Why didn't MF Husain paint Allah the way he painted Saraswati?

[Book excerpt] The man who was written about the most was the least understood.

 |  12-minute read |   31-10-2017
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The man who was written about the most was the least understood. Most often, particularly in interviews, Husain always said what he’d said before but seldom revealed what he had understood about art and life. In choosing not to articulate it, was he ensuring the sense of mystique that surrounds an artist? However, for most people there was no mystery about Husain; there were only set notions, recirculated and rehashed. Did anyone know what a caring father he was? That he was always there for his four sons and two daughters? Whether it was a serious illness or an unseemly incident, he supported them morally, emotionally and financially.

At that time he did not sit on judgement about the merit of the case. But Husain was capable of a peculiar detachment too. His unconditional love for them and the strange ability to detach himself from their triumphs and tragedies were exceptional. I cannot forget an incident that took place a couple of years ago. He was at my home when he got an urgent call to go to the home of a very close relative who was facing serious threats from another family member. Husain left instantly, took command of the situation, got the police and left. The next day I called up to find out if all was well. "Why don’t you come to Pundole Art Gallery this afternoon? I want to show you my latest work?"

"When did you paint?"

saraswati-690_103117051621.jpgMF Husain's Saraswati.

"After everything was over, I went to Pundole Art Gallery, got it opened, and painted this large canvas which has four panels titled spring, summer, autumn and winter," he chuckled.

This was his stress buster. Instead of spending a sleepless night, he chose to paint. This capacity to distance himself from the dark and the grim was one of the many secrets of his unflagging optimism and youthfulness.

But would the world ever know about countless incidents like these? Instead, Husain saheb often spoke about things that got him into trouble. In doing so he did a grave injustice to himself.

"Is this wisdom?" I asked with exasperation one day.

"Nobody is interested in knowing anyone. I give what people want: fodder for scandals and gossip," he replied with unbelievable self-righteousness.

In doing this I wonder if he was not pandering to the lowest.

Husain was once again in self-imposed exile. And this time, it was his painting of "Bharat Mata". If earlier his apologies bailed him out, this time some rabid Hindus and Muslims in the hinterlands of UP had announced a reward on his head and the hand that had continuously striven to reinterpret Hindu mythology. That the number of such extremists was not restricted to the "less enlightened or exposed" was a fact that leaves one most disturbed.

"Why doesn’t he paint Allah the way he paints our gods and goddesses?"

Actually the answer is easy to understand. That is if one really wants to. It is forbidden to paint Allah. He is formless, hence the taboo, whereas it is a tradition in Hindu religion, from the beginning of history, to paint and sculpt gods and goddesses.

Every art, however path-breaking, springs from traditions established earlier. The artist may then bring his imagination and inventiveness into play. There is no tradition of painting Allah. The next premise is why paint Hindu gods and goddesses nude?

Once again the tradition of painting and sculpting gods and goddesses has existed agelessly. There are any number of erotic miniatures showing Krishna with Radha, Rukmini and the gopis. The finest Shiv-Parvati statues are clad only in jewels. But now we put a cloth over the body so that the ordinary devotees cannot see them in their full glory, only the priest can have a peek behind closed doors.

sita-hanuman_103117051944.jpgSita and Hanuman and Ravana.

The word "Aparna" to describe Parvati means "without leaves", which is a way of saying "nude". As the story goes, Parvati underwent many years of penance to win Shiva till her clothing deteriorated and fell away in the bitter Himalayan cold. "The controversial sketch of Saraswati, for example, is an elegant white-on-black line drawing, which makes the viewer reflect on the old Indian tradition of ‘nirakara’ or formlessness," Husain had said.

Yet, instead of questioning themselves when provoked, extremist Hindus, like extremists from other faiths, reacted with anger.

"Objectively speaking, there can be no case against Husain for the simple reason that Husain’s 'nudes' are not nudes – the flesh tones and voluptuous curves that would be the essence of a nude are entirely absent. This Saraswati is not a nude at all; it’s an outline of a female form with no sensuous body parts, not hinting even remotely at eroticism. As it happens, even if Husain had drawn a real nude, he would have only continued the tradition of artistic representation of our goddesses set centuries ago. Naked description of Saraswati around second century ad, or the depiction of Lajja Gauri in a birthing position, the body parts and the process of birth painted in graphic details the birth of Ram and Lakshman. The mothers in squatting position; the body parts and the process of birth painted were in graphic details. Startling yes, but vulgar or erotic, decidedly no. In a predominantly agrarian society, fertility and fecundity were worshipped and the mother figure with large breasts and broad hips represented fecundity in a near literal form," Anil Dharkar commented.

Lord Mahavira, venerated by lakhs of Jains all over, has been depicted stark nude and not one Jain found it objectionable until a modern Jain saw obscenity in it and made sure that the Jal Hotel, facing the domestic airport in Mumbai, covered it with a marble slab.

Growing intolerance has become glaring in these decades. Our depiction of gods and goddesses is so inventive, there is so much freedom in the way we image and paint them, so fanciful is each artist’s imagination, there is so much innocence in them, it makes us sad that hailing from the same country and culture we have begun to have such a warped notion that what is nude is obscene. Until Raja Ravi Varma clad his Shakuntala and Sita, mainly mythological figures, in a nine-yard sari, painters and sculptors had always had the liberty of depicting them in a manner they deemed fit. So, having got accustomed to calendar art, we have quietly chosen to forget our ancient heritage.

I thought Hindus prided themselves for their tolerance; for their lack of dogma, for the inherent freedom Hinduism endowed, a religion in which dissent is the cornerstone. How do we have total memory erasure about our past? In Husain’s words, "The goddesses are pure and uncovered. Here, the nudity is not nakedness; it’s a form of innocence and maturity."

A few paintings that come to my mind are Anjolie Ela Menon’s painting of the most venerated river goddess Ganga, painted stark nude in 1990; the current Shabari series of Atul Dodiya with a silhouetted nude figure and Arpita Singh’s Durga – a woman in a clinging white sari but wearing no blouse, holding a revolver and standing on a sinner. It is provocative, sure. But none of these contemporary painters need get concerned. Not a whimper about it one would hear. It doesn’t pay off to scandalise or vilify them. Contrary to a popular theory making the rounds, it is the fact of Husain’s being a Muslim that has led to the furore; I believe that neither the community one hails from nor the theme of the painting seems enough provocation. Not even Tyeb Mehta or Akbar Padamsee, though both are Muslims and renowned artists at that, would be victimised. The common man knows only one name: Husain. Also, it has, in my view, a lot to do with his phenomenal fame coupled with his remaining in the eye of one storm after another.

Interestingly, in Western art traditions, the nude female form was acceptable as long as they were of classical goddesses and nymphs. When the portraits were of real people, they sparked controversy. American artist John Sargent’s Madame X showed a contemporary society beauty in a very clinging gown and it nearly cost him his career. Similarly, a painting by French painter Edouard Manet was considered indecent in Paris because he showed a nude woman enjoying a picnic on the grass with two men who were fully dressed in formal suits. That it was not a Greek goddess but a regular plump French woman is what shocked the public.

husain_103117050256.jpgHusain: Portrait of an Artist; Ila Pal; HarperCollins India

The Da Vinci Code that proclaims that Christ married Mary Magdalene and that his descendants may still be around sparked off protests of blasphemy. Sir John Millais’s work Christ in the House of His Parents caused an outrage in Victorian England because it didn’t look divine enough. It showed the boy Jesus in a carpenter’s household with real work going on, work-roughened hands, humble surroundings, etc.

Coming back to Husain, he forgot that like him there were many others who wanted to be centre stage; keen to upstage him. Time and again, we have seen how people get a vicarious pleasure in pulling their heroes down. It endows them with a sense of power they do not otherwise enjoy. And there is no denying that Husain is made of the stuff popular icons was made up of.

With his unassailable genius, dynamic presence, signature dressing style and demeanour, not to forget his penchant for contentious statements and interviews, he attracted controversies and criticism like a magnet. In this context, one cannot help but underscore the headlines he made every time there were quantum jumps of unbelievable magnitude in the price of his paintings.

Rare acumen coupled with an exceptional grasp of changing market trends, Husain single-handedly put Indian art on the dizzy global art circuit.

When the controversy about Bharat Mata first erupted, I was in Benares. That morning, as my boat reached Panchaganga Ghat, I was reminded of Kabir, a Muslim by birth, who got his initiatory mantra "Rama... Rama" on that very ghat. His soulful dohas affected both Hindus and Muslims equally and to such an extent that, on his death, both communities laid claim to his body. Would it be possible to envisage a spectacle like the one the fifteenth century witnessed?

"Like the fifteenth-century poet Kabir, Husain – a Muslim – could with truth declare himself a 'child of Allah and Rama'," writes Richard Bartholomew in his book Husain.

A few decades from now, when the dust settles down on all the controversies that surrounded Husain, and only his vast volume of work is left behind, would Indians recognise that it was his deep understanding and lifelong connection with Hindu philosophy, mythology, iconography and epics that resulted in his interpreting the true essence of Hinduism pictorially, that it was this which helped him get under the skin of the fascinating characters of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana?

His quest for grasping the essence of these great epics started when he was a teenager. "I liked the sound of Tulsidas’s dohas in Ramayana. And the only way I could hear them was to pretend to be a Hindu and go and sit in a temple and listen to the dohas."

Watching Ramleela was a treat for young Husain. Everyone who took part in this community theatre performance was a neighbour, whether it was Ravan or Ram. While returning he took as much time as possible living the various characters, acting them out in his mind. Between the time when he was in Indore and the subsequent years, whenever he was in India, he never missed an opportunity to drop in at least for a few minutes to watch Ramleela. The memories were getting layered, he was retaining the naivety and the earthiness, the gloss and the glamorous getting rubbed off. Husain’s fascination with Hinduism remained at the back of his mind and resurfaced in the 1970s when he decided to paint the Mahabharata and then the Ramayana. His meeting the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia in 1968 in Hyderababd provoked him further.

"Step out of the homes of Birlas and Tatas, paint Ramayana and take them in the midst of the villagers," Lohia instigated Husain. This is all that Husain needed.

"Before starting to paint the Ramayana in 1968 and the Mahabharata in 1971, I read Rajagopalachari’s interpretation of the great epics. People may find it hard to believe that before I started painting the Ramayana, a great scholar, well versed in Valmiki Ramayana was invited specially from Benares and he narrated Valmiki Ramayana as well as the dohas of Tulsikrit Ramayana as I painted."

690-maha_103117052145.jpgThe Mahabharata by MF Husain

In a span of eight years from 1968 to 1976, he painted 150 paintings on the Ramayana when in Husain’s words, "I was completely broke."

"When Dharmaveer Bharti, a well-known Hindi writer and the editor of Dharmayug saw the works, he was incredulous and wrote a moving article in his magazine, dwelling on some of the paintings like the Shivjee Ki Baraat at great length, where I had painted Bhoot and all the evil spirits who had joined in the bridegroom’s procession," said Husain.

A friend brought Puri Shankaracharya to see the series. He spent a long time looking at them. Then he turned towards Husain who was waiting patiently for his response.

"Husain, all your samskaras are Hindu," saying this, he clasped him in his arms and added, "else you could not have created paintings which arouse such intense feelings."

On hearing this, some of the prominent Muslims of Hyderabad came to see Husain and have a dekko at the works. "Why don’t you paint Islamic history?"

Pat came Husain’s reply, "Do you have the tolerance that Hindus have?"

In fact, he had a deep and abiding interest in religions of the world and this manifested in his interpreting all the religions of the world in a series titled Theorama.

Hyderabad-based publisher and one of the first collector’s of Husain’s works, Badrivishal Pittie, who hosted him in his outhouse, was to dedicate these works to the nation. Husain had even given him a sketch of the kind of museum he had visualised but till date nothing has happened. There are no photographs of the series nor do we know where the paintings are. It is a different matter that when I lived in Hyderabad for three years, I had an opportunity to see them twice.

The deep-rooted connection with Hindu spirit and iconography flowed out of Husain, not because he was capitalising on popular appeal but because it was part of his bloodstream.

He could not be otherwise. Once the Hindus, who have lost that very spirit of tolerance that distinguished them from other religious groups, regain it, will they then ask themselves: Did Husain deserve to be embraced or persecuted?

(Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins India.)

Also read: Sadly, future MF Husains will not be born in India, but in exile


Ila Pal Ila Pal

A self-taught painter, Ila studied briefly at JJ School of Arts and worked with MF Husain before she had her first one-man show in 1962. She has had numerous solo shows since, in places such as Pundole Art Gallery, Chemoulds Art Gallery, Washington Art Association, Connecticut, USA, Clarksville Galleries, New York, Jehangir Art Gallery, Vadehera Art Gallery, besides participating in many prestigious group shows. She is a recipient of a Silver Medal and a Diploma at the International Exhibition of Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris. Many charitable organizations and auction houses including Sotheby’s have auctioned her works.

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