Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Often the question asked pompously by self-designated "liberals" is: where does "freedom of expression" end and religious sentiment start? Some ask, is religious sentiment the greater of the two and who is to decide? Then comes the killer: can 'goons' - offended believers - be allowed to take that decision? That option is, naturally, summarily dismissed as obnoxious. That done, they quickly appropriate the authority of deciding to themselves and a tiny band of similarly cocooned and rootless - at least pretending to be - individuals, and swiftly proceed to intolerantly thrash anyone who differs with them.

Nowhere has this stance and attitude been more shrill and black-and-white than in the case of MF Husain who left India because some Hindus protested against his right to paint Hindu Goddesses in the nude, by filing cases against him in court and vandalising a couple of his exhibitions to vent their anger. Ironically, the man who walked away because his freedom was fettered in India, has become a citizen of Qatar, a theocratic state that does not allow even a creative breath in matters related to religion, and says he is "honoured" by it.

In this paper, I will attempt to address the issue of artistic/creative freedom that has been much bandied about for years in defence of Husain's paintings that have hurt the religious sentiments of many believing and practicing Hindus.

There is little doubt that in olden times, Hindu Gods and Goddesses were painted/sculpted in the nude, mostly above the waist. Why was it so? During those days, in most parts of India, women did not cover their breasts; that is how they dressed. In 1892, for example, Helena Pretrovna Blavatsky wrote that when the wife of the British Governor of Madras had first wanted a law to "induce native women to cover their breasts, the place was actually threatened with a revolution." Blavatsky also mentioned that in 1470, Athanusius, a Russian traveller to India, observed that "women walk about with their hair spread and their breasts naked." Nude paintings and sculptures during those days were, therefore, accurate reflections of the prevalent customs.

But what is of the greatest significance is that these depictions were not manifestations of "freedom of expression" in the sense that these so-called liberals are trying to distort them in to. They were always created by believers with a great sense of devotion, love and reverence for the deities. These creations were also always meant for worship and/or veneration. They were never meant to be mere art for art's sake, as is the practice in the Western world at present, or to show any disrespect to either the religion or its followers.

Today, the way people dress has changed. That is why Raja Ravi Verma painted gods and goddesses in clothes that conform to the sensibilities of our times. That is how other artists paint them too now. That is why even though the artists who create thousands of statues of Goddess Durga with great reverence for Durga Puja each year, do so in their natural state, the Goddess is no longer shown without clothes to the public. The only Goddess who continues to be shown naked is Kali, because her manifestation, as per religion and legend, is in that state. The copy-pasted concept of creative freedom of expression is not even in the frame.

It is not in Hinduism alone that gods and goddesses have been depicted nude. Those who have some knowledge of the Tantric Buddhism followed in Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh are aware that in many temples and paintings, gods and goddesses are depicted not only nude but in sexual union, in some cases very graphically. That, again, has nothing whatsoever to do with "freedom of expression". It has everything to do with the esoteric belief and practice that spiritual enlightenment can be attained through tantric sexual practices. These depictions, it needs to be repeated, are made with utmost devotion and an understanding of, and belief in, the sacredness of it. This does not automatically entitle anyone, particularly one who does not follow and respect their faith, to "creatively" and "artistically" reinterpret them in a manner that appears to be disrespectful and insulting to the deities who are living gods for their believers.

Let us come back to Husain. Something must be said here which most avoid saying in public but for which the sentiment is very strong. Husain is not a believer. On the contrary - it doesn't matter whether he is "secular" or not - he follows a religion that professes that there is only one God, Allah, and that all other gods are false and must not be respected or venerated. Therefore, when he paints Lakshmi and Durga not only nude but in a manner that seems to suggest sex with animals, no Hindu can believe that he has done so with any respect or veneration in his heart, like artists of olden times used to. It cannot also be a meaningless coincidence that perhaps the only other person he has taken the creative liberty of painting nude is Adolf Hitler. These paintings can be seen here. (Update: I have just discovered that Husain has painted some more offensive paintings that, if published in newspapers, may start violence on an unprecedented scale. Nude Ram and Sita having sex while Hanuman watches, Nude Sita clinging on to Hanuman's tail etc. Even that nude Lakshmi painting where everyone thinks she is sitting with her vagina resting on the head of her son Ganesh is actually her sitting on an elephant - body is not human. This guy is obviously a serial offender.)

Let us now draw the only real parallel that there is to what Husain has done: the famous Danish cartoons that had the whole Muslim world up in arms in 2005. Here too, an artist has used his creative freedom to depict the Prophet based on his understanding - however faulty - of the genesis of Islamic terrorism that is afflicting the world. Yes, many Muslims say that, as per their understanding, Islam is a religion of peace. But, who can deny that the extremists who have picked up the gun also claim that they are waging a holy war, a jihad, against those who do not follow Islam, as per their understanding of the teachings of the Prophet? Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist, manifestly drew inspiration from the claims of the latter to draw the cartoons in question.

Can Westergaard's right of creative freedom to do so be justified, just as Husain's has been and is being very vociferously? Keeping aside the manner of depiction of the Prophet for a moment, it needs to be remembered that the basic argument of Muslims is that any pictorial depiction of the Prophet is prohibited in Islam. No compromise is acceptable to them on this score and, afraid of dangerous and violent backlash, almost all Indian "liberals" have made peace with this stance and meekly surrendered the right of a non-Muslim who does not believe either in the Prophet or in Islam, to exercise his right of "freedom of expression" and paint the Prophet.

But there is a twist here. The Prophet was actually painted by Muslims for centuries. Many old paintings showing him are available in a number of museums and other places places in the world. Some of these can be seen here. In fact, as per some accounts, the ban on so depicting him was not laid down in the Quran but was put in place a few hundred years later.

Be that as it may. What is of real relevance is the view that is dominant at present. The real question, therefore, is whether this view is to be respected and accepted. Or are we to get into endless debates to make a case that since paintings of Prophets were permitted a few centuries back, artists have a right to paint him today too in that manner? And, following from that stance are we then to accuse Muslims opposing it in the same manner as some of us are berating Hindus who are, comparatively peacefully, protesting against nude paintings of Hindu Goddesses by Husain?

If we are to accept one argument, as many so-called liberals cleverly have, for very practical reasons, then how can we reject the other unless we are dishonest in our souls? Unfortunately, some of us are. That is why they can, in one breath, demand in righteous rage that Husain be brought back to India, wish that Taslima Nasreen is sent out of India, and keep totally quiet about the banning of the making of a film on Nehru and Edwina due to pressure of Nehru's descendants and the banning of the telecast of 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus' by Discovery channel due to pressure by Christian groups? There are many more such examples.

The liberal agenda, let it be said, is not only shallow and dishonest but is also manifestly a political one, pursued vigorously by a tiny but vocal and powerful group driven by greed for grants, appointments, approval of the West and free jaunts to it, 'blessings' of the Family etc. It is also constrained by fear of business losses that some journalists-turned-big-businessmen might be made to suffer if they apply uniform yardsticks in all cases. Also, as two liberals have revealed on Twitter, it additionally gives them a brainless high as they believe it sets them apart from, and places them above, those belonging to what in their view is the lowly lower middle class.

No surprise that they can live comfortably with calls to kill Westergaard and still manage to shout that India must get back Husain and honour him with a Bharat Ratna.

Related reading: Tirupati and The 'Tomb of Jesus'