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In liberal doses

A fair proportion of this ink has been devoted to a sidelight involving artistic freedom, that of the liberal response to attacks on freedom of artistic expression.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2007 20:33 IST

Much ink has been expended on the matter of Taslima Nasreen and her ‘right’ to return to her ‘favourite’ city, Kolkata, not to mention on whether the Bangladeshi writer should be allowed to stay on in India.

A fair proportion of this ink has been devoted to a sidelight involving artistic freedom — that of the liberal response to attacks on freedom of artistic expression.

There is a strong argument that the liberal voice is vociferous in a country when those attacking artistic freedom are from the overwhelmingly majority Hindu community.

When those attacking artists and their works in the name of that old chestnut, “hurting religious sensibilities”, happen to be Muslims, the liberal voice becomes muffled, even apologetic, veering towards a line of thinking that sounds uncomfortably like, “Artists should be aware of the sensibilities of (some) communities.”

While such a patronising, double-standard attitude feeds its own little ‘inter-community’ debate, the bigger picture of liberalism standing up to obscurantism and anti-freedom cloaked in the garb of religious sensitivities can get lost.

So when the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi was threatened for hosting an exhibition of MF Husain’s prints, and the show was suspended for a day, we grew worried that the liberal voice against Hindu fundamentalism had started to behave like it usually does against Muslim fundamentalism.

Thankfully, the exhibition was reopened after a day’s gap thanks to fellow artists refusing to surrender to threatening goons doubling as cultural critics. The artists have rightly argued that giving in to the threats against the Husain show would have only widened the space for fundamentalists to manoeuvre.

Today it’s Husain and Nasreen; tomorrow it will be an issue of truly ridiculous proportions that will get these professional foam-in-their-mouths foaming in their mouths. The law is there to take care of humbugs of these types and unlike public sentiment or, for that matter, liberal shufflings in the face of minority aggression, an FIR is blind to one’s faith or one’s demographic and social position.

Art has the job of pushing the envelope, pressing the ‘wrong’ buttons. The question of whether we care for Nasreen’s writings or Husain’s paintings is so besides the point in this context.