India’s first large-scale international art fair opened today in New Delhi, but works by M.F.Husain, the country leading and oldest modern artist, are not on show because of fears that they might be attacked by right wing Hindu fanatics.
The fair organisers cannot afford the insurance, and the Indian government has failed to provide special police protection.
I talked to Husain, who is 94 next month, about this recently in London, where he lives and paints in a Mayfair flat every summer (above). In winter he is based at his other home in Dubai. He stays away from India because of court cases against him, and because of the risk that he and his works would be attacked.
Not having his works at the four-day India Art Summit only gives publicity to his critics, he says, adding that he also benefits because the publicity leads to more people seeking out his works than might otherwise do so: “Picasso said any adverse comment is better for an artist than praise because people become converts”.
He says that there are some 900 cases or complaints in India against his works, mostly alleging that he has offended the Hindu religion with nude depictions of goddesses, or of offending public decency and Indian nationhood.
“They have said I am traitor because I painted the map of India in the shape of a woman,” he says (picture left).
He is just one of several artists and writers whose work has been criticised and attacked on many occasions in recent years by Hindu extremists seeking publicity, with the encouragement from hard-line wings of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Exhibitions of his work have been attacked and closed down in many parts of India, making them high risk.
“It’s purely party political – not a single religious head has spoken a word against me,” says Husain. “They are extremists who want an agenda”.
He says he has been used to opposition and criticism from the time when he and other members of the 1940’s Progressives group such as F.N.Souza and Tyeb Mehta “were not allowed to meet students because it was said we were a foreign influence”. The critics “wanted us to paint like the Bengal school” instead of breaking from tradition into new styles.
There are six main legal cases against him. Three of them, alleging the India map painting is obscene, were dismissed 15 months ago by the Delhi High Court in a landmark judgement that was reinforced last September when the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Three more cases are pending, one of which is being slowly investigated by the police.
The Delhi judge noted that nudity is part of contemporary art and plays a significant role in India’s rich cultural heritage. Husain picks up on that point and says that the buxom 9th to 12 century Chola bronzes from south India “formed the base for my depiction of the human form”.
The Delhi judge also significantly said that India should resist conservative extremists misusing the law to harass artists, and called on the government to legislate against this. Unsurprisingly, the government has done nothing, just as it was apparently not prepared to help when the Art Summit went to the Home Ministry and to Sheila Dikshit, the Delhi chief minister.
Neha Kirpal, the organiser, says was told by the Home Ministry’s security chief that it was not possible to provide special police protection for Husain works – it was the police’s job to reduce risk, not increase it with the painting on show. “We were shunted around everywhere and received no help”, said Kirpal. Today however P. Chidambaram, the home minister, told a delegation of artists that he had not ;personally been askwed for help.
This lack of government action goes to the core of the problem. Indian politicians do not dare to risk offending extremists for fear of reprisals, and the government has other more pressing priorities. Husain had hoped that the new Indian government, elected earlier this year, would do something to help, but that has not happened. “I’ve had tremendous support from the artists’ community but nothing from the government,” he says.
He is currently painting three series of works, some of them as large as 12ft x 4ft. A history of “Indian civilisation from the Maharabharata to Manmohan Singh” will, says Husain, take two years to complete. Reports suggest – though Husain refuses to confirm it – that this is being sponsored by Lakshmi Mittal, the Indian-born London-based steel tycoon, who will also build a new museum for the collection. Next are paintings on the Arab civilisation commissioned by the ruling family of Qatar for a new museum in Doha, and then there is a history of Indian cinema.
That’s a massive programme for any artist, but Husain works fast, sketching a new work in a few hours and colouring equally quickly – completing, he says, a 6ft x 4ft painting in less than a day, “though not every day”. Explaining the speed, he says that “after 50 or 60 years experience, my vision is there and I know what I want to paint” .
He would no doubt like to return to India, but not with the risk of attacks and criticisms on his work. “At this age, I’m happy and I’m working. What I plan to do is not possible in India….If I was 40, I’d have fought, but at my age I have an urge to create, so let them do what they like.”