Many thanks to a reader who brought to my notice M.F. Hussain’s interview with Tehelka. Readers of this blog know my views on Hussain. The interview is interesting because this is the first piece I have read where Hussain gives us a bit of insight on his own understanding of his art. This is a departure from the Page 3 pieces replete with hurriedly-stitched quotes by the painter–all gloss and full of vacuum–and designed to reinforce the stereotype of the man–barefoot, weird, and the rebel-painter.
From this angle, the Tehelka interview gives something we can hold the man to. He cannot deny what he has said.
In the interview, Hussain welcomes all the criticisms hurled at him. He views even his violent opponents as children of the same India family, who need to be gently reprimanded and educated.
….when a child breaks something at home, you donâ€™t throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai. (This is a family matter.) Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it.
This is a welcome perspective, and as Hussain unravels his perception of and motivations for his paintings, things get progressively clearer. We’ll examine this a little later. First, his political views.
He wants the BJP to return to power.
The only way I can come back to India, perhaps, is if the BJP comes to power at the Centre. Or maybe, Mayawati. This government has no spine. Their hands are tied. They think if they speak out or take action, they will be accused of appeasement. The irony is, out of power, the BJP uses issues like this to fan its votebank. In power, they would probably control their extreme brigades to look respectable and secular! (laughs) These are the ironies of India.
I’m surprised Hussain says this without dropping a little historical context. This government’s spinelessness is its own doing. More appropriately, the Congress party’s illustrious history of appeasement. The increase in competitive intolerance is the consequence of everybody mastering that divisive game. In Hussain’s case, the secular club led by Congress party looks a little weak and therefore unwilling to take a position on the painter.
M.F. Hussain’s views on his works, and on Indian art in general are mostly right but this knowledge has not translated into accurate pictorial depictions.
As a child, in Pandharpur, and later, Indore, I was enchanted by the Ram Lila. My friend, Mankeshwar, and I were always acting it out. The Ramayana is such a rich, powerful story, as Dr Rajagopalachari says, its myth has become a reality. But I really began to study spiritual texts when I was 19. Because of what I had been through, because I lost my mother, because I was sent away, I used to have terrible nightmares when I was about 14 or 15. All of this stopped when I was 19. I had a guru called Mohammad Ishaqâ€” I studied the holy texts with him for two years. I also read and discussed the Gita and Upanishads and Puranas with Mankeshwar, who had become an ascetic by then. After he left for the Himalayas, I carried on studying for years afterwards. All this made me completely calm. I have never had dreams or nightmares ever again. Later, in Hyderabad, in 1968, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia suggested I paint the Ramayana. I was completely broke, but I painted 150 canvases over eight years. I read both the Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana (the first is much more sensual) and invited priests from Benaras to clarify and discuss the nuances with me…Iâ€™ve painted hundreds of Ganeshas in my lifetime â€” it is such a delightful form. I always paint a Ganesha before I begin on any large work. I also love the iconography of Shiva. The Nataraj â€” one of the most complex forms in the world â€” has evolved over thousands of years and, almost like an Einstein equation, it is the result of deep philosophical and mathematical calculations about the nature of the cosmos and physical reality. When my daughter, Raeesa wanted to get married, she did not want any ceremonies, so I drew a card announcing her marriage and sent it to relatives across the world. On the card, I had painted Parvati sitting on Shivaâ€™s thigh, with his hand on her breast â€” the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to? I come from the Suleimani community, a sub-sect of the Shias, and we have many affinities with Hindus, including the idea of reincarnation. As cultures, it is Judaism and Christianity that are emotionally more distant. But it is impossible to discuss all this with those who oppose me. Talk to them about Khajuraho, they will tell you its sculpture was built to encourage population growth and has outgrown its utility! (laughs) It is people in the villages who understand the sensual, living, evolving nature of Hindu gods. They just put orange paint on a rock, and it comes to stand for Hanuman.
This shows the effort he has put in to learn his art, something I respect. No work of Hindu art can withstand the test of time without this spiritual dimension. Hussain’s understanding of Hindu view of art is pretty accurate, his words stem from reflection, and are not mere repetitions of book knowledge. But how does he fare in application? And why do his paintings create such furore and disgust so many Hindus including me?
An answer to that question may lie in his own admission that these are concepts of the Hindu culture. But this answer needs to be sought by examining everything related to his works in the larger background of society and religion. The paintings that have aroused public outrage are starkly religious. And so are some of his utterances and actions.
First, Hussain has made it obvious that he is a practising Muslim. That doesn’t automatically mean he is anti-Hindu but his Muslimhood significantly influences his art in various ways. Islam for example, forbids painting. He indirectly admits that in the same interview.
When I was doing this, some conservative Muslims told me, why donâ€™t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen.
That Hussain has successfully rebelled against this Islamic prohibition is an argument in favour of his courage and his commitment to art. If, as some people argue, art should be for its own sake, Hussain’s art should be neutral. His works are artistic testimonies to the contrary. As a person who has understood Hindu art, why has he managed to routinely offend Hindus? The reason in Hussain’s case lies beyond competitive intolerance. It is simply because he has understood Hindu art at an intellectual level. Even here, Hussain’s point doesn’t make sense. He says he is enchanted with the Ramayana but has painted Sita seated suggestively on Hanuman’s tail. Doesn’t Hussain know that Hanuman worshipped Sita as his mother? By no stretch of imagination can one perceive either spirituality or religious fervour or even artistic aesthetics in a painting that clearly sends out an incestuous message.
Nudity maybe a symbol of purity in Hinduism but context and tradition is clearly an important determinant in depicting nudity. What is the tradition of practising Hindus vis a vis nudity or nudity in art? As Arun Shourie says about Hussain’s nude Saraswathi paintings,
And as for Saraswati being depicted naked, her image is set out in our iconography, in the mantras by which we invoke her; in all these she is referred to as “….yaa shubhra vastraavritaa….”, as one “draped in white”. That white dress draping her is one of the four distinguishing marks of representations of Goddess Saraswati — the other three being that she holds beads in one hand, a book in another and the vina in a third.
You either claim that your paintings are faithful to tradition or they’re from your own imagination. If it’s the former, you are not faithful to tradition, if it’s the latter, you need to attribute a non-religious symbolism/title for your painting. Why don’t Hindus find the Shiva-Parvati or God-Goddess nude temple sculptures offensive?
In the end, Hussain’s explanations fall flat. His rebellion stops at breaking only the Islamic prohibition against painting. The logical question arises: painting what? He answers that himself.
I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen.
He has answered that again by withdrawing his film because he didn’t want to wound Islamic sentiments. He shows no such sensitivity while painting Hindu Gods and Goddesses but claiming that they’re works of “deep love and conviction, and [done in] celebration.” As we have seen, that is patently untrue. Without attributing ulterior motives to the man, I can say that Hussain’s works fail because he is not a practising Hindu. As paintings, they might be masterpieces, but in the Hindu view of art, art is not divorced from spirituality and philosophy. To a mere admirer of art, the sculptural masterpieces of Indian temples are classics in form, structure, proportion and geometry. To a practising Hindu, they are manifestations of the Absolute to which they offer their poojas. The rest come next, if they are significant at all.
Had Hussain understood this…