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Our grief, our shame

by Mani Shankar Aiyar, 12 June 2011

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The Telegraph, 10 June 2011

I never met M.F. Husain. And I am not among those lucky ones, of whom there are quite a few, who received as a priceless gift from him a sketch or a drawing to hang with pride on their walls.

But I grieve his death as I would almost no other. For it is not that he has passed away; after all he was all of 95. What breaks my heart is that he had to breathe his last in distant London, where this country, which he loved so much, had driven him in the last decade of his life.

And driven out this genius for what? For the crime of being an artist, who gave rein to his imagination in the most glorious traditions of Indian art as inscribed on every temple wall and every mural painting.

Yes, he loved the human body, particularly the female body, much as our ancients did (has the Sangh parivar never read the description in our scriptures of Saraswati’s back being bent by the weight of her bountiful breasts?) But then, Husain celebrated everything around him, for he saw his God in all of nature and all of humanity, from horses to deities, from clouds and trees and the green grass to children frolicking and the nation rejoicing in Indira as Durga Mata.

He did not distance himself from politics either. Whatever one’s view of the Emergency, and mine is certainly a most negative one, his depiction of India as Indira and Indira as India was certainly not bettered by Dev Kanta Borooah’s aphorism.

He was Indian to the core, from the chappals that got him expelled from the Willingdon Club (which they should now rename the Husain Club, for Willingdon and his Empire are dead and Husain lives on for ever) to the artistic sensibility that saw divinity in everything.

Not for him the narrow precepts of the fundamentalists of his religion; nor for him the narrow precepts of the fundamentalist injunctions of other religions. His was a free spirit. It roamed the universe.

In the millennial traditions of Indian syncretism, he absorbed, assimilated and synthesised in his being and in his art all that was of the best, whatever its provenance. He was a true Indian. His heart and mind opened out to everything from anywhere, in the spirit of Gandhiji saying he wanted the windows and doors of his house to be open so that the winds of the world might blow about it but not such as to blow him off his feet.

That is why Husain’s exquisite calligraphy could draw as much from the Holy Koran as his drawings and paintings could from the myths and legends of Hinduism and every other religion of our land.

For who can forget his portrayals of Mother Teresa?

The Hindu Taliban would have none of this. The vulgarity of their language about Islam notwithstanding, they took offence where none was meant and vented their spleen first on his work and then on him. It mattered not to them that he was a nonagenarian who had won unprecedented fame for modern Indian art.

These brutes were concerned only with displaying their shrill “patriotism” by physically attacking one of the greatest Indian patriots of us all.

He was finally driven in despair from our midst. And our authorities did little about it, concerned more with cultivating majority vote banks than with asserting the essential secularism of our land, without which we are a Pakistan.

Finally, Husain announced that he was adopting the rather more convenient nationality of Qatar, a country which meant nothing to him spiritually, artistically or historically. It was a flag of convenience of the kind that merchant ships sometimes fly.

I was asked at that moment what I would recommend our government should do. I replied that if not the Prime Minister or the foreign minister, at least our minister of state for West Asia, Shashi Tharoor at the time, a litterateur in his own right (or, at any rate, write) should fly out to Doha and beg the Indian standard-bearer of art to remain an Indian, promising him full protection. Nothing of the kind was done.

When the vicissitudes of politics cut down Tharoor in his political prime, he pleaded that no one was mentioning the 17 heads of state he had called on. Had he been able to add that it was he who had persuaded M.F. Husain to remain an Indian, perhaps the media and public opinion would have been more forgiving.

And so M.F. Husain went from our midst, largely unwept, unhonoured and unsung, abandoned, even forgotten. How can any nation be forgiven such philistinism? How can we claim to be secular when we could not protect one so secular?

When Z-category security can be provided to so many who hardly need it (have you seen the posse around the house of my affable neighbour, Deve Gowda?) what could have been the problem in the Government of India promising Husain and his work such tight security that he would not have even known it and so could continue flying like a bird?

It is our pusillanimity that is the source of our shame. We appease anything that comes wrapped in saffron — witness the procession of ministers to pay obeisance to a yoga guru but a week ago — and we see the mindset that led to P.V. Narasimha Rao’s disaster at Ayodhya being repeated.

Nehru was a hard secularist; when most of his colleagues were succumbing, indeed embracing, the communal virus — witness Purushottam Das Tandon’s election as Congress president at Nashik in 1950 — he refused to sacrifice principle to expediency.

In consequence, we remained a secular nation till the gates at Ayodhya were opened by judicial decree. Paralysed by the presence of a mob at the gates of the Babri Masjid, the vandals were given a free run and then given 36 hours to rebuild the Ram Lalla mandir brick by brick while the Masjid lay desolate. The explanation offered was that kings in our ancient past always listened to sadhus and sants, and sants always went along with the decisions of kings. Hence, it was the Prime Minister of the day, not the people he led, who were betrayed.

It was that mindset, a belief that M.F. Husain’s quarrel was a private quarrel, one moreover that was of his own making, and therefore no business of the state, that where he lived or whom he fled from was his affair, and that those provoked by his paintings should not be further provoked by action against them, that rendered the great M.F. Husain a refugee from his own land. If I were the Prime Minister (which is why I probably never will be) I would immediately fly out to be at his grave as his body is lowered for ever into the earth he loved so dearly. That would be true prayaschit.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a member of the Rajya Sabha known to seldom pull his punches


The above article from The Telegraph is reproduced here for educational purposes and is for non commercial use only.