M.F. Husain's death in exile raises questions on how India wishes to be perceived globally.

The recent death of M.F. Husain in London raises questions that go well beyond the ambit of art and have a direct bearing on the kind of country we aspire to become and the manner in which we wish to be perceived around the world.

Serious art is inherently subversive. A parallel has been drawn between Hussain and the famous 20th-century painter Pablo Picasso who exiled himself from his native Spain because of his differences with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. It is a natural comparison since both men were painters. Picasso's differences with Franco, however, were political. Picasso was a left-wing ideologue and, therefore, naturally at odds with a fascist like Franco.

Pertinent parallel

A more pertinent parallel would be with the writer James Joyce, the author of Ulysses, who exiled himself from his native Ireland. Like Husain, Joyce's work was denounced as vulgar and blasphemous by the Catholic Church in Ireland and bore the brunt of mob fury. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable or even palatable in the society of its times is one of the goals to which all serious art aspires and will continue to do so after Husain.

What is interesting in the case of Husain is that the furore over his nude depiction of Hindu deities did not erupt when the paintings were created in the 1970s. It happened in the 1990s during the golden age of Hindutva. It was in the heady days of the headline-gathering rath yatras and the demolition of the Babri Mosque that elements of the Hindu right woke up to the fact that a Muslim painter had depicted Hindu deities in the nude. They may also have taken their cue from the Muslim right's success in getting the government to ban Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. In the years that followed they successfully utilised intimidation and the courts to hound Husain from the country and, ultimately, to Qatari citizenship.

That religion is used by various groups in India to further their agenda despite our secular constitution is a time-worn fact. That our political system is married to the mob is an undeniable truth. And that this mob mentality serves its masters well is a sad reality. Until recently, even dwelling on such issues was pointless. We were, for all intents and purposes, a banana republic and how else could a banana republic function if not like one. In the new millennium, however, we see ourselves as a potential world leader and have the world's eyes on us. Hence the question: Do we want to continue to be seen behaving like a banana republic?

Ugly free for all

In a truly secular society, religion is expunged from public affairs and remains something between a human and his or her God. It is impractical to expect something like that to happen in India anytime soon. The people are far too religious and, as long as they remain so passionate about religion, interested elements will seek to use it to further their ends. What, however, is possible to control is the extent to which they are allowed to descend. In the case of Husain, the whole circus was permitted to degenerate into one ugly free for all. That should never have happened.

The Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara once said: “A people who do not know how to read and write can easily be deceived”. Reading and writing, in his lexicon, was an essential prerequisite towards developing the kinds of values that are necessary to instil in a society for it to be civil and just. While education was late in putting down roots in India, now it is very much here. The problem, however, is that Indian education ends at learning the three Rs in order to get a halfway decent job. It does little to foster the values of tolerance and abhorrence of politically motivated violence that are essential in the formation of a civil society. Only when it starts taking over some of that responsibility will we able to create the groundswell of revulsion, which will force our zealots to mend their ways and enjoy the kind of respect we crave from the rest of the world.

Vikram Kapur is an award-winning novelist and short story writer.

Keywords: M.F. Husain


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