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Politics of Art

M F Husain comes from Pandharpur, known in history as the capital of protest. Husain's paintings must be judged by the criterion of aestheticism and not on the grounds of "blasphemy". There is no word for blasphemy in Sanskrit or Pali, or in the Hindu and Buddhist texts. It is clear that the entire campaign against Husain is meant to show a Muslim's "contempt" for Hinduism.

OF LIFE, LETTERS AND POLITICSmay 17, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8GPD (govind.desh@gmail.com) is a well known commentator on literary and political affairs.Politics of ArtGPDM F Husain comes from Pandharpur, known in history as the capital of protest. Husain’s paintings must be judged by the criterion of aestheticism and not on the grounds of “blasphemy”. There is no word for blasphemy in Sanskrit or Pali, or in the Hindu and Buddhist texts. It is clear that theentirecampaign against Husain is meant to show a Muslim’s “contempt” for Hinduism.Not entirely unexpectedly M F Husain, easily the most famous Indian painter, has won a major battle. The Delhi High Court has squashed criminal proceedings against him for allegedly hurting public sentiment by depicting Hindu goddesses in an obscene manner. The judgment of the court could be summed up in one word that justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul used. He found the charge “baseless.”The judge took the view that the paint-ings were “a matter of perspective and cannot be the basis for initiating criminal proceedings” He went on to add that “frivolous and vexatious complaints, which impinge upon the basic freedom of an individual, should be scrutinised in a strict manner at the magisterial level itself. In other words the matter need not have come to the high court.It was not clear from the news item that we read if this judgment was going to be the end of the story. At one level there are indications that the matter may now relate to Husain’s return from self-imposed exile in Dubai. Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its other allies, the Parivar in short, will turn their guns at the re-turning painter. Husain has already start-ed dreaming of returning to India. The Parivar has threatened that it will not let him do that. So the legal battle may have been won. Indeed it has been won. The Delhi High Court has squashed the three cases filed against him at Indore, Bhopal and Pandharpur in Maharashtra. The last-mentioned town is Husain’s home-town. There is a certain irony that this painter hails from Pandharpur.Capital of Protest Pandharpur was described by Dullery, (the French missionary who, if our memory serves us right, was the first translator of Tukaram into any European language) as the Jerusalem of the marathas. There issome poetic justice that Husain should belong to that town. In a sense that town was the capital of Bhaktipoetry in Marathi. But then Bhakti poetry is an inadequate expres-sion. It was not only a poetry of devotion and dedication to Vitthala, the deity of Pandharpur, but also a poetry of protest and rebellion. Pandharpur is also the capital of protest and rebellion. If a modern day reader, familiar with blasphemy, were to read Janabai, the 13th century woman Bhakti poet, he/she will find that her language regarding Vitthala, the form of Vishnu, worshipped at Pandharpur far more “blasphemous”.Janabai’s anger is also a kind of a dialo-gue with the lord. Husain, a Pandharpur man, is true to the tradition of his home-town. We are not painting savvy at all. So we cannot judge the paintings in question. But there is little doubt that those who read blasphemy in all this do not know the Pandharpur tradition. They would be shocked that a 17th century poet Sali Mohammad who belonged to Pandharpur tradition wrote that “I was born a brahman, my relations (‘soyare’) are Musalman”. It is certain thattheParivar has not heard of the Pandharpur tradi-tion. Even Husain may not be familiar with the details. But he has inherited it. He has an attitude to godheads that reminds you of this tradition. The cun-ning of (Bhakti) history, if you like. But there it is. It cannot be wished away. Husain has a right to read the Hindu iconography the way he wants to. His right must be defended. This does not mean that he can do any-thing. It is not a question of what he does or does not do. There is a tradition in India that denies such a thing as blasphemy. Charvak might have even argued in its de-fence. There is no word for blasphemy in any of the shastras. Indeed neither San-skrit nor Pali, the languages in which one can find Hindu and Buddhist texts, has a word for blasphemy. You cannot try any-one for blasphemy if you wish to do it with reference to the classical Hindu or Buddhist texts. The only argument against Husain can be aesthetic. There is no room here for a fundamentalist discourse against him. You can only call his paintings

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