The public apology by the commercially challenged MF Hussain has not just salvaged his proposed film project with cinestar Madhuri Dixit, but also quieted public passions on the sensitive issue. However, Hussain’s unexpected capitulation before the “watch-dogs of a political-religious outfit” must have come as a setback to the artists, critics, and other members of the self-proclaimed vanguard for the protection of “liberal secular values,” who even took a delegation to President KR Narayanan to focus attention to their cause.
The Shiv Sena leadership has responded to Hussain’s gesture with alacrity and grace, in the true traditions of the sanatan dharma (eternal way of life), declaring the offence forgiven and forgotten. This is no doubt as it should be. Nevertheless, the controversy has raised fundamental questions about the nature of art, the meaning of symbols, and the parameters of artistic freedom and creativity, and these should not now be ignored simply because the immediate provocation has been removed.
Hussain has clarified that the two-decade old painting, Sita Rescued, was selected without his knowledge or consent, by the organizers of exhibition titled ‘Radical Art.’ It would thus seem that those who chose the painting for display were aware that it was unconventional, to say the least. We need not now dwell upon their motives, but we can conclude that the political overtones acquired by the debate over this episode were largely an intra-Hindu affair, as honourable Muslims shared the shame and horror of their Hindu compatriots at that piece d’art.
Indeed, from this latter fact we may also deduce that average Muslims, like the ordinary Hindus who were exercised over the painting, perceive Sita as something more than the heroine of an ancient epic. And this is the crux of the matter. Sita is not simply the central female character of a hoary legend, like the Helen of Troy of Homer’s Iliad. She is a symbol; her very name evokes strong emotions and powerful imagery in the minds of her devotees. To say that she epitomizes the Hindu idea (and ideal) of womanhood is to deny the truth of her deeper significance. No goddess, or symbol, has ever been created merely to serve as a role model for a purely secular (i.e. worldly) existence.
According to the great art historian and scholar, Ananda Coomaraswamy, true symbols are those that leap to mind without conscious effort. In this respect, Sita readily comes to mind as a charismatic symbol of courage, devotion, perseverance, fidelity, shakti (power), and finally consciousness. She is no passively suffering tragedienne with no control over her life story. Rather, as she moves purposively along the path of her dharma towards consciousness and self-realization, she becomes a strong and positive moral force, a beacon. A careful reading of the Ramayana would show that while Sita aids Rama in the fulfilment of his human and divine destiny, she bears the burden of her own journey and travails alone.
Coomaraswamy states that symbols have never been invented, in the sense that no one has ever ‘thought out’ a symbol and used it to express a truth. A symbol is given or revealed, and is neither conventional nor unconventional. Noting that symbols not only persist for millennia, but can come to life again even after an interruption of thousands of years, Coomaraswamy observes that “the power that proceeds from the spiritual world and that forms one part of the symbol, is eternal… and reveals itself when its time comes.” And so it is with Sita. Symbolism is not a personal affair. According to Walter Andrae, symbols are “supports of contemplation,” and not mere “art forms.” Their purpose is to “open the doors of the spiritual world and to enable the Spirit to pervade both body and soul.” A symbol is by definition intelligible to the observer, and though he may often be unable to articulate the depth of its meaning(s), it does not follow that its sanctity and significance is lost on him.
The very fact that he is aware that the symbol is sacred makes him superior to the supercilious bystander who argues that profanity is permissible because the divine has no need of human defenders! In this respect, Strzygowski’s observation that many so-called primitive peoples are far more spiritualized than many so-called civilized peoples, and that in matters of religion we shall have to drop the distinction between primitive and civilized peoples, is highly instructive. It follows that the meaning(s) of symbols must be read in them, and not read into them. An epic has several layers of meaning, and the wise understand both what has merely been hinted upon, as well as what has been left unsaid.
Coming to the question of the depiction of Sita, or any other god or mythological character in art, we must first of all distinguish between art and mere aesthetics, an issue that the secular vanguard has deliberately sought to obfuscate. Since there have been loud, though unsubstantiated, claims that Hussain’s works fit into “the parameters of the Indian tradition of art,” it is necessary to emphasis the basic fact that in the Indian tradition, art works were made to appeal not merely to the senses, but through the senses to the intellect. The difference is critical.
Hussain’s impugned work appeals neither to the senses, not to the intellect. Even setting aside his unsavory depiction of Sita, there is nothing in the Ramayana (in any of the known versions) that can substantiate his version of the goddess being rescued by Hanuman (or anyone other than Rama). And in the name of artistic freedom, one cannot rewrite or reinvent the scriptures or the epics, as Hussain seems to have done! In this sense, Sita Rescued is also intellectually dishonest.
There has been talk of the ‘sheer beauty’ of the impugned piece, as if in art, beauty can be separated from its very integrity. According to the traditional and more learned view of aesthetics, beauty is not the cause or justification for a work. What is more, a work of art is made beautiful not so that it appeals to the senses, but – and this is the fundamental purpose of all art – in order that it may appeal through the senses, to the intellect.
The Hindustan Times, 11 June 1998