherwise criminals will think no one should stop them from killing anyone.

        God is not there to protect us. It was Swami Dayanand Saraswati who discovered it in his childhood – when the idols whom we worship like God can’t protect themselves from destruction, how can they protect us? Are they capable of that? When we say “protection” it is in the spiritual sense, not in the physical sense.

        I know banning anything sets a bad precedent. Muslims have quoted Hindu discomfort at MF’s art to justify their own unfair banning requests. My conclusion is – the judiciary should see such cases on “case to case basis” – on individual basis. Govt should not ban anything like this. It is judiciary who should take the trial. This is why I blame MF Hussain a lot – he didn’t allow law to take its course. He fled!

  3. Rithesh says:

    Salil, after reading this interaction you appear to be intolerant to any other views other than your own. Agree to disagree with Rahul and leave it at that. He is entitled to his views and you to your own. best,

    • salil61 says:

      There’s a difference between intolerance and disagreement. If I were intolerant, I wouldn’t let these interactions appear on my blog. Think about that.

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