May 6, 2006

MF Husain: "Here nudity is not nakedness"

I learned about the latest controversy surrounding master artist MF Husain’s painting ‘Bharat Mata’ from Amitava Kumar’s commentary here.

I don’t know most of Husain’s work, but some of it has been quite striking, and I really like many of the themes that he explores, though I am, of course, not schooled in any way regarding visual art. But his bold figures and colors speak to me, and I know I’ve seen some pieces that I’ve really liked. Of course, folks in India were up in arms a number of times, especially when he portrayed a number of female Hindu deities in the nude. That he’s still painting and creating controversy at this age is a testament to his tenacity and commitment as an artist. Or maybe he’s a fire sign and likes the attention.

Husain’s work often stares into the cold eyes of militant nationalism and militant religious fundamentalism. It’s funny, I guess one could say that if he were trying to make a statement beyond that of an artist sharing a piece of the fragmented world he perceives, Husain masterfully shows that in the end, the different strands of radicalism are all linked in a single matrix that isn’t as variegated as proponents of singular ideologies pretend. Fervent dogmatism is like a bag of M & M’s - they may look different, but underneath the rainbow of candy shells, they’re all the same flavor of crazy.

From my quick read of the current situation, the confluence of radical Hinduism, radical Islam, and self-proclaimed “secular“ nationalist fervor in india as all camps issue death threats, bans, and incendiary statements against the artist, is both striking and ironic. After all, his portrayal of ‘Mother India’ as a nude woman seems to have united some disparate camps in the nation in at least one cause - the call for his head. Even as communal violence tears yet again at Gujarat - now in Baroda - Husain has managed to get Hindus and Muslims, albeit the farthest outliers of the faith, unified, and it is supposedly in defense of the nation state. Or maybe it is in opposition to a perceived pervasive perversity that represents all that is terrible about ”Western influence.“

It’s interesting that if the outcry is indeed about Western influence and bastardization of things Indian and sacred, India’s radical sectarians are in effect embracing the semblance of Indian autonomy and isolationism (self-reliance?) that the majority political parties have long foregone.

The bitterness concerning any vestiges of socialism (or disengagement from the corrupting forces of coca-colonization and globalization (the West)) that are linked to Nehru’s ”socialist“ policy of nation-building from within is still very palpable in the with many middle-class Indians (who don’t hail from old-school Kerala or Bengal, I guess). The perception is that India should get her due, I guess, because we have the best and the brightest (and have invented so much over the thousands of years), and therefore, the neo-nationalists want India to be at the Security Council table, at the commercial development table, at every table of perceived importance (of course, I’m sure the non-aligned movement table would be the one closest to the latrine at this point, and therefore not desirable to India). Anyway, so they prefer that the nation state be in bed with whomever is necessary to get to those tables - from pimping ”democratic values” to wheel and deal with the United States on nuclear energy, to making new overtures to Israel about a shared plight as unique, ancient states besieged by Others (read: Islamic states, though India has a far more diverse neighborhood).

Anyway, I don’t think the religious zealots are happy about the opening of the nation to the West at all, because it means outside influence, and the potential weakening of their grasp on the masses to follow them, elect their representatives, and wage war upon their neighbors rather than the true oppressors within the country. Maybe this is a liberal reading that’s way out there, but I feel like they are using Husain as the poster-“child“ of a modernity that they want nothing to do with, and that they will successfully convince their flocks to decry as well, appealing to the base moralities to rally the troops much like what the radical Christians were given credit for during the last election around the issue of ”gay marriage” (was it really only 16 months ago?).

The artist issued an apology after the hullabaloo broke out, but as Amitava Kumar writes, “the government has issued a ’red alert.’“

Husain published a reply of sorts today, which you can read here. Though I don’t know what it will do to quell the call for blood (and his head) I particularly liked his reference to the history of the nude form in Indian classical art, and the effort of a group of modern Indian artists to reclaim another - lost - heritage of spirituality and communion with the infinite, while implying to cut out the middlemen who are so vocally against his work. Of course, his words are better than mine:

”We Indians are proud to create a civilisation of art and culture, enshrined in the sanctity of the Ajanta and Ellora caves and temples for the last 5,000 years. Here the goddesses are pure and uncovered. Here the nudity is not nakedness, it’s a form of innocence and maturity. Take the monumental form of Mahaveera and the carvings of Khajuraho. They evoke spirituality.

We, the Indian painters of significance, are the direct descendants of that golden era of great vision which transcends mundane reality into eternity....

“For the last 50 years, an enlightened body of Indian painters has been engaged in reconnecting the reality of the ancient cultural heritage to our time. As in every human endeavour, Faith is at the core of it all. With great care and reverence for all faiths, the Indian sub-continent has evolved a unique secular culture.

I am a humble contributor towards the creation of a great Indian composite culture. I would like to pinpoint certain factors of my 70-year-long journey as a painter....

29 works on the Mahabharat exhibited along with Picasso in Brazil in 1971. Painted Teorema, nine panels depicting various faiths including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism,  Christianity and Zoroastrianism. These panels were exhibited at the UN in New York.”

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