Do not always ask what you can do for the country. It’s also wise to ask what the country can do for you. MF Husain may have inhabited India far more passionately than most hard-boiled patriots. But towards the end of his life, he had to suffer the ignominy of being cast away from India because of persecution from a small but raucous section of Indian society, and because the authorities who should have come to his defence preferred not to. So when the Government of India announced that it would ‘facilitate’ the return and burial of the artist’s body in India if his family chose such an option, it was India covering its own shortcomings.
Husain could have stayed back in his beloved Mumbai. Part of the artist’s or writer’s parcel of occupational hazards is that he takes the ‘mob’ reacting to his works as a given. Not all creative endeavours need to ruffle feathers, but any good art should definitely not come with in-built ‘anti-controversy’ protection. Someone somewhere can get offended by something. And when it’s a high profile artist such as Husain, decrying against him and his works outside the bounds of critical feedback is a sure shot platform to get one’s Warholian ‘15 minutes of fame’. Which is where a modern, mature, democratic government is supposed to step in. Over the years, India’s governments did not.
So when the Shiv Sena and the Sangh parivar started their programme of persecution and vandalism, the law only mumbled. And why blame the State alone? As a society, we, too, backed off worried about the ‘communal din’. Even liberals, usually at the forefront of defending the ‘freedom of expression’, took a detour asking sotto voce why Husain was so bent on ‘shocking’ people in a country ‘not attuned’ to nude depictions of deities. So in the end, it was India — whose expansive soul he captured in his depictions of horses, Ganeshas, Bollywood stars and female forms — that let MF Husain down.