Could M.F. Husain have returned to India in his lifetime? Seasoned artist Arpana Caur recalls an incident to prove that the artist had no option but to live abroad

Suneet Chopra had curated an exhibition of most important art of the 20th Century at my gallery called Arpana Art Gallery in 1998. There were 50-60 works comprising works by masters like Chittoprasad, Gaganendranath Tagore, etc. Suneet wasn't getting any work of Husain from anywhere so he borrowed it from an art gallery in Delhi. The work was on display for almost a year at that gallery. The work depicted Hanuman flying with Sita clinging to his tail. Suneet was travelling.

A day after the show opened, my uncle called up from Kuwait to tell us that a newspaper has reported that a political wing of BJP is coming to set fire to your gallery in the afternoon. We immediately got that newspaper and checked it. A few artist friends and family members were at the gallery that time. We called up former Prime Minister and artist V.P. Singh who in turn informed the police. In the meantime, we had started removing the works. A few artists like Ram Rahman and Vivan Sundaram told us not to, but my mother Ajeet Caur and I were badly shaken and didn't want to take chances.

A police force armed with teargas shells had been deployed. A mob of 400 people arrived led by artist Raghu Vyas and politician B.L. Sharma ‘Prem'. Vyas had come for the opening and after seeing the work, he immediately went to Hauz Khas police station and lodged an FIR saying that the painting hurt his religious sentiments. We got to know this later. I was shocked to see him. All the doors were closed with eight-ten of us inside. We were watching everything from one of our museum's windows. They had reached the parking lot and were abusing Husain sahab. “Idhar hota to isse ped pe latka dete”. The police had formed a barrier and prevented them from entering further. Having come to know about this, Jatin Das came over to the gallery and told the crowd, “Please don't say things like that.” A few men started to chase him with sticks and Jatin ran. He had to take shelter in the next building.

Only we know what we were going through. I am in any case a heart patient and then you have old parents. Anything could have happened. The police told them the exhibition has been taken off but they said they still want to check. A few of them came inside and were satisfied but they threatened us with dire consequences if we hang not just that work but any of Husain's works again in our gallery. “Eeent se eent baja denge,” they screamed. Raghu Vyas accompanied by police came to the gallery five-six times, asking where is Husain, where is Arpana. My mother put up a brave front.

There was no vandalising at our place but I was once again witness to an incident of hatred and intolerance towards Husain at Sahmat's exhibition in which his huge reproductions of Bharat Mata and Mother Teresa's works were torn down. Did those works also hurt somebody's sentiments? It was all a political game.

There was a price of Rs.51 crore for his head, one kg gold for his eyes, 11 lakh for his hands. Could he have come back in this environment? Husain had started being attacked prior to the incident that took place at our gallery.

The Husain-Doshi gufa in Ahmedabad was vandalised for his painting of Saraswati. You give z-plus security to a hard-core criminal but you can't give security to somebody who was an ambassador of your culture and then you call him an icon of Indian art. He wouldn't have been spared had he come back.

(As told to SHAILAJA TRIPATHI)

Keywords: M.F. Husain