On June 9, 2011, when artist MF Husain died in London, he was miles from home, the land he spoke so fondly of in all his conversations. Friends remember how badly he had wanted to return home in the years before his death, but the threat of violence that drove him into self-imposed exile in 2006, aged 90, also left him prevented from returning.
Arguably India’s most recognized modern artist, the maverick faced the wrath of the right, who alleged his depictions of Hindu deities had outraged the religious sentiments of the community. His home and exhibits had been ransacked and he had received multiple death threats, in addition to the numerous lawsuits filed against him.
The artistic community had supported the nonagenarian but the state, perhaps, let him down. Since then, however, restrictions on freedom of artistic expression seem to have only grown.
Last week, when members of far-right groups stormed into the Faculty of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Vadodara, Gujarat, they were on the hunt. They were looking for artwork they had apparently seen on social media and found “disgusting and hurtful to religious feelings”. One series would have featured cut-outs of gods and goddesses with newspaper articles on crimes against women, while another was a collage with the Ashoka pillar “obscenely” positioned.
Resisting the break-in, faculty and department staff argued that the exhibit had yet to be opened to the public and that the exhibit was in the process of being finalized. Speaking to the media, Dean Jayaram Poduval denied that the executives were part of the assessment submissions and said there could be a conspiracy against the faculty. It was also pointed out that the resolution of 2007 would have been followed, according to which all the works would have been verified and approved before the opening of the annual exhibition. The “resolution” itself was passed after a case was filed against Srilamanthula Chandramohan, then a postgraduate student at MS University, for his allegedly objectionable artwork.
In the recent case, some of the defenders argued that the punishment was inflicted before a crime was committed, but others raised a broader and more pertinent question: should it be punishable to depict gods and goddesses? Isn’t all art open to interpretation and isn’t an artist allowed to conceptualize and create as they please?
Often, when this debate arises, India is cited as the land of Kamasutra and Khajuraho, associated with the libidinous tales of ancient India, and skeptics proclaim that contemporary artists are unlikely to have the same freedom as their ancestors. There can be no great art without experimentation, but we are now restricting free thought and creativity when individuals are still learning the ropes. Art students are now being targeted on campus and before we even let them try, we tell them they’ve failed. In 2019, Loyola College in Chennai removed paintings that right-wing groups called “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Indian” and admitted to dropping out, regretting the “insurmountable hurt” caused.
The fear of a backlash is real. Behind closed doors, the artists now admit to being too cautious and fearful. In public spaces, meanwhile, they are wary of viewers who might find their work offensive.
Artist Balbir Krishan, a double amputee, recalls being caught off guard when in 2012 his exhibition celebrating homosexuality in Delhi was vandalized and he was beaten. The artistic community, again, has come together to support it, but unfortunately this rarely has a definitive impact.
Public outrage leads to conversations about the subject and assertion of the need to protect artistic freedoms, but the vandals often succeed in carrying out their immediate effort to bring down the work and the artist is ultimately left behind. only.
Should artists then concede and accept overt censorship as fate? Although it is difficult for a young artist to match the power and courage of Husain, the veteran could be an inspiration. He championed his work for almost a decade before leaving India.
For the sake of art and what it brings to society, it is essential to respect the fine line between freedom of expression and reasonable restrictions. Each work shares the vision of its creator and its purpose is beyond ornament. Artists aspire to encourage conversations and seek to find unorthodox ways to question and provoke. Not everyone needs to agree, and differing opinions should be accepted, not condemned.
A work of art that seems to be problematic, might still be needed.
This column first appeared in the print edition of May 10, 2022 under the title “L’artiste en cage”. Write to the author at email@example.com