I wrote this piece for Newsweek Pakistan.
The Indian Exile
M.F. Husain was one of India’s most important – and persecuted – artists
On a cool December evening in 1996, Sir Cowasji Jehangir Hall in downtown Mumbai was lit up. On the terrace you could meet many of India’s fine painters, erudite art critics and trendy socialites, mingling with art collectors and the state’s governor, at the opening of the National Gallery of Modern Art.
The inaugural show was dedicated to the Progressive Artists Group, a remarkable movement that began in 1948 when six painters and sculptors – Syed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza, Hari Ambadas Gade, Krishna Howalji Ara, Sadanand Bakre, and Maqbul Fida Husain (who died last week in London) –created a new Indian artistic idiom – blending Indian traditions with Western modernity, celebrating a secular, liberal, urbane, and modern India.
Mid-1990s was a difficult time for Mumbai. The chauvinist political party, Shiv Sena, had succeeded in getting the city’s name changed from the more inclusive and cosmopolitan Bombay to the insular and narrower Mumbai. The city was recovering from the series of bomb blasts in 1993, which had killed 257 people, following the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya the previous December.
The opening of the new museum was to provide some healing touch. But Husain had stayed away, fearing arrest. That sounds bizarre, because that part of Mumbai was Husain’s natural habitat, where he was most at home. The National Gallery is opposite the city’s museum, and near the old galleries Chemould and Pundole, which had shown Husain’s paintings for years: of those athletic horses, the series of paintings about Indian ragas, the stark Sufi images, among others. Seeing Husain striding barefoot on the footpath along those streets, stepping into Samovar, a restaurant at the Jehangir Art Gallery, or towards the Gateway of India, was hardly unusual. He walked barefoot not as a publicity ploy, as many thought, but because he said it gave him energy and kept him close to the ground.
But that soil became inhospitable for him. In 1995, a magazine had unearthed an old sketch Husain had made, which depicted Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, in the nude. Since then, dozens of people claiming their religious feelings were hurt, had filed cases against him – at one time, he had hundreds of cases pending against him in remote parts of India. While the Indian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it places restrictions on grounds of national security, decency, morality, and so on.
That evening, at the opening of the National Gallery, I remember a group of young artists had unfurled a banner, saying: “Husain, we miss you.” Husain was wise in staying away. The Hindu nationalist witch-hunt against artists, writers and historians that began in the late 1980s, was sustained and serious, and Husain was the principal target. They forced some artists to apologise, some film-makers to change scripts and titles of films, and some of those who refused to budge were physically assaulted. The turning point for Hindus was the banning of Salman Rushdie’s novel, “The Satanic Verses,” (India was the first country in the world to do so). Christian groups campaigned against the film “The Sixth Wound of Christ.” In this race to the bottom that competitive intolerance encourages, Hindus felt left out: Husain, being a Muslim, became the symbol of their hatred.
Besides the cases against him, art galleries that showed his works were picketed, threatened, and sometimes damaged; police instituted cases against him, and lower courts summoned him. Higher courts subsequently exonerated him, but there was no guarantee he’d be able to focus on his work. He left India, and lived most of the past two decades abroad.
I first met him in 1982. I was a young reporter and had barely turned 20; he was in his mid-60s. I was to interview him for the magazine Celebrity, edited by Shobhaa De, Husain’s friend who had known him for nearly four decades. Instead of doing a conventional interview, we suggested to Husain that he sketch his life for us in a series of paintings. He wanted to hear more, so I hung out with him, spending time with him and his family at his home, trying to keep pace with him as he strode swiftly through Mumbai’s streets, and talking with him about his life.
On the day before he was to fly, he gave me ten magnificent paintings. And instead of writing an interview, I wrote a long poem about his life. Looking at the magazine again over the weekend, with his sketches and my poem, I saw vibrancy and energy, rejoicing the land of his, and my, birth, whose culture he shaped and enriched through his art.
That he could not breathe his last in Mumbai, surrounded by the familiar scent of wet earth and howling winds of the city’s monsoon, is the ultimate tragedy, for which the blame must lie with the vigilantes who drove him out of his home.
Tripathi, a writer in London, is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009) about Hindu nationalist attacks on writers, historians, and artists, including Husain.