Dirty hands

In the passing of MF Hussain, there is more to be mourned than the death of an Indian artist in exile. Nor is this terminal condition confined to India.
Tani Bhargava
24 June 2011

Ninety-six year old MF Hussain died in exile in London. Unable to visit his beloved country, he yearned for the city where he had begun his career as a billboard painter for the Bombay film industry. Incredibly, in those days the enormous publicity hoardings were hand painted. Some said that the confident brushstrokes and  draughtsmanship that were his hallmark came from the large scale required by the gargantuan billboards. From this surely came the beautiful bodies on his canvas, his showmanship and sense of timing.  He always walked barefoot even when he was nominated to the upper house in parliament - to stay close to the zameen, the dharti from which he was to be banished by politicians who pretended to be more connected to the soil of India. Not for nothing was he called India's Picasso by Perchard's People a few days before his death.                          

During the last ten years of his life, a political campaign was mounted by several outfits of the Hindu Right. They claimed that he had hurt Hindu sentiments and derided the Hindu pantheon by painting Hindu  goddesses in the nude. They did not know that Hindu goddesses were only ever clad in flowers or jewels. For sure, none of them has ever stepped inside the National Museum where every visitor is greeted by a generously endowed, large white marble sculpture of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning in the nude. MF carried on regardless painting ever more beautiful pictures of her, Durga, Ganga-Jamuna and the many others from the epic Ramayana.

The Khaki Brigade chooses it's victims with care and always begins with a malicious whispering campaign, exaggerated rumours, canards and outright lies. These are relentlessly repeated in the party magazine, in the media and over the Internet. Soon the Brown Shirts moved in - his work was vandalized, exhibitions were disrupted and the threat of physical violence became palpable. Envious of his success in the marketplace, the art world and with the Bombay film fraternity, he was showered with court cases in dozens of cities by a proliferating fiction of ‘Hindu organizations’.  Not quite the Brown shirts of Krystalnacht, but in Khakhi shorts and safrom bandanas, kissing cousins indeed dreaming dreams of a Night of Long Knives.        

His paintings were burnt in public, they reached his home and exhibitions with menacing regularity. The art galleries blinked and soon even Delhi's India International Centre, the watering hole of India's intelligentsia, its political and bureaucratic elite, was compelled to shut down an exhibition of canvas prints of Mughal-e-Azam. Emboldened or miffed by the feeble protest, they put a price on his hands. Anyone who could deliver them would be honored as a 'rakshak' of Hinduism, a patriot par excellence. Were these threats real? Who could say? The  cost of finding out was much too dangerous. Anyhow the message had been conveyed loud and clear. If we can do this to Hussain, think what we can do to you. For MF the painful journey of migration, exile and death had begun.

Far away from India and Hussain's world, an identical scene is unfolding in Europe. A well known pianist - the best the world has - along with two other musicians went only as far as to criticize their government and its new constitution, which gives the president unlimited power. They were denounced. They are traitors. The Jews should have been shot during the war. Once again a price is put on a pair of hands - never by a particular person or by a specific party - always rumours or anonymous threats on the internet. Another migration, dual citizenship and exile? Meanwhile Hungarians flock across the border to the Vienna Koncerthaus to hear the maestro.                         

Sadly, neither the artists, the film world, the intelligentsia nor any political party could do enough to bring Hussain back. Why? Indian democracy could not protect its citizen from a  witch hunt. Now the liberals wring their hands. Those who drove him out, two-faced as ever, demand that he be buried in India because he was an Indian, while relentless colleagues on the internet conduct a survey after his death to determine whether or not Hussain even deserves any respect. The results are not surprising.        

Much as they may desire it, what will not be erased is a painting of his where lines from Akbar, the great Mughal emperor, proclaiming his love for Hindustan, are written in the urdu script across a saffron peninsula. But now the clock has struck twelve for India. The golden carriage with footmen and splendid horses has changed into a pumpkin with mice. Cinderella's resplendent gown is replaced by her tattered dress. With Hussain's death and burial in London, India has become a country that cannot protect its artists from its tin-pot Khomeinis. 

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