India usually claims ‘one of its own’ like a spider catches flies. A whiff of ‘Indian origin’ and every talented desi, Nobel laureate, feted artist or writer is ‘Ours, ours, ours!’ So where was our legendary pride in ‘our people’ when Maqbool Fida Husain was pummelled left, right and mainstream by a hate campaign against a body of his artworks that artistically depicted Hindu deities? Why was India’s most ‘visible’ artist — whose works catch the swirling world of Bombay and that of modern India with such kinetic force — forced to leave the country in 2006? Now that Husain has graciously accepted Qatari citizenship — after years of trying to return home despite reportedly some 900 cases pending against him in various Indian courts and open threats from mobs — we must ask ourselves what kind of nation we are to passively or actively drive out one of our finest talents away from our shores. Philistines without a spine is one description that immediately comes to mind.
Husain’s plight is symptomatic of the way both the State and the citizenry treat our artists and writers. Art is feted in this country if it’s safe, if it bandies about cliches, if it firms up notions of patriotism and other such crypto-campaign devices where society, not individual vision, is the protagonist. The irony is that Husain’s ‘objectionable’ paintings were not even created to push the barriers of popular taste but to celebrate the mainstream Indian imagination, whether in the form of a Saraswati or a Madhuri. But in India, the perception of a few is enough to set the authorities all a-tremble. The liberal moaning about Husain’s fate has also been hypocritical. While ‘secular progressives’ rail against Hindu fundamentalists (but clearly not effectively enough), they turn into veritable mice when fundamentalists from ‘the other side’ start foaming in the mouth about a cartoon or a book the latter get winded up about. Suddenly mumbles about ‘freedom of artistic expression’ turn into ‘the need to be sensitive towards a communities feelings’. This hardly comes handy when taking on ignorant bigots who see only naked Hindu women in paintings and an anti-Hindu propagandist in one of the finest practitioners of art in the contemporary world.
As for the governments that have seen Husain being driven to the edge, and finally out, of his own country down the years, not a word has come in support of the man who has done — and continues to do — India and contemporary Indian art proud. If such a deafening silence doesn’t sound like a show of support for fundamentalist goons who have been awarded the power of kicking one of India’s finest talents out of the country, we don’t know what is. All that some of us can do now is thank the kingdom of Qatar for giving one of us a sanctuary from where to practise his craft and sullen art.