The MF Husain controversy: Identity, intent and the rise of militant fascism

I wrote this essay for Nukta Art in September, for its November issue which has just been published

Beena Sarwar

Cover March 2009

Communalism Combat cover, March 2009: Fighting back

The campaign against the iconic Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain, perhaps the most prominent living symbol of art under attack, is part of the political fight for India’s soul – secular democracy versus a ‘Hindu’ state.

Several interrelated issues arise from this situation, linked with intent, identity, politics, religion, the role of the state, and of course the nature of ‘art’ itself. The illogical controversy has unfortunately been allowed to overshadow the artist’s phenomenal, critically acclaimed work itself both in India and abroad.

The viciousness against Husain despite his public apology forced him out of his country in 2007 at age 92, fearing for his very life. The attacks on him go beyond to verbal abuse and the court cases for “obscenity in his paintings” and “causing offence to religious sensibilities” and at least one criminal case under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, by a Muslim complainant in Gujarat (over 1,200 cases were pending against him in 2006[1]).

In 1998, Bajrang Dal activists attacked Husain’s house and vandalised art works. The Hindutva lobby has also attacked and threatened art galleries in India as well as in London exhibiting his work resulting in several shows being closed down. There have also been various incitement to murder him or cause bodily harm, ranging from chopping his arms off (the Madhya Pradesh Congress Minority Cell vice-chairman Akhtar Baig offered Rs11 lakhs to anyone who did this) to gouging his eyes out. In Feb. 2006, Ashok Pandey, the ‘president’ of the little-known ‘Hindu Personal Law Board’ (apparently emulating the well-established Muslim Personal Law Board) in Lucknow “put a Rs 51 crore (USD 11.1 million) bounty on Husain’s head, matching a similar bounty issued by a fundamentalist Muslim politician for cartoonists who lampooned the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Danish and world press,” reports Deeksha Nath, an art historian, critic and curator based, writing in the Art AsiaPacific magazine, Fall 2006 (article emailed to this writer).

Bharatmata mag cover

Brouhaha over 'Bharatmata' (named by the buyer), here seen on the cover of the exhibition brochure

It seems to not matter that Husain’s intentions are based in reverence for the Hindu culture. He talks about being inspired by Hindu mythology and seeing purity in nudity, a belief reaffirmed by his study of the Hinduism.

Husain “is a prime target precisely because he is a Muslim,” notes the prominent photographer and artist, Ram Rahman. “The Hindutva attack on him has nothing to do with his iconography or the so called ‘protection of Hinduism’. It has solely to do with mobilising the cadres of the communal political forces.”[2]

It is no coincidence that the first case against Husain for offending Hindu religious sensibilities was registered in 1996, as the Hindu right reasserted itself — decades after he began painting.

“The Hindu extremists are reacting to the Islamic movement, and trying to formulate their ideology on the Jamat-e-Islami, which they see as a strong masculine ideology that they want to emulate,” an Australian Ph.D student who conducted field research in the 1990s in Bombay and Lahore told to this writer during an interview in 1999[3].

This ties into the perceived injustice “in taking Hindus for granted while appeasing Muslim sensibilities,” observed by the London-based writer Salil Tripathi. Commenting on the “growing assertiveness of  Hindu nationalists since the 1990s”, he adds, “Because of the amount of attention Muslims have commanded when they have been offended by images they consider blasphemous – a concept alien to Hinduism – Hindus want equal treatment. They want the right to be offended”[4].

Husain is the most prominent target of this campaign that has its mirror images on our side of the border. It includes attacking women deemed to be dressed ‘inappropriately’ and bullying other artists and writers for perceived transgressions. In May 2007, activists of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got a final-year art student arrested for his work displayed at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara (former Baroda).


Protestors condemn the arrest of an art student at Maharaja Sayajirao University. Photo courtesy NYT

The student, Chandramohan, had put up work as part of an examination display including the depiction of a multiple-armed female form wielding weapons and giving birth (echoes of the Hindu deity Durga). In response to Chandramohan’s arrest, his fellow students put together material from the art history department archives and mounted an exhibition “to underline the obvious: that even ancient Indian art is replete with explicitly erotic forms,” as the New York Times reported[5].

Pakistanis will also find the next development eerily familiar: the university’s vice chancellor who “had a known ideological bias” according to a prominent art critic, took the predictable action of appeasing the extremists’. acting in the name of religion rather than standing by the student. He demanded an apology from the acting dean of the art department and ordered the protest exhibition closed down. When the acting dean refused, the vice-chancellor suspended him, had the protest exhibition taken down and sealed the art history archives.

Husain has been painting images based on Hindu mythology for years. He made some of the paintings, that are now controversial, back in the 1960s for the political campaign of the prominent freedom fighter and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-1967) which included a Ramayan Mela in the rural hinterland. Lohia “had great love” for the Ramayana and for Ram, whom he referred to as “an embodiment of dignity”[6].

The 1996 case against Husain focused on work created in 1970 when he first painted from the Mahabharata. By then he was already considered India’s greatest living artist — feted, recognised and the recipient of numerous awards.


“Bold, vibrant depictions of India’s great guiding narratives, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have been a means for Husain to explore and confirm his Indian identity.  His work goes beyond the simply narrative to illustrate the Mahabharata’s larger truths and their relevance today,” affirms Dan Monroe, director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, which showcased Epic India: Paintings by M.F. Husain, a solo exhibition from Nov. 4 2006 through June 3, 2007, focusing on the artist’s 40-year fascination with the Mahabharata[7].

It is noteworthy too that Husain himself never titled the painting that catalysed the 2006 controversy that forced him abroad, again much after it had been painted. An anonymous collector who had bought the work captioned it ‘Bharat Mata’ (Mother India) when donating it for a charity auction organised by an art gallery and an NGO to – wait for it — raise funds for survivors of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.

Militant fascism was on the decline when Husain, a former cinema billboard painter, established himself as an artist of repute in the late 1940s. Today, artists face “a situation where they need to find newer strategies to deal with censorship of various kinds”, notes the veteran artist and writer Gulam Sheikh in Vadodara (former Baroda).

“Some have already developed a new linguistics commensurate with demands of changing socio-political scenario. Older lingustics used in many works displayed prominently in those days may be considered contentious now and come under attack,” he wrote in an email exchange with this writer. “The rise of political right  in the last three decades has greatly contributed to  creating a climate of intolerance as greater media coverage of art market (not art!) has brought modern art in the larger public domain.”

It is widely acknowledged that the Indian art market would not be where it is without Husain. As a report in Frontline magazine put it: “Husain’s role in putting India on the world art map is phenomenal. He is also one of the principal forces behind the world market boom for Indian art.” (Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, ‘Art on trial’, Frontline magazine, Sept 13-26, 2008).

In 2008 this market was estimated at Indian Rs.1,500 crore, growing at 35 per cent a year, according to Sunil Gautam, the managing director of Hanmer MS&L which organised the India Art Summit 2008 in Delhi – an event aimed at tapping this market, and “the first full-fledged corporate initiative in getting 34 art galleries from India and abroad on one platform” as Frontline commented, noting that many artists believe that without Husain’s contribution to art, an event like the India Art Summit would not have taken place in Delhi.

And yet, under pressure from the Hindu extremists, unwilling to let the Summit be “derailed by controversies attached to one artist” the organisers excluded Husain’s work. In support of Husain, SAHMAT (the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) organised an exhibition showcasing reproductions of Husain’s paintings and some photographs of the artist in front of its office.

Framed print after vandalisation

Framed print after vandalisation at the Sahmat exhibition

Despite SAHMAT’s request for police protection, the then little-known Sri Ram Sena attacked and vandalised the exhibition. The state’s capitulation to the forces of extremism is also evident in the lack of acknowledgement of a petition to the President in 2006 by over 100 Indian artists, writers, directors, musicians urging that Husain be honoured with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest award.

The Indian government does not want to be seen to “be appeasing the minorities” as Ram Rahman put it – but apparently it has no problem in appeasing those who use violence to push their views through. A tale only too familiar for us in Pakistan, and increasingly, around the world.


[1] Salil Tripathi, ‘The right to be offended’, International Herald Tribune, May 29, 2006
[2] Ram Rahman, ‘Why is he in exile?’, Indian Express, Sep 15, 2007 (reproduced in Communalism Combat, Sept 1, 2007)
[3] Lahore, Feb 24, 1999. Due to threats from expatriate extremists on her return to Australia, the researcher has requested anonymity.
[4] ‘The right to be offended’, International Herald Tribune, May 29, 2006
[5] Somini Sengupta, ‘At a University in India, New Attacks on an Old Style: Erotic Art’, NYT, May 19, 2007
[7] ‘Epic India: Paintings by M.F. Husain at Peabody Essex Museum’, Art Knowledge News, October 5, 2006

6 Responses

  1. Impressed with your research. Teach me the technique.
    “Right to be offended”, is a phrase I will remember.


  2. I do not condone the danish cartoons at all.

    Infact, I find it really strange… the periodic appearance of these cartoons, that is. How many people are aware of where Denmark is, what language they speak, what food is eaten there… or even the name of any newspaper published there… ??? But cartoons published there are known in every corner of the world. Strange!

    I also find the publication of a certain book written by the person who shares his first name with our Bollywood shirtless thunder… very odd. Very, very odd.

    The timing of the publication is quite odd.

    It was the end of the cold war (officially, that is). The defeat and pull out of the Soviet forces from Afganistan… and the disintegration of Russia. So, the ‘holy warriors’ built up for over a decade… had to be shown in a different light. Since, defence equipment production could not be stopped. The economies and much else of several countries depend on them. Therefore… enter a certain book… which is given unprecedented publicitty throughout the world… making its author too a household name. And he duly earns his ‘reward’.

    How many people even in India were aware of him… before this book was published… ??? How many actually read his book… ??? Good questions, no answers…!

    Also the worldwide publicity given to another book written by a lady from a neighbouring country. Nobody had even heard of her… before that book was published. I wonder how many of her books were bought before that…


  3. PS: I made a mistake. I meant Shiva… the destroyer. And Alexander the Great.


  4. “It seems to not matter that Husain’s intentions are based in reverence for the Hindu culture. He talks about being inspired by Hindu mythology and seeing purity in nudity, a belief reaffirmed by his study of the Hinduism.”

    Of all the names that bull***t masquerades under, “liberalism” is the most laughable. First a bunch of liberals anoint MF Husain “India’s greatest living artist” and then another bunch of liberals use that label to justify his offensive art. I would have been impressed if I wasn’t disgusted.

    Question 1: How come Husain doesn’t see any purity in the nudity of Muslim holy figures?

    Question 2 — “if Husain painted a nude woman copulating with a bearded man, and put the names of Beena’s grandmother and grandfather on that painting, would she still defend his right to freedom of expression?” The same question is posed to the super-human intellect of Salil Tripathi, Ram Rahman et al.


  5. […] Even Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani writer and documentary film-maker stated ‘He talks about being inspired by Hindu mythology and seeing purity in nudity, a belief reaffirmed by… […]


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