‘Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.’
These words by Picasso can aptly describe MF Husain, his work and the controversies surrounding him that led to his self-imposed exile.
No doubt Husain was a great painter who marketed himself successfully — often by crossing the lakshman-rekha. But accused of offending public morality by his controversial paintings, ‘India’s Picasso’ will also be remembered for pushing the boundaries to create more space for artistic freedom.
An artist often inadvertently enters an arena considered ‘forbidden’ by society or religion; or prohibited by law. In recent times, Husain’s is the most glaring example of this perceived conflict between social morality and artistic freedom guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.
Unlike the First Amendment in the United States, the right to freedom of speech and expression in India is not an absolute right and it is subject to several ‘reasonable restrictions’ under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, including the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation of incitement to an offence.
But any restriction imposed on the rights under Article 19(1)(a) — like other freedoms under other sub-clauses of Article 19(1) — has to be imposed under the authority of a law and it must be reasonable enough to qualify any legal scrutiny.
As Indian polity hardened towards the right in the 1990s, zealots dug up some old works of Husain to project them as controversies. They said the Muslim painter had painted Hindu goddesses — Saraswati and Durga — and Bharatmata in the nude, thereby desecrating them. Several criminal cases were filed against him in various parts of the country for obscenity, offending public morality and hurting religious sentiments.
Notwithstanding the attacks and the outcry, Husain remained committed to what he considered right and even fought legal battles that ultimately led to an expansion of the scope and ambit of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in the country.
Even as secularists chose to offer lip service to the harassed artist, it was the judiciary that came to his rescue. Not only did it quash most of the criminal cases filed against him but, most importantly, it also upheld his artistic freedom.
It is indeed heartening to note that the judiciary has continued with the trend of liberal interpretation of constitutional provisions to protect artistic freedom. One hopes the trend continues and artists get more space to express their ideas and thoughts freely and fearlessly.