M F Husain: The Art of Controversy

Controversies in India fail to have endings. It is not just that they are incomplete in terms of resolutions, they convey a sense of perpetual danger and hurt. Partly this is because they eat into the core of one’s being, partly because controversies become Manichean dramas creating demonologies which allow no resolution.

Maqbool Fida Husain who died in London was such a controversial man. When asked whether he wished to apologize for the controversies he created, Husain said he acted out of faith and conviction. If in that process, he hurt someone, he was sorry for it.

Sadly a lot of his audience was unforgiving. They might have been art lovers but they definitely had no sympathy for Husain. I remember Ravi Ravi Shanker claiming he was insensitive, painting Gods in the nude. The swamiji felt such an act was unacceptable and challenged Husain to show the same proclivity for Islam. The Swami might have been right but he misses the point. Indian democracy and Hinduism are open works and Husain was a celebration of it. He was a Muslim who loved Hinduism, its myths, its openness, its sense of playfulness. The controversy around Goddess was obtuse. Husain’s art was celebrated Hinduism.

I remember the first time I saw him at close range. It was at a little joint called Electric Lane, behind the Max Muller Bhavan, in Delhi, a delightful place that served delectable idlis and vadas. The chutney was just right and the coffee, more than tolerable.

One day I saw him sitting alone, bare feet nodding blissfully over a tower of vadas. He seemed content that he was watching a work of art, sipping blissfully after each piece. There was sheer joy in the face, a feeling I could understand as I understood ‘idlis’ better than art. I savoured the sheer joy of the man, a joy that he extended to life.

He suddenly reminded me of another great artist, the dancer Balasaraswati. I remember my mother talking about her. She had once gone out to see the legend dance with my father’s brother, the astrophysicist Chandrasekhar. Chandra was excited at the prospect, delighted like a child. At the end of show, he turned to my mother and said, “As long as Bala is there, Indian dance is safe.” Bala just danced her devadasi tradition to genius.

Husain was like that. You felt art had its integrity when he was around. He was its lightening rod and tuning fork. There was a sense of salt about both, an earthiness, salt as in the pungency of taste, salt as in the nibbling of wounds, salt as that presence which made the difference.

I want to understand the controversial nature of the man.

Husain was a film lover. He saw in film the synthesis of all the arts. He made award winning films but saw himself as a painter. He never finished school and saw the paint brush as his only certificate and entitlement, his testimony and his testament.

Husain’s mother died early when he was one-and-a-half. It left a void in life which moved from lack to a perpetual searching for the mother as the eternally feminine. For him the mother was the source of reverence, which combined the erotic and the everyday, which gave meaning to his work. Husain saw that eternal feminine in polyphony of people – Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Madhuri Dixit, Tabu and Anushka Sharma. They were stunning women who evoked eternal archetypes.

Husain painted the feminine in all its incarnations as goddesses, politicians, nuns and film stars. His series on Mother Teresa, a faceless Teresa who became the eternal face of compassion, is my favourite. It is a face that does not need a face, mirrored as it is in the lives of so many people.

Husain watched ‘Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun’ 67 times. It was an obsession with feminine form. He claimed there was that one magical moment when the song ‘Didi tera dewar diwana’ was being sung. Madhuri’s back was in focus. The actress takes five steps back. Freeze frame. Husain claims it was a moment of revelation. Any lesser actor would have banalized it. Those five movements became five unforgettable expressions of the feminine. Madhuri became immortal.

His drawing of the goddess drew ire but his own explanation was inadequate. He claimed he was doing what was always done, that he was a part of tradition. To reduce the debate to a battle of fundamentalism and progressivism will not do.

A great part of the problem rose in conflating nudity and nakedness. Nakedness is a part of biology. It is obvious. Nudity is a construction of art which gives color to flesh. Nakedness is about exposure, but nudity can only be a revelation, a construct. To conflate the two is a tragedy of categories. It destroys artistic license and condemns it as licentiousness. It is sad that so many sensitive people did not make the distinction staying captive to their categories.

Hussein was delighted with a line in the Supreme Court judgment. It noted that art is dangerous. It is the business of art to be dangerous. Art without danger is not art. He understood that and was ready to face the risks.

Husain was a playful character, wry, puckish, and ironic. The people who defended him often sound patriotic and boring in the line of duty. They did not see this sense of play that freedom demanded. There were two tragedies here: the tragedy of a philistine self that saw art as empirical and positivist. To this we add the silliness of progressive who talked of freedom as a vacuous category, a piety that becomes equally didactic. Neither sees the trickster wrapped in myth, a lover of Ganesha, enraptured by the Mahabharata. What Ravi Ravi Shankar did not see is the Muslim in awe of Mahabharat, doting on creation myths, their fecundity. Both groups in fact reduced art to a question of political correctness and table manners.

The genius of Husain lay in his ability of make art visible, public and payable. His innovations created the space for art. The paradox lay in the fact that a democracy that created such spaces now prefers the philistine and fundamentalist over the eccentric genius. The poignancy lay in the fact that man who invented these spaces was exiled from India. To mourn now and insist on a Bharat Ratna for him is futile, even silly. It becomes the final hypocrisy of a society that hates its genius until it embalms them.


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