Supreme Court came to his rescue, holding that his paintings were nothing but art

Driven by right-wing political activists and vandals into exile, M.F. Husain had to face criminal complaints of obscenity in various Indian courts for his nude paintings of goddesses before the Supreme Court came to his rescue, holding that his paintings were nothing but art.

The Supreme Court refused to allow his prosecution on the charges of obscenity, noting how erotic sculptures abounded on the walls of Hindu temples.

The court had some harsh words for the complainants: “There are so many such subjects, photographs and publications. Will you file cases against all of them? What about temple structures? Husain's work is art. If you don't want to see it, don't see it. There are so many such art forms in temple structures.”

The Supreme Court threw out an appeal against a May 8, 2008 Delhi High Court order that quashed criminal proceedings against Husain in the courts of Bhopal, Indore and Rajkot while deploring the “new puritanism” that had emerged in India. The court rejected the argument that Mr. Husain should be summoned (from his exile) before the court with his paintings and asked to explain their meaning. Complaints were also filed in Pandharpur in Maharashtra, Delhi and Hardwar.

The complainants in general had accused Husain of outraging religious sentiments, promoting enmity between different religious groups, selling obscene material and disturbing national integrity, thereby committing offences under several sections of the Indian Penal Code. He was also accused of committing offences under the provisions of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act on account of certain paintings of Hindu deities and mythological characters done in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the painting of ‘Bharat Mata' depicted as a stylised, nude woman.

What pained the artist more was the refusal of the complainants to accept his apology. In his petition in the Supreme Court, Husain said that he had already tendered an apology, but despite that, the ‘Hindu Personal Law Board' had announced a Rs. 51-crore reward for beheading him and a reward of Rs. 11 lakh for chopping off his hands. A local leader in Gujarat had promised to give one kg of gold to anyone who would gouge out his eyes.

Husain's main plea in all the cases had been that his works were not intended to hurt the sentiments of any community or nation. The painter had also argued that most of the complaints were preceded by orchestrated campaigns against him. He drew the Supreme Court's attention to the fact that when the controversy had first broken out, he immediately withdrew the painting from a charity auction and also apologised in case he had hurt the sentiments of anybody.

Earlier the Delhi High Court had said the allegation that Husain's paintings were obscene were baseless. It took the view that a painter has his own perspective of looking at things and a difference in perspective could not be the basis of initiating criminal proceedings against him.

It said: “In India, a new puritanism is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalising art and pushing us towards a pre-renaissance era. A painter at 90 deserves to be sitting in his home and painting his canvas. Frivolous and vexatious complaints that affect the freedom of an individual should be scrutinised strictly at the magisterial level.”

With the death of Husain, a few remaining complaints pending adjudication in lower courts will come to an end.