How M.F. Husain, the 'Picasso of India,' tested free expression

M.F. Husain went into self-imposed exile after threats by Hindus offended by his work. The modernist painter's work prompted hundreds of lawsuits.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP/File
In this June 7, 2007 file photo, M.F. Husain, called the 'Picasso of India,' finishes off a canvas he painted together with Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, unseen, during a fund-raising auction in central London's auction house. Husain has passed away in London, on Thursday, June 9, in self-imposed exile.

One of India’s most famous painters, M.F. Husain, passed away Thursday in London in self-imposed exile, having left India after intimidation by Hindu groups offended by his work. His art and exile highlight recent challenges to freedom of expression that worry democracy activists here.

The 95-year-old modernist painter has been called the “Picasso of India,” and his work has showed alongside the Spanish master’s in the past.

“Husain loves to work in an epic scale, with strong lines and vigorous brushwork, using bright colors,” says Rajeev Lochan, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Delhi. “Husain never ceased to project the essential dignity of the human figure.”

But not everyone agreed. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a group whose goals include stopping the “denigration of Hindu righteousness,” protested his nude depictions of various Hindu deities. They also objected to one painting showing the borders of India formed by a nude woman’s outline.

Husain, a Muslim, faced a flood of lawsuits for “promoting enmity between groups.” Courts dismissed the initial cases, but Hindu activists have since filed some 900 cases against Husain around the country, says Geeta Seshu, head of the Free Speech Hub in Mumbai.

Sometimes the harassment turned violent. Activists from the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu youth organization, attacked Husain’s home in 1998 and have vandalized his artwork. Facing death threats, the painter moved to Dubai in 2006 and took citizenship in Qatar last year.

'A huge loss'

“It’s been a huge loss, his death. And toward the end, the manner in which he had to decide to give up his Indian citizenship was very unfortunate,” says Ms. Seshu. “Censorship just doesn’t seem to be ending, it seems to be increasing.”

Recent months have seen the banning of Joseph Lelyveld’s new biography of Mohandas Gandhi in the state of Gujarat, threats of sedition charges against author Arundhati Roy for supporting Kashmiri separatism, and the adoption of wide-ranging new Internet censorship rules.

Since January, Seshu’s group has logged the killing of one journalist, nine other attacks on journalists, and six instances of intimidation. Husain’s case, says Seshu, highlights how the threat to artistic expression often comes less from the government than from “vigilante groups.” But she faults the government for not cracking down on harassment and threats by the groups.

A religiously diverse country, India occasionally witnesses outbreaks of communal rioting. To keep the peace, the Indian government has at times prioritized religious sentiment over freedom of expression, banning Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” after Muslim protests, for example.

The hostility expressed by some Hindus to Husain’s work focuses on nakedness as a form of disrespect. A page on the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti’s website contrasts paintings of fully clothed Muslims and Mother Teresa with images of nude Hindu deities.

“M.F. Husain depicts the Deity or person he hates as being naked. He shows the Prophet's mother, his own mother, his daughter, all the Muslim personalities fully clothed, but in contrast Hindus and Hindu Deities along with Hitler are shown naked. This proves his hatred for Hindus,” reads the concluding text.

Art experts, however, take issue with the idea that Husain’s work is offensive.

Hindu gods and goddesses have been depicted naked from circa 6th- or 7th century A.D. to 11th or 12th century A.D., according to Bina Sarkar, the editor of the International Gallerie, a global arts and ideas journal.

“In fact, he has been deeply knowledgeable and respectful of Hindu mythology, and religion – much more than many Hindus are. Many of his works therefore evoke his impressions of it,” writes Ms. Sarkar via e-mail. “M.F. Husain was beyond the prescribed grids of religion. He was, above all, a maverick who followed a Sufi trail of his own.”

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