Posted by: John Elliott | January 26, 2012

Salman Rushdie was blocked out but MF Husain is back on show

Just a few days after Salman Rushdie was excluded from the Jaipur Literature Festival because of an extremist Muslim campaign against his writings, paintings by M.F.Husain are hanging at the India Art Fair without any objections from Hindu fundamentalists who have had them taken down in the past.

The fair opens today and Husains (left and below) are on show at six galleries, four from India and two from London. In 2009, his works were not included and last year they were temporarily withdrawn , and then hung again with a police guard standing alongside them. This time there is no special security.

Like the Jaipur festival, the fair (previously called the Art Summit) has grown enormously since it were started in 2008 and it now has 91 exhibitors from 20 countries. Both events are visited by tens of thousands of people, opening up the worlds of art and literature to those who would not normally have access to see or listen to – and mix with – famous painters and authors.

The aims of the fair says Neha Kirpal, its founder and director, is to increase India’s currently very small number of art collectors, to encourage Indian companies to do more to promote art, and to open up India internationally. That is very similar to the aims of the Jaipur festival, but both are vulnerable to religious extremists who use the arts stifle debate and development.

Two Husain works with a Ravinder Reddy head

Last year Jawhar Sircar, the government’s secretary for culture, told me that the reappearance of the Husain works demonstrated India’s freedom of expression being supported by its “strength of pluralism and elasticity”.

Regrettably, that does not always happen, as was shown at the Jaipur festival last weekend, when alleged assassination and other threats led Rushdie to decide not to come to India. Risks of violent demonstrations then led to a video-link being cancelled. Legal cases have been started by Muslim and other groups against the festival organisers, alleging incitement to violence. These cases, which are likely to drag on for months and maybe years, could be used to stifle the festival and its voice in the future.

This shows how little “pluralism and elasticity” there is in Indian society when religious extremists decide to stir up trouble – especially when that coincides with a group that is politically significant, as Muslims are currently in Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly elections. Attempts are now being made to cover up the blot on India’s open and democratic image by implausibly suggesting that the problems were started and encouraged by Rushdie and, or, the festival organisers to attract publicity, and that the legal problems were exaggerated.

India’s Congress Party is deeply involved. Though it did not initiate the crisis, it seems to have decided  to let it develop, once it started, because it is wooing the Muslim vote in UP. It is in power in Rajasthan, where Jaipur is the capital, so it controls the police and could have pressured interest groups such as the Muslim demonstrators to de-escalate the protests. It seems not to have done so and now, unsurprisingly, is denying there was any link with the UP elections.

The Art Fair has this year moved from easily-accessible central Delhi exhibition grounds to a less well-known location in the south of the city. That has enabled it to be laid out by international experts along the lines of leading events in the US and Europe, but the difficult location might deter some visitors.

Half the 91 exhibitors come from India, and works on show range in price from Rs15,000 to Rs2 crore – roughly $3o0 to $400,000. The galleries have been chosen from over 250 applicants by a selection committee based on their performance and artists, but more pruning might be needed in future years to strengthen the focus and quality of what is on show.

The exhibitors include prominent overseas galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, Lisson, and Fabian-Claude-Walter from Europe. Along with their foreign artists, most of them are showing Indian works – those three galleries for example have works by Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Anish Kapoor and (less well-known) Viveek Sharma.

The next few days will be an important test of the Indian art market, which has been sluggish for a couple of years. Good sales would provide it with a much-needed boost, and a good number of visitors at the new location would also help to spread awareness of the riches of Indian and foreign art.


  1. […] event, previously called the Art Summit, is unusual on the international art circuit because it aims to introduce and educate the Indian public, as well as providing sales and high-value contacts for some 90 exhibitors. Inevitably, that leads […]

  2. Rates of MFHussain paintings will go down as there is no controversy now.
    Let us hope that no new tantrum is devised by interested parties for increasing the rates of Hussain’s mediocre paintings.

  3. It’s interesting how controversy leads people to fame. Because without it, both of them(rushdie and hussain) are mediocre and ignorable.

    Though both have a statement of make. Rushdie sees the domination of islam by radicals and hussain is having fun making bestiality imagery using hindu gods. Reminds me of how christian orgs in bangalore were circulating pamphlets of some hindu gods in sexual union and asking them to reject bestiality.

    It seems that the benchmark of the success of secularism depends solely on the behaviour of the hindu community. I don’t think india will ever be fair to anyone. It is indeed a confused state.

  4. Great website, I really liked your entry.

  5. Dear Mr. Elliott,

    Thank you for writing an enriched piece, which surely is informative. However, to record my opinion on the same I write to you. Without attempting to make the reply long, I would simply put that the author/painter or individual should have full rights and liberty to produce a piece of creative work, but along with it comes the dare and responsibility to stand by it. Like Mr. Hussain and Rushidie have the right to create, those disturbed by their thoughts have the right to democratically oppose. Objectively seeing there is no threat to “freedom of expression” idf one merely protests. Violent protests should be countered by all means but it is the right of everyone to engage in non-violent protests. I wouls have respected Mr. Hussain much more if he had come back to India under his private or government security and stood in courts and fought his battle rather that flying away to Dubai and Qatar. He believed in his work, the society may not have understood it but creativity should not end with creation, otherwise we will see more results of this sort. Thus, the other viewpoint of the desolate “peace loving and non-violent” Muslim who wants to protest Rushdie or the “sober, religious and (again) non-violent” Hindu who feels awackard seeing nude Gods and Goddesses on Hussain’s canvas and is not able to grasp the creativity will be left with no place in the world.

    Sorry for being long,


  6. So those paintings which hurt the sentiments of Hindus are on display ? I don’t think that Muslims have any issue with any other novel of Rushdie except Satanic verses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: