The Naked Art Controversy

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Is it blasphemous to paint nude deities? That is the center of a widening controversy concerning painter Maqbool Fida Husain, currently India’s most (in)famous artist. Husain, long one of India’s most celebrated painters (including receiving honors from the government), began to find himself deeply controversial after a book of his work published in the mid-nineties pictured Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. This ongoing issue reached a head recently when a painting he submitted for a benefit auction picturing a nude Bharat Mata (the personification of India as a mother goddess) raised the ire of Hindu nationalists.

A detail from “Mother India” by M F Hussain

Recently, litigation brought against Hussain by a hardline Hindutva group resulted in the seizure of his home and property after he refused to return to India to face trial.

“Leading painter Maqbool Fida Husain is losing his home and other properties after failing to appear before a court trying him for hurting religious sentiments by painting “Mother India” as a naked woman. Husain’s paintings have often depicted revered Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude, sparking criticism from nationalist parties and activists. A decade ago, radicals even attacked his Mumbai home.”

Husain, who lives in self-imposed exile due to death-threats and harassing litigation (there are over 900 cases registered against him), was able to get the Indian Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s seizure and it looks like the case against him will be moved to Delhi where there is less moral fervor against the artist.

“The Bench also issued notice to Shrivastava on Hussain’s petition seeking transfer of his case from Uttarakhand to Delhi, where four other criminal cases lodged against him in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat had already been transferred by the apex court. He has sought transfer of his case to Patiala House Courts here in view of “hostile environment” prevailing in Uttarakhand…In July 2000, the apex court had ordered the transfer of similar cases filed against him in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Bihar to the court of an additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate in New Delhi and later the Delhi High Court quashed the complaints.”

In the wake of these developments the Indian artistic community has risen up in support of Husain’s artistic freedom, and has condemned the ongoing campaign of harassing litigation against the painter.

“Reacting to the turn of events, the artist community has strongly condemned the campaigns against Hussain. “It’s not just Hussain’s but the entire artist community’s lives which are at stake. Anybody and everybody can file a case against us now. Anyone can infringe upon our lives,” said an upset Krishan Khanna, Hussain’s contemporary … Equally upset and enraged at the “vicious campaigns” against Hussain, other members of the community like filmmaker Syed Mirza, social activist Nafisa Ali, theatre personality M. K. Raina and a host of other artistes, art critics and art gallery owners came together yesterday afternoon and expressed their support for the maestro.”

Even more to the point, Suhas Roya, prominent Indian artist, points out that nudity and eroticism has long been a part of Hindu art.

“Nudes are everywhere in our country – they are part of our history and culture. Khajuraho and Konarak are full of examples of eroticism. But we should be aware that emotions do run high in our country and fanatics do exist. I have done series of nudes myself, but there’s been little publicity. Maybe because Husain said his depictions were of gods and goddesses. Everything Husain does gets a lot of media attention. And sometimes people feel nudes are used as gimmicks to get attention.”

Reading about this case reminds me of our country’s culture-wars over controversial religiously-themed art. From the “Piss Christ” to the chocolate Jesus. But instead of a gallery show getting canceled or funding pulled, the artists are hounded and made to fear for their lives, freedom, and property. It shows what far-right religious ideologues are willing to do when given enough cultural and political power.

Personally, I think blasphemy is a matter between divinity and the individual, not an arbitrary line to be used against those who have different thoughts and opinions. Not to mention that a large percentage of goddess art through many different ages and cultures was never afraid to show life-giving attributes. I’m not the only one to see this controversy as somewhat out of character for Hinduism, the Hindu blog wonders if an unhealthy influence from Abrahamic faiths are to blame.

“The naked body is not something to be ashamed of, in fact it is the temple of the Divine in Hindu theology. It is the Abrahamic religions that preach distaste and hate towards the physical body and therefore require their monastic orders to cover their bodies from head to toe. It will do a lot of good if the Hindu groups realize their folly in following traditions alien to their own.”

Whatever the underlying reason for this storm, one hopes that the courts will drop these charges against MF Husain, and that he will be able to safely return to his home country once more.