To protect what you hate

‘We have been called as the land of KAMA SUTRA, then why is it in this land we shy away from its very name? Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder and so does obscenity’

‘Ancient art has never been devoid of eroticism where sex worship and graphical representation of the union between man and woman has been a recurring feature.’

These were the words of the judges of the Delhi High Court when they pronounced their verdict in the case against the painter M F Hussain. The three cases of criminal proceedings against him for portraying the Hindu gods and goddesses in nude have been effectively quashed with this judgment.

Ever since this judgment is pronounced, there are furores among the extremist Hindu groups and pious Hindu critics and journalists. Apparently their complaint is that the Judges have not taken the legality in dealing with offence against religion under the Freedom of Speech act. In India, Article 295A makes it an offence to ‘insult or outrage the religious feelings of any class.’ So the verdict may have further legal implications and may get overturned if and when the case goes to the Supreme Court.

The paintings are no doubt explicit and to a large extent offensive. Goddesses Saraswathy, Sita, and Lakshmi, then the gods Ram and Hanuman have been painted nude in this collection. A few paintings portray Hindu Goddesses in explicitly copulating positions. Certain paintings contain mythological inaccuracies such as Hanuman carrying Sita (both nude) out of Sri Lanka, whereas He never rescued Sita.

The protesters actually have a point in their grief that their religious sentiments are hurt. The Internet is full of angry articles and blogs. Some even compared M F Hussain’s paintings of Islamic society where the people are fully clothed. There is even one painting where a Mogul Emperor is pitted with a Brahmin’s back. The Emperor has clothes and the Brahmin is naked. No pun intended here.

The angry blogs, the comparisons with Islamic society and the subsequent outrage are justified. If someone looks at the painting says their sentiments are hurt, they are justified as well.

What is not justifiable is dragging him to courts with criminal charges and making India unlivable for him. Whatever motives Hussain might have had in those paintings, he certainly does not deserve to be treated this way by the society. Yes, if he were to paint Prophet Mohammed nude, he would not be able to live anywhere in the world peacefully. There would have been an instant fatwa and a price announced for his head.

But that is precisely why the Indian society must protect him and not push charges against him. It is to show that the Indian society is secular, tolerant and civilised. If what was done to Rushdie is barbaric, the Hindu society should do quite the opposite to showcase their civic credentials.

Painting Hanuman and Lakshmi in nude does not reduce the reverence the pious hold for such figures. Satanic Verses would not have sold more than a few thousand copies on its own. Islamic fundamentalism ensured that the difficult literary novel sold millions of copies worldwide. On its own, these paintings would not have gained national attention. The Hindu fundamentalism ensured that every Indian with access to media got to see their favourite gods in nude. That is what the fundamentalism achieved in the end.

Article 295A is an ancient law enacted by the British to contain Hindu/Muslim animosity during the Raj. It is archaic, oppressive and needs to be scrapped. The verdict, if upheld by the Supreme Court, which is what one should hope for, will pave the way for it.

‘I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.’ Voltaire said in his letter to a writer. Hussain’s paintings may be despicable. But the Indian society should fight their end to make it possible for him to continue to live and paint.

And make it possible for anyone to continue to express what they want, in paper or in canvas.