On artistic freedom and sensibilities…

Posted: June 12, 2011 in Art
Tags: , ,

Years ago I saw a film where Steve Martin is at an art gallery in Hollywood trying hard to merge with the arty crowd there. He is ‘ooohing’ and ‘aaahing’ a painting on the wall of the gallery. He looks at the wall from every angle and listens in rapt attention to his friend who is raving about the work on the wall. Then the camera pans on the wall. It’s blank. Like Martin’s character in the film, I’d spell ART with a capital F.

I’ve no issue with people who either agree or disagree with the whole M.F Husain controversy. Now, I’m sure there are millions who thought he was a great painter and that he was wronged, but I didn’t care much for the man or his paintings, because I neither understood his quirks nor his works. I guess I’m a cretin when it comes to things like art and artists, so I’d rather not comment on that subject. I just got off a chat with a student who said she saw pictures of the painting of Sita, which sold a few hours after Husain’s death. “I tried all angles, the lady didn’t remotely look like Sita,” was her comment. But I’m assuming that the more knowledgeable buyers are obviously not stupid to fork our large sums of money for his paintings.

Like we say in journalism, there are always two sides to a story and we need to see both sides in the right perspective before we get all hot under the collar. It’s ok to say that an artist has the freedom to paint what he wants. I remember years ago seeing a picture of a toilet seat at some photo exhibition. If that is artistic freedom then we should flush it down the same toilet bowl! Maybe some arty type might have found glimpses of Pablo Picasso in that. To me it looked just what it showed – a toilet seat! I thought it was ridiculous to call this art.

So when Husain did the nudes on the Indian Goddesses, he should have kept Indian sensibilities in mind – however warped they might be according to FoH (Friends of Husain). For Husain to expect accolades for doing such work was a bit much. When the controversy erupted, I too like so many others questioned the rationale behind doing such a thing. Religion and its myriad forms, as a subject is too touchy to be made a spectacle of even in any form of art.

To many, it wasn’t ‘how dare someone do that’ but ‘how dare a Muslim do that’. That was a lethal combination. He should have known he would get that kind of response from Indians who only need a mosquito bite on their butt to enrage their ‘sensibilities’.

Frankly, as a journalist I wondered whether too much was not being made of the issue and it was obvious that politicians and parties with an agenda fulled the whole controversy. And the Indian walked right into the trap. The fact that the issue has lasted so long is dubious acknowledgement of the power of the Indian politician, who has (mis)used the ordinary Indian to fuel his ambitions.

I am going to ruffle a few feathers here, but the truth is that we are a nation of hypocrites. A journalist friend in Lucknow once told me how the Maulvi who passed a fatwa against Sania Mirza playing in short skirts, then retreated to his room where he watched her on TV playing a match, wearing a T shirt soaked with perspiration, which showed a lot more of her ample bosom than it concealed! Have we forgotten the so-called Godmen and sadhus who were shown on national television getting a lot more than just obeisance from women? Let’s face it we are not only a bunch of hypocrites, but also bigots. And we also have selective memory.

When the Congress accuses Narendra Modi of genocide in Gujarat we applaud because we rightly believe that what Modi and his cohorts did was inhuman. However we conveniently gloss over the fact that it was the Congress that carried out the pogrom all over India against Sikhs in 1984. Then the explanation I hear is “Oh but people were angry after Indira’s assassination, so it’s understandable.” Just like I don’t accept that it’s okay to cut a man to pieces right outside his house even as he pleads with the police to help, I don’t know what’s ‘understandable’ about putting a burning tyre around a pregnant woman and then ripping her stomach open – even if she’s a Sikh.

So, like I said earlier, there are two sides to everything. However, since Husain is dead and buried, can we leave his followers to revel in his work and the rest of us to get along with our lives? And as an afterthought: What if he had painted Madhuri Dixit in the nude? I am sure the paintings would have sold out, even if she had sued his pants off!

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