Hussain From the Front Stall

Pallavi Paul

The last late night show. A forgotten, mossy single screen theatre. The burgers are too oily here and the butter stained pop corn never warm. A balding carpet which smells of people, wood, spit, chips, sugar, plastic, hands, cum. The man sitting behind me snores a musical snore, with high and low notes in place. I try to turn around and glare, but only a sleepy shiny T-shirt glares back in the darkness. In the corners some heads move involuntarily to a rhythm which bodies of lovers instinctively recognize, from other films seen in other rooms filled with blue, gauzy light.

Everyone else though is watching with rapt attention, the terribly overplayed drama of a good-hearted practising Muslim in search of a man who cannot only solve all his problems but also those of the rest of the world – the one, the only president of the United States of America! Killer story, I would say, for the ‘sensitive types’, ‘liberal’ upwardly mobile wonder lives of the PVRs, but for the last show, single screen, front-row scum? Really?

As my stomach growls, something that my best friend once said suddenly hits me, “I can’t believe how everyone just sits in a dark room and watches something in complete silence!” I begin thinking that all these people could have been anywhere, doing anything – eating dinner (it’s past eleven and I am craving food), sleeping (barely at daybreak overcrowded, rickety buses take workers to far away factories),or just simply talking! But instead they are here. Getting sucked deeper and deeper into this dream, where prices start at Rs 30 onwards.

These dreams, I realize in a flash of clarity, make the poorest sit closest to them, appearing to even larger than the promised 70mm, dreams that try to overpower and anaesthetize imaginations lest they start inventing dreams of their own, dreams in which presidents don’t matter and disability doesn’t have to be extraordinary. The rich on the other hand get to sit at a considerable distance. Distance that gives them ‘perspective’, ’judgment’, ‘taste’ and ‘understanding’. All this so they can tell ‘serious’ from ‘mass’, ‘cinema’ from ‘entertainment’.

The fun obviously is that this no fun, top down, set in stone blue print is violated left, right and centre. Those meant to be overpowered and intimidated stand up and hoot, whistle and howl, critique and love, embrace and reject, laugh and cry, do everything that disrupts the judgment of those watching from above.

These lines between front stalls and balconies which can tell the good from the bad, the desirable from the acceptable, are lines that can be used to understand most discourse about art in public spaces. Who can talk and who can’t, who can understand and who just can’t, who can attack and who must defend? In this respect the most interesting and contemporary is the debate around M.F. Hussain. Widely discussed, defended and attacked his artistic work has become one of the axes on which the tolerance of the Indian state can be graded. As Monica Juneja writes in “Reclaiming the Public Sphere: Hussain’s portrayals of Saraswati and Draupadi”:

“…the arguments and positions advanced in this debate have tended to posit a series of oppositions- between the freedom of an artist and the ‘sensibilities’ of a community, between virtue and obscenity, between an elite of the intellectuals and the ‘common man’, between a harmonious composite definition of ‘Indianess’ and a homogenizing exclusivist definition that represses all strains of cultural plurality…”

The opening of Juneja’s paper is an excellent summing up of the threads around which the ‘Hussain controversy’ has been debated since the first Right Wing tirade against him by Vichaar Mimansa which carried a piece by Om Nagpal titled ‘Ye Kasai ya Chitrakar?’(Is he an artist or a Butcher?). The title not only mobilized deeply communal stereotypes about Hussain’s religion but also played up the irreconcilable binary between the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘savage’. It derided nudity in Hussain’s paintings calling his depictions of Saraswati vulgar, demeaning and deeply offensive to ‘Hindu sensibilities’. What has followed since is violence, vandalism, name-calling, attacks on places that exhibit his work, even announcement of exorbitant premiums for anyone who came back with his severed head. After having lived in exile for more than a decade, he has finally accepted Qatari citizenship.

About his own work Hussain says,

“…I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to?“

At another point he says,

“…We are all part of a large family and when a child breaks something at home, you don’t throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai (This is a family matter). Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it.”

Those who support Hussain and his art talk of him as only a part of a larger tradition of art which uses nudity and Hindu mythology as artistic tropes. Right wing attacks on him are condemned as representing an exclusivist vision of who can or cannot be mainstreamed as a citizen, more so, be in playful engagement with the collapsible categories of religion and nationalism. His exile from India and the state’s inability to protect him in any way has been mourned as the loss of an artist whose aesthetics and politics were not meant to offend anyone; they were in fact the celebration of the creative ‘tradition’, ’secularism’ and the ‘spirit of tolerance’ of India as it were.

These are the broad markers that inform the debate. Before I begin to look at them more closely, I must admit that within it my position is that of the typical front-staller, a young student with no understanding of modern art, no idea about tones, colours, textures or the ‘essential’ markers of ‘great art’; if a comment on aesthetic merit were the reason for this intervention then this should have been my last sentence. Further, what does not help is that the artist at hand is much bigger than many 70mms put together. Internationally celebrated, widely admired and by now forever canonized.

In such sharply polarized contexts where one’s loyalties are quickly called to test, I cannot help but think how both sides of the debate apply over and over again a barely sixty year old idea of the Indian nation-state, its triumphs and failures to a consciousness which precedes it by nearly three decades. Born in 1915, Hussain must have been 32 years old at the time of the creation of the ‘Indian’ state, the cruelest reversal, for many, of the dreams of the nationalist movement. Moreover the idea of the departure from secularism as an ‘aberration’ in an otherwise ‘tolerant’ history is in itself naïve in a context where a carnival of blood spurting and mass exodus was described by Nehru as an “awakening” to “light” and “freedom”.

There must therefore be another question, another story I must look for in Hussain. This one seems over explicated, yet inadequate.

I find at the centre of the attacks on Hussain that which dictates the limits of how much a woman can be seen in public places, in representations or in reality. Where the body is the training ground of the spirit, a spirit which in turn learns to never ask any questions of its body. Sacrilege befalls when the body in question is sacred, that which ought to have all markers of the human form but none whatsoever of human desire. So when the goddess becomes just like any other bare-breasted poster girl deciding to play coy, hundreds and thousands of men rise to the challenge of playing the protective patriarch and set her right. Scholars have argued how Hussain’s depictions have come under attack as they make upper caste Hindu patriarchy uneasy. This must indeed be true of a religious and social ethos that would rather burn and kill women at their husbands’ death pyres than run the risk of having them desert ‘virtue’. But a question that glides between the oils on a coarse, white starched canvas is that whether Hindu upper caste patriarchy the only sort of patriarchy there is? Further, is the desire to cover up women and keep them in the confines of a house, the only way in which it functions?

John Berger in his delightful book Ways of Seeing writes about female nudes

“…Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own…”.

These words come back to me again and again as I see Hussain’s most attacked and by extension also the most defended work.

His depiction of Bharat Mata as a naked woman, her knees bent and hands stretched to one side to create the semblance of the map of India. From her hair rise the Himalayas, in the curves of her full-ish torso rests the Ashok Chakra from the Indian flag. Like most other patriarchal nationalists, Hussain too implicates the body of the woman within the body of the nation. The ‘nation’ must be identified and glorified through representations of its geography – its mountains and rivers, plains and plateaus. As the woman must be ‘seen’ and appropriated through her ‘body’, the real only too willing to fill in for the imaginary.

His Ramayana painting of a naked Sita sitting on the lap of a naked Ravana, while Hanuman, also naked, trying to rescue her. To think within Berger’s motif of need fulfillment, it reinstates and reinvigorates the dominant and repressive need to divide good and bad, virtue and degradation, man and woman. In the painting, Sita is seen by the spectator crouching in withdrawal from the menacing Ravana painted in black while Hanuman aggressively bares his teeth just as he is about to attack. What is spectacularized is the masculine duel being undertaken for a woman, who in this painting as in the source of its inspiration has nothing to fear but her own body, site of the honour which once clouded in suspicion can never be reclaimed.

Finally, before trying to round off this front stallers’ enquiry, it is important to mention the idea of Hussain’s aesthetics as being significantly tied up in the idea of a ‘muse’. The muse who inspires his gaze, eggs him on to create and whose only ambition ought to forever want to be worthy of being looked at, even at the cost of becoming invisible in his larger artistic universe.

Often on mornings I wake up with half-dreamt, half-forgotten, half-remembered dreams. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend to sleep trying to dream what I want all the way through to the end. It makes me understand like nothing else the joy of freedom, creativity and hope. The freedom that every artist must have, to create, to be able to espouse any kind of politics irrespective of who or what it’s threatening to, the freedom to speak out, also the freedom to be silent; but as important as this is the freedom to be able to question all kinds of art, irrespective of whether it’s internationally celebrated or completely unknown.

That the space for progressive and democratic questioning is shrinking because loud and dangerous attacks must be kept at bay and dealt with first, is a failure of our times. It is in keeping these spaces alive, not letting our front stalls disappear into ‘all balcony’ PVRs, that our struggles must be directed at.

A version of the article was published in Hard News

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