‘This isn’t about India as a country; it’s just about a few people who do not understand the language of Modern Art. Art is always ahead of Time. They will understand one day.’ With these words and the brandish of a giant brush, a twinkly-eyed M F Husain sought to close the recent debate that has polarised public opinion about him.
As I listened to the 95-year-old speak to me across the crackle of a satellite link, I marvelled at his cogency, his generosity, his youthfulness — but above all — at his refusal to be co-opted as a character in any of the multiple narratives that are being constructed around him.
Husain — as he has done all his life — was going to be his own man, surprising both foes and friends alike with his maverick and provocative formulations.
As far as I can tell, three major storylines are now emerging in the Husain epic drama. There are those who have always argued that Husain has pushed the boundaries of tolerance with his graphic interpretations of Hindu goddesses. They seem to believe that intimidation is a constitutional principle. They don’t care that one of India’s greatest painters has been hounded out by vandals and mobs. Today, their venomous campaigns are powered by a new and hateful subtext — Husain, the Muslim artist has ended up where he belongs — in a Muslim-majority Gulf country. This is clearly the lunatic fringe of our nation — one that even Husain says is a minority. “Ninety-nine per cent of India loves me,” he said confidently.
Then there’s the narrative of the secular liberals — well-meaning artists and intellectuals who have campaigned tirelessly for years to end Husain’s enforced exile. They are absolutely correct in putting the government on the mat for its failure to bring Husain back home. They have bravely fought for the right of Art to be above Politics and resisted its imprisonment by the puritanical arbiters of religious morality. But have they also over-romanticised the Husain saga with naïve suggestions of dual citizenship and unnecessary defensiveness about material comfort having anything to with Husain’s choice of residence?
Husain himself, for instance, was entirely unapologetic about the fact that Qatar’s friendly tax-regime and other infrastructural facilities made it a practical choice for him to pursue his three dream projects. And no, even at this age, he didn’t feel a greater need for a geographically defined sense of home. “Citizenship for me today is a piece of paper,” he said, “Whether I paint in New York, Paris, or Doha, I will always be Indian.” This philosophical breadth of thinking is not one that lends itself to easy labels either.
It’s a complex formulation — simultaneously romantic and pragmatic — and one that challenges the third and newest narrative about Husain. This one belongs to the liberals who are otherwise on the side of Creative Freedom, but argue that Husain has let India down with his choice of new nationhood. Their argument goes something like this: how can a man whose life in exile became a symbol of the Democracy debate end up in a Middle East monarchy? For them the choice of country is a sort of sell-out by Husain. There is also a hyper-patriotic demand for him to come back and ‘face’ the rumblings. They think the surrender of his passport is akin to running away. Now that the home minister has promised ‘full security’ they demand to know why Husain refuses to live within the system like the rest of us.
So, essentially, they want the barefoot painter to come back and surround himself with black cat commandos, his artistic dreams punctuated by frequent appearances in Tees Hazari. And, so what if his house gets stoned or his exhibitions attacked by vandals — he should just go to the local police station and file an FIR, like everybody else. Husain answers them with a simple truth: “It is impossible for me to work in India; everybody knows the reason. If they look within their conscience they will find the answer,” he says. As for choice of country and whether Qatar will afford him the freedom to paint as he likes — “it’s a gamble, but a creative gamble,” he readily admits.
After listening to Husain, I’m convinced of the need for a fourth narrative. Husain should be free to paint the canvas of his life in the shades of grey that he chooses. We shouldn’t be adding our jaundiced, pre-conceived views to the palette that belongs to him. In our hurry to deconstruct him as a symbol we have forgotten that he is a person — a person with brilliance, contradictions, fallibilities, warmth and vulnerabilities.
And can we also examine our own contradictions? How many of us would hold our own against mobs, court trials and non-bailable warrants, if we had another option? As a country we have embraced American citizens like Sunita Williams and Kalpana Chawla and forced an Indian tag on them because we wanted to bask in their reflected glory. So, why all the fuss over what passport Husain carries? At least he still calls India his ‘beloved country’ and says India travels with him on all his nomadic adventures. As for his choice of citizenship — yes, Qatar is not a democracy — but do we have the right to complain or judge anymore? If it’s a choice that makes us angry or unhappy, we must remember — our system failed Husain first; the burden of guilt remains our own.
As he himself said, if he were 40, he would have “fought tooth and nail”. Now, he says that stage has passed. As he enters his twilight years, the least we can do is to leave Husain alone and let him paint in peace.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal