Event in New York, Nov 3

The South Asian Journalists’ Association Student Chapter

and

The South Asia Association Presents

“Hindu fundamentalism:

Consequences for the press and beyond”

Please join us for a conversation with London-based writer Salil Tripathi who will talk about his book, “Offence: The Hindu Case” and explain how Hindu fundamentalists are succeeding in intimidating artists, journalists, and historians, seeking bans on art, cinema, cultural works, and in academia. Nina Paley, filmmaker and creator of the animated movie, “Sita Sings the Blues,” will join Salil, and discuss her film that has experienced the intimidation Salil has written about. Books will be available for sale.

Salil Tripathi is an Indian-born writer based in London. His books include “Offence: The Hindu Case” (Seagull, 2009), about attacks on free speech by Hindu nationalists, and a forthcoming collection of travel essays (Tranquebar). He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Independent, The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, and The Washington Post, among others. In India, he is a columnist at Mint and contributing editor at Caravan magazine.

Nina Paley is the creator of the animated musical feature film “Sita Sings the Blues,” which has screened in over 150 film festivals and won over 35 international awards. Prior to becoming an animator Nina was a syndicated cartoonist. A 2006 Guggenheim Fellow, Nina is currently producing a series of animated shorts about intellectual freedom called Minute Memes, and a new daily comic strip, Mimi & Eunice.

Date: Thursday, November 3, 2011
Time: 6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
Location: Journalism Building, Stabile Student Center, Columbia University, New York

Refreshments will be served.

For more information, please contact: Sabrina Buckwalter at
sb2997@columbia.edu or at (646) 247-8306

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The Indian Exile – Newsweek Pakistan

I wrote this piece for Newsweek Pakistan.

The Indian Exile

M.F. Husain was one of India’s most important – and persecuted – artists

Salil Tripathi

Newsweek Pakistan

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.

A Portrait of India’s Intolerance – The Wall Street Journal

M.F. Husain was hounded out of India due to sustained harassment, a theme I go into in my book, Offence: the Hindu Case.

In this piece, for the Wall Street Journal, I’ve written about the context in which the harassment occurred, and its overall impact on free expression in India.

——

A Portrait of India’s Intolerance

The country’s speech restrictions didn’t allow M.F. Husain to paint in peace, Salil Tripathi writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

By Salil Tripathi

Maqbool Fida Husain was India’s most celebrated painter, and his death in London last week was front-page news across the subcontinent. However, toward the end of his life, Husain had trouble finding galleries willing to show his work. He lived in Dubai, Doha or London for most of the last two decades because he couldn’t paint in peace in his own country, even becoming a Qatari national last year.

Husain’s story says much about modern India. The troubles started in 1996, when the magazine Vichar Mimansa (“Discussion of Thoughts”) published a decades-old sketch that showed a nude Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning. That discovery electrified Hindu activists, who began filing lawsuits against the painter for hurting their sentiments.

These activists were able to persecute Husain by taking advantage of laws intended to prevent the incitement of religious hatred. Though the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it allows “reasonable restrictions” to safeguard “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity” of the country and “public order, decency or morality.” The penal code makes it a crime “to outrage religious feelings” and also outlaws “promoting enmity” between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language—and the all-inclusive “etc.”

Fringe Hindu groups claimed to have been offended by the artist’s work, and pressured the authorities to initiate proceedings. Indian courts often throw such cases out, but there were multiple cases against him. When a few of them reached the Delhi High Court on appeal, it ruled in Husain’s favor. So did the Supreme Court in a similar case.

But the court judgments did not stem the tide of vitriol. Vigilantes continued to file cases against him, attacked his works and damaged the studio of a television network that polled its readers on whether Husain should be given India’s highest civilian honor.

AFP/Getty Images The country’s speech restrictions didn’t allow M.F. Husain to paint in peace.
An artist with weaker convictions would have stopped painting altogether, but Husain continued to portray the many colors of this pluralist democracy. Born around 1915, he got his artistic start painting cinema posters. Formally trained at the prestigious Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay, he was an integral member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which brought together leading modernists soon after India’s independence in 1947. He painted horses all his life; his other recurring themes included celebration of Indian music, Sufi art and the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. Since 1996, he continued to paint Hindu deities as well as paintings inspired by Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit, whom he called his muse.

But he couldn’t go on very long. At one count last decade, there were hundreds of cases pending against him across India, and some death threats too. Instead of defending Husain’s right to express his imagination, the authorities did nothing, actually adding to pressure from activists. In 2006, several state governments decided to prosecute him for outraging feelings after he painted “Bharat Mata” (Mother India) in the nude. The controversy scared those who otherwise would have been happy to exhibit his work, including the organizers of the 2008 Indian Art Fair in Delhi, which had the works of 300 artists but not Husain’s.

Exasperated by the lack of support from the Indian state and the continued harassment—both physical and legal—Husain gave up. He was living outside India anyway, and last year he publicly renounced his Indian citizenship.

Hindu nationalists justified their attacks on Husain’s art by noting that the Indian state has allowed other faiths to block literature that has offended them. India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.” Muslim activists last year chopped off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a university professor in Kerala, because he gave an exam question that was deemed insulting to Muhammad. Christian groups have protested films like “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

To be sure, a large number of books get published in India, hundreds of films get made and galleries hold many exhibitions without incident. But artists like Husain inhabit speech at the edge of acceptability, speech that challenges conventional thought. The controversial sketch of Saraswati, for example, is an elegant white-on-black line drawing, which makes the viewer reflect on the old Indian tradition of “nirakara,” or formlessness. Yet instead of questioning themselves when provoked, extremist Hindus, like extremists from other faiths, have reacted with anger.

The trouble is that along with such sectarian anger comes New Delhi’s timidity in protecting individual rights. Hindus have every right to peacefully protest Husain’s depictions, but Indian law allows them to become vigilantes who chill all expression.

India will now try to claim Husain as a son of its soil. Someone will suggest issuing a postage stamp in his name. Others will talk about naming roads or art galleries after him. A more fitting tribute would be to revoke those provisions of Indian law that drove Husain out of the country. The next M.F. Husain should not have to curb his imagination or dream smaller dreams.

Mr. Tripathi, a writer in London, is the author of “Offense: The Hindu Case” (Seagull, 2009).

A Painter Framed (Newsweek)

One of the tragedies of MF Husain’s life in recent years has been that people have focused only on a few controversial sketches, like Saraswati and Bharat Mata, and not his entire body of work. In this piece, for Newsweek, I’ve attempted to look at his overall contribution to modernity in Indian art.

——

A Painter Framed

Maqbool Fida Husain celebrated India in all its exuberant complexity.

Maqbool Fida Husain, who died on June 8, was India’s most prominent painter—but in the last year of his life, he had become a national of Qatar, and he died in London, far from the city he loved, Mumbai. That rootlessness, in essence, captures the poignancy of the artist’s life—he became controversial, but didn’t choose to be so.

He was born in pre-independence India around 1915 and lived there until the 1990s, when Hindu nationalists launched a vicious campaign against him. They were upset after a magazine found some of his old paintings and sketches, some dating back to the 1970s, which showed Hindu deities in the nude. That wasn’t really controversial; in sculptures in many ancient temples, including Khajuraho and Konarak, and in some paintings and manuscripts, Hindu deities have appeared without clothes, or wearing little.

But Husain was born a Muslim, and Hindu activists saw an opportunity to lead a sustained campaign against him. This included vigilantes damaging artworks and art galleries that showed his work in India and abroad; filing lawsuits against him throughout India for offending religious sensibilities; and attacking a television station that ran a poll among viewers asking them if Husain should be given India’s highest civilian honor, besides threatening him with violence. Instead of protecting Husain’s right of free expression, authorities filed charges under colonial-era Indian laws, which restrict freedom of expression, and judges admitted cases against him. Even after higher courts ruled in his favor, the hounding continued. Husain, who only wanted to paint, lived outside India for most of the past two decades.

Husain’s decision to leave a secular, democratic India for Qatar, an authoritarian theocracy in the Middle East, was a blot on India. But these controversies distract from assessing Husain’s artistic merit. Husain started out painting billboards for Bollywood films. Creating those garish, larger-than-life, melodramatic images shaped his sense of drama, design, and craft. As an artist, he saw India as a syncretic, inclusive entity, where no single interpretation could explain the complex, hybrid nation. His canvases brim with energy—the strokes always bold, the colors vibrant, the figures sharp, and the narrative simple.

At India’s independence in 1947, he was an early member of what came to be known as the Progressive Artists’ Group, which included Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza. Together, they lifted Indian art out of the twin legacies of Raja Ravi Varma’s bold but realistic iconography, and the window-frame miniaturization of the earlier Rajasthani and Mughal schools. The Progressives experimented with form, deriving inspiration from abstract art and cubism—and, in Husain’s case, expressionism. Husain combined that exuberance with Salvador Dali’s zaniness and exhibitionism and Pablo Picasso’s keen sense of the visual, as well as his understanding of commerce. (Husain realized the value of his signature early, and in the process, made Indian art a worthwhile investment. He was the first Indian artist to fetch competitive prices internationally, crossing $1 million, although some paintings by Amrita Sher-Gil and Tyeb Mehta have since sold for more.)

Husain saw India as a polyglot, chaotic nation, and celebrated its energy and diversity. Sometimes he was didactic, but he understood the zeitgeist. He could be brilliant and banal, sensuous and voyeuristic. At his best, he was India’s poet laureate—when a fierce cyclone lashed Andhra Pradesh, the grief in his paintings was palpable. At his worst, he could be a court flatterer, as his paintings of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi were interpreted. He showed her as Durga, the warrior-goddess, astride a tiger.

But much else redeemed him, like his sublime Sufi series, in which the characters rose like fingers pointing skyward; the charged eroticism of erect coconut trees and dusky women combing their long tresses; the calmness of Varanasi ghats where Hindus wash away their sins and cremate the dead; the lyrical Raga-Mala (garland of ragas) series, giving form to music; the celestial myths of the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epic; and the thought-provoking modern play Ghashiram Kotwal, which indicted the moral debasement of the late Peshwa rule in western India in the 19th century. India’s other great religion, the game of cricket, didn’t escape his notice, nor did the work of Mother Teresa.

Husain also had a curious passion for an inanimate object—the umbrella. He loved its ability to provide temporary shelter to the rich and the poor, and as a resident of Mumbai, with its ferocious monsoons, he appreciated its utility and curves. His other great passion was horses. He painted them all his life, always in action, neighing, ready to gallop away. Husain, too, was always restless—he rarely stayed still at one place, walking barefoot wherever he went, even being asked to leave a posh Mumbai club because he didn’t wear shoes.

The umbrella is now folded; the horses have run far, moving swiftly, like his imagination.

Tripathi, a writer in London, is the author of Offense: The Hindu Case, about Hindu nationalist attacks on writers, historians, and artists, including Husain.

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 salil@livemint.com

Farewell to a Nation’s Chronicler (Index on Censorship)

Here‘s what I wrote in Index on Censorship.

MF HUSAIN: FAREWELL TO A NATION’S CHRONICLER

09 Jun 2011

For almost 20 years, artist M F Husain was threatened and his work abused. Salil Tripathi says goodbye to a controversial and spell-binding master

Maqbul Fida Husain, who died in London today, was an involuntary exile. He loved London, but his heart belonged to India. Many Indians, including the government, celebrated him, but vigilantes in India did not like some of his paintings, and succeeded in hounding him out of India. He was a worthy recipient of an Index on Censorship award earlier this year; he could not attend the event itself. He divided his time between the Middle East during the winter and London during summer, unable to return to India because he would not have been allowed to paint there in peace.

In the mid-1990s, a magazine in India found an old sketch of a nude Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, which Husain had painted. The sketch is elegant and clean; and while it does not “resemble” Saraswati (for who knows what she really looked like?), it was his interpretation of Saraswati. But many Hindus felt offended because she was painted without any clothes. Then, they searched through his paintings and found many other paintings which also showed Hindu divinities without clothes. None of that was gratuitous, nor was it surprising: Hindus have painted their gods and goddesses without clothes for more than a thousand years. There is a concept, of nirakara, or formless, which lies at the heart of this: that you imagine what your deity might look like, giving the formless some shape.

That was too profound for the fundamentalists, and they began campaigning against him, in India and abroad. In 2006, the Asia House in central London had to cancel an exhibition of his works after unknown assailants damaged paintings. An art gallery showing his work in India was attacked. A television studio was attacked after a programme it produced asked viewers whether whether Husain should be given India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.

At one time, hundreds of cases were filed against him. India has peculiar laws dating from colonial times, introduced by Britain soon after the rebellion of 1857 to keep communities separate and segregated. India kept them on the books, allowing bullies to terrorise artists and writers: the laws allow anyone who feels offended to lodge a complaint, which is then initiated by the state. Husain was prosecuted under Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code, which outlaws insulting religions, and section 153A, which deals with promoting enmity between groups.

Courts, which are supposed to judge if such cases have merit, would often accept the cases nonetheless, and had Husain lived in India and wanted to be a law-abiding citizen, he’d have spent the better part of his life criss-crossing across the vast country, appearing in different courts. There was no guarantee that fresh charges would not be brought against him — his presence in a town could be considered likely to cause violence, and so new, criminal charges could easily be imposed on him, with no certainty that he’d get bail.

In the end, higher courts threw out the cases, and, in a more polite tone, told his critics to get a life. But in India, that does not end the matter. And the kind of people who had ransacked galleries or attacked the TV studios made violent threats against him.

Against his wishes, and in a decision that must have broken his heart, Husain left India. In 2010, he accepted Qatari citizenship. Since 1995, when the troubles started, Husain saw his canvases defaced in India, his family harassed, his property attached, his personality ridiculed, his art physically attacked and his work deliberately and disingenuously misinterpreted. His art has captured India’s ethos. He was India’s chronicler, portraying the stark agony of a cyclone; a court jester, painting Indira Gandhi as Durga astride a tiger after she declared Emergency; a cheerleader, celebrating the centuries of Sunil Gavaskar; an inventive exhibitionist, painting as Bhimsen Joshi sang, painting with Shah Rukh Khan, painting on the body of a woman.

When he left India, some nationalists claimed betrayal. The more important question is: did Husain betray India, or did India betray its own ethos? My book, Offence: The Hindu Case, began with a long anecdote about Husain’s absence from the opening of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay’s exhibition of the Progressive Artists’ Group, which came into being soon after Independence. Husain could not attend because of threats against him. Towards the end of my book, I had hoped for a happy ending.

Salil Tripathi, a writer in London, is chair of English PEN’s Writers-in-Prison Committee. He first met Husain in 1982, and instead of writing an interview, he wrote a poem about him. His book, Offence: The Hindu Case, can be ordered here.