THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA
Nationalism and Nudes
By SALIL TRIPATHI
May 18, 2007
Near the end of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man," Stephen Dedalus tells the reader, "I will not serve that in
which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my
fatherland, or my church: And I will try to express myself in some
mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using
for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use -- silence, exile
For the 91-year-old Indian painter, Maqbool Fida Husain, perhaps
India's most renowned artist, these words must carry a special
meaning. In his long career he has painted scores of Hindu deities,
often without clothes. For years this offended no one. But as Hindu
nationalism grew more militant he became a target. For much of the
past decade, Hindu nationalists have destroyed his paintings,
ransacked art galleries where his work is displayed, and filed over a
thousand cases against him for offending their sensibilities.
Last week, a court ordered his property seized for failing to respond
to a summons in a case involving a nude portrayal of a woman
resembling "Mother India." His lawyers pointed out that he had not
received the summons, and a higher court restrained the lower court's
Still, Mr. Husain has been effectively silenced -- few galleries in
India show his work. He lives in exile -- involuntarily, in London and
Dubai -- for fear of being attacked physically by mobs whose idea of
art criticism is to make a bonfire of his canvases.
Emboldened by their success in hounding Mr. Husain, Hindu nationalists
are now looking elsewhere for "offensive" art. On May 9, one such
group unlawfully entered the Maharaja Sayajirao University campus and
assaulted an award-winning art student named Chandramohan
Srilamantula. Like Mr. Husain, his work includes nude Hindu deities as
well as a painting depicting the crucifix. So for good measure the
Hindu activists brought along a few Christians as well. They roughed
him up, had him arrested by the local police, and the following day a
judge sent him to the city's central jail.
While his dean vigorously supported Mr. Chandramohan, the university's
administrators, in an act of stunning cowardice, refused to post bail
for the student or offer legal help, and instead asked him to
apologize. Not only was this a blow to free expression and academic
freedom; on the face of it, the arrest was illegal. Leading artists
and writers from around India protested the arrest. Mr. Chandramohan
was released on bail on Monday, on condition that he notify the police
if he planned to leave the state or the country while the case was
Hindu nationalists' campaign against Mr. Husain has been particularly
sharp because he is, as his name suggests, a Muslim, and relations
between the two communities have always been sensitive. Yes, Mr.
Husain has painted many Hindu deities -- the monkey-god Hanuman; the
elephant-headed god Ganesha; Rama's consort, Sita; the goddess of
learning, Saraswati -- in the nude. Yet in doing so, Mr. Husain is
hardly being a pioneer: For millennia, Hindu divinities have appeared
without clothes in art.
The whole point of such art is to look beyond the body. Indeed,
another Hindu god, Shiva, who often wore little more than an animal's
skin as a loincloth, calls himself nirakara, or formless. So when Mr.
Husain depicts a Hindu deity in the nude, he is following an Indian
tradition, and not insulting or defying it. Indeed, his art and
freedom of expression was once a shining example of India's thriving
Sadly, however, since the late 1980s, Hindu nationalists have
convinced many Hindus that they are the victims of reverse
discrimination. Muslims are the recipients, they argue, of undeserving
To be sure, the state has been inept. In 1986, the Indian parliament
caved in to Muslim protests and overturned a Supreme Court verdict
which granted Muslim women the right to sue their husbands for
alimony. Then in 1992, the state failed to protect a disputed
16th-century mosque in Ayodhya, which Hindu activists destroyed,
claiming that one of their gods, Rama, was born at that precise spot.
Hundreds died in the riots that followed.
In such a climate, it might seem naïve or foolhardy for Messrs. Husain
or Chandramohan to paint Hindu deities in the nude. But artists don't
follow societal whims and fashions; they respond to inspirations and
emotions. They follow their calling and challenge conventional wisdom,
even if it shocks the viewers.
Vulgarity lies in the eye of the beholder. But in Indian art, nudity
has long connoted openness. Mr. Husain's paintings force viewers to
rethink their relationship with Hindu myths -- they aren't meant to
titillate. His nudes delineate the body in sharp lines, elevating it
to an abstract realm, suggesting the formlessness of divinity.
Artists and scholars understand those ideas, which are too complex for
those who would burn galleries. Yet they want equal treatment and
equal time. So if Muslims can get Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic
Verses" or the Danish cartoons banned, they want Mr. Husain's -- and
now Mr. Chandramohan's -- freedom restricted.
At last, it seems, Hindus have secured the parity they believe they've
been denied. They have their own Taliban.
Mr. Tripathi is a writer based in London.