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Portraits of the artist as a Qatari citizen

MF Husain should not surrender his Indian nationality and opt for a passport offered by an undemocratic regime — all in the name of artistic freedom. The battle for Indian secularism and free speech must be fought here, in India. And not at the feet of some Middle Eastern monarch, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Feb 28, 2010 09:08 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

So, it looks like it is goodbye to India for M.F. Husain. His son Owais has confirmed that Husain will surrender his Indian passport and accept citizenship of Qatar. The other stories have yet to be confirmed: that Husain has already begun travelling on a Qatari passport; that the Qatar royal family will spend millions on a museum for him, etc.

All of us who like and admire Husain, both as an artist and as a human being, will be saddened by the turn that events have taken. There is no doubt that self-proclaimed defenders of Hinduism have behaved like the Taliban in persecuting this great artist. In Ahmedabad, a gallery dedicated to his work was vandalised. In other cities, those who dare organise exhibitions of Husain’s art have been subjected to threats of violence.

And then, there are the legal cases. According to some estimates, 900 cases were filed against Husain all over the country so that he would have to spend his time going from court to court, fighting off the nuisance litigators.

What is more worrying is that even after the Congress took office six years ago, the harassment continued. You would have expected a political party that says that it is committed to secularism and freedom of expression to have declared that it would bring Husain back from his self-imposed exile in Dubai and make sure that he gets the protection he deserves in his homeland. Instead, till a few months ago, the government turned a blind eye to the persecution of our greatest living artist.

But Husain’s decision to become a citizen of Qatar also saddens me for many other reasons. Most of us in the media have looked at the Husain case through the prism of freedom of expression. As far as we are concerned, the issue is one of artistic liberty.

But there are also other ways of looking at the case. Forget, for a minute about the Hindu Taliban or the vandals who drove Husain out of India. Try looking at the Husain saga through the prism of secular double standards.

Our position as liberals is that an artist has the freedom to paint what he likes. If some Hindus are offended by Husain’s nude Saraswatis, then they can simply look away. They have no right to restrict his creativity or to deny the rest of us the opportunity to view Husain’s work.

But sceptics (all of whom are not necessarily Muslim-haters or communalists) frequently ask the obvious follow-up question: how would we have responded if Husain had painted Muslim religious figures in the nude?

The answer is an uncomfortable one. Even if he had painted the Prophet, fully clothed and portrayed with respect, we would not have risen to Husain’s defence with the same vigour. We would have said “Islam prohibits visual representations of the Prophet so Husain should not have offended Muslims”.

That answer weakens our claims about artistic freedom. Why should Husain’s creative abilities be hampered by some Quranic injunction? Why should non-believers be bound by the dictates of believers? Why do we campaign so hard for Husain and yet condemn the Danish cartoonist who offended Islamists?

It is an awkward situation for secular liberals to find themselves in, and I must confess that each time I have spoken up for Husain, I have been troubled by the contradiction.

Which leads me to the third reason for my sadness at Husain’s decision to surrender his Indian citizenship. Artists routinely flee oppressive regimes that censor their work or persecute them. Thousands of Iranian, Afghan and Arab writers, poets and painters have found refuge in the West. In our own country, we have frequently offered shelter to Taslima Nasreen.

But the general rule is: you flee an oppressive society for a liberal one.

Husain is the only artist I know who has abandoned a democratic society that still values (in our own bumbling way) freedom of expression and chosen to live in undemocratic societies where there is no true freedom of expression.

Does that sound like a great artistic statement to you?

Any one who has visited Dubai, where Husain has lived for several years now, will tell you that it is a wonderful place: vibrant, international, full of good shopping etc. But they will also tell you that the Emirates are not big on free speech. Try criticising the ruler in your local newspaper and the article will never get published. Find a way of publishing it yourself and you will be thrown into jail.

There is a third way in which the Husain case is viewed and that is through the prism of Hindu-Muslim relations. Those of us who know Husain know that he is entirely secular and almost above religion. He finds as much joy in a dancing Ganesh as he does in a portrait of Mother Teresa.

But not everyone knows him. And so, it has been possible for the Hindu Taliban to portray Husain as a Muslim who delights in offending Hindus. His admirers know that his naked Hindu goddesses emerge out of love and respect for an ancient tradition. But it is easy for critics to portray them as a vulgar representations of Hindu religious figures from the brush of a Muslim.

Now that he has chosen to live in Qatar, the Hindutva-wallahs will ask the obvious questions: how much freedom will he have there? Of course the Arabs will let him paint naked Hindu goddesses. But will they let him paint anything that even remotely offends Muslims? Anything that offends the royal family? Nude portraits of previous rulers of Qatar? Or even, nude portraits of Arab women?

These are crude questions. But sadly, the answers are as crude. Husain will have no artistic freedom in Qatar. He will be no more than a court painter to a medieval monarch. So has he chosen to live in a society that values the artistic freedom that he says he is denied in India? Or has he just taken the soft, very profitable, option and forgotten all about artistic freedom?

These are troubling questions and I think they will worry many of us who have spoken up so vociferously in Husain’s defence for so many years. From what I can tell, the threat of nuisance litigation has now retreated after the Supreme Court has intervened. Nor is India a particularly unsafe place. The home secretary has now offered Husain as much security as he needs.

So here’s my view: if he wants to stay abroad, fine. That’s reasonable. But he should not turn his back on his own country. He should not surrender his Indian nationality and opt for a passport offered by an undemocratic regime — all in the name of artistic freedom.

The battle for Indian secularism and free speech must be fought here, in India. And not at the feet of some Middle Eastern monarch.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

First Published: Feb 28, 2010 00:11 IST