It is an irony that as the secular condemnation of the ransacking of Maqbool Fida Husain’s Mumbai residence reaches a crescendo, saner voices in the Muslim community are being edged out of the debate. As self-styled liberals and defenders of artistic freedom jostle for centrespace in what could have been an appropriate occasion for introspection on the parameters of artistic liberty and creativity, few have noticed that orthodox, conservative elements within the Muslim community have quietly distanced themselves from the controversy.
So, as with most disputes in India, this too is an intra-Hindu affair. The pretense that Husain is being unfairly singled out for attack by illiberal fanatics merely because he is a Muslim has mercifully ended, because saner elements in the minority community have refused to take the bait. If my memory serves me right, not a single Muslim of status has, to date, risen to the defense of the beleaguered artist on this issue. Their silence is eloquent.
But even as we ponder the reasons for their reticence, we would do well to consider why Tahir Mehmood, chairman of the Minorities Commission, went out of his way to address himself to an issue that does not fall within the Commission’s ambit. Strongly condemning Husain’s depictions of Hindu gods as un-Islamic, unconstitutional and “immoral”, Mehmood asserted that his faith did not justify “indecent art hurting religious sentiments.” For good measure, he added that the Constitution does not sanction unbridled freedom of expression.
The merit of Mehmood’s criticism is that he has attacked Husain on ground on which secularists dare not defend him. After all, those who demanded the banning of “The Satanic Verses” because it blasphemed the Prophet and hurt Muslim sensibilities, cannot today argue against those who themselves speak in the name of the faith. Mehmood has thus focussed the spotlight on the phony posturing that goes in the name of secularism, freedom, and tolerance today.
What, for instance, do artists mean by freedom of conscience, and how legitimate is their demand for tolerance and secular privileges if they deliberately tamper with the sacred? I am also curious to know if an artist can claim to be “secular” if he repeatedly dabbles in religious themes, whether provocative or otherwise? In the present case, there is an interesting religious aside to the controversy, though this has not yet emerged, which is that, if the Muslim clergy decides to impose a ban on the faithful making depictions of the human or divine form (a prohibition that already exists in Islam), would our “secular” friends dare rush to the defence of freedom of conscience, artistic freedom, etc? I think not.
Let us consider the controversial painting itself, and the reasons for Mehmood’s strong views about it. Since most of Husain’s defenders have simply brushed the issue of its intrinsic merit aside, I think this would be the appropriate place to begin our assessment of the impugned work. It is true that the lithograph was made a good two decades ago, but pray, what exactly is its theme?
I have seen a picture of the offending piece in a Hindi daily from Maharashtra. It is not just that Sita is depicted nude, as in the previous controversy over the goddess Saraswati; it is much more. Briefly, it shows a largo monkey (Hanuman) with a long tail, on which a naked Sita is seated, clinging to the tail, with her back to the monkey. The phallic symbolism of the work is obvious, and an artist of Husain’s stature cannot claim either ignorance or innocence on this score.
Now, can the work legitimately be said to offend religious susceptibilities? Sita, as anyone with a nodding acquaintance of Hinduism would know, is revered as the symbol of chastity, fidelity, and power (shakti) of Indian womanhood. The great epic makes it clear that when Hanuman contacts her as Rama’s emissary, he does not himself rescue her then and there because Sita could not be touched by another man, even one who addressed her as “mother”. What is more, even Ravana, when he abducted her, is said to have done so by lifting the earth under her feet.
The point is that in Hindu mythology and belief, Sita, the pure, remains ever untouched. As such, Hindus cannot with equanimity countenance the thought of her being depicted clinging to the tail of an adult monkey, for the sake of artistic revelry! And since Husain has made much of his name (and fortune) by plundering Hindu iconography to pander to his largely Hindu clientele – all in the name of the country’s “composite culture” – he cannot claim ignorance, or surprise, that knowledge of the work should rouse strong passions.
Sita stands at the centre of Hindu consciousness; she is the rallying point for concentrating the forces of good in the universe. For centuries, her courage, loyalty, travails and tribulations, and finally, her redemption, first at the hands of her husband and his army, and then by her own sons who vanquish their fathers’ army has been the stuff on which generations have been nurtured and raised. Until the very recent present, when the modern Indian woman began casting about for more activist role models, Sita alone was the sheet-anchor of Indian womanhood; even today, she exerts a powerful hold on millions who revere her as the symbol of shakti and righteousness.
It is not for nothing that Tahir Mehmood and others found Husain’s portrayal distasteful. It is only our amoral Hindu intellectuals, secularists and liberals who are neither shocked nor offended at sheer license parading as liberty. Theirs is a classic case of arguing from both sides of the mouth. If this country is to have anything akin to intellectual honesty and integrity, the eminent painters, artists and intellectuals who rushed to Husain’s defence must now tell us why they do not bestow the same liberty upon Salman Rushdie, whose great novel depicts a brothel with twelve whores, each one of whom is named after a wife of the Prophet. What a coincidence, what an imagination! Surely it is just that?
We all know that the issues are more complex. Rushdie’s otherwise unreadable book went far beyond the familiar anti-Islamic rhetoric of western writers. It was notable only because it was the first significant attack on Islam by a member of the community, as well as because of the extent to which the West as a political entity rallied to the aid of the besieged author. Our own secular intellectuals, however, rushed to the defence of the offended Muslim community.
Yet, in the Husain controversy, they have adopted a different yardstick and chosen to dissimulate over the “allegedly sullied honour of Sita.” The issue is thus part of our larger national struggle to revalidate the Indian tradition, in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world, and to defeat the socio-political climate in which such obscene Hindu-baiting is permissible.
I owe a word of gratitude to the honourable Muslims who have condemned the “masterpiece” and advised the maestro to apologise for causing offence to the Hindus. Yet I can safely predict that he will do no such thing. With the country’s art aristocracy backing him all the way, projecting him as “part of the progressive group which was responsible for laying the foundation of modern Indian art,” he need have no qualms about his acceptability in the depraved sections of society that today constitute our power elite.
The Pioneer, 14 May 1998