15 February 2013
In light of serial controversies over the ‘objectionable’ depiction of Hindu deities by modern Indian artists, with some feeling sufficiently provoked to interrupt exhibitions of such art, it may be in order to examine the legitimacy of secular artists exploiting sacred symbols to promote their work (and their commercial interests). Should there be some, if any, limits to such usage?
The stand-alone artist is a creation of the colonial era, a take on the European tradition of talented artists seeking church or royal / noble patronage. Like their European counterparts, these fledgling artists clustered together (Bengal school) to offer moral and artistic support to each other in evolving the themes and techniques of their craft, and finding patrons in Kolkata’s rich milieu. Like their European exemplars, they dabbled in both religious and secular themes.
Two of our best known modern artists, Syed Haider Raza and the late Maqbool Fida Hussain, are famous for their use of sacred symbols from Hindu iconography, though both evoke vastly differing emotions among the citizenry.
SH Raza, who went to France six decades ago, began as a painter of expressionistic landscapes and experimented with various themes. He was one of the early founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group with KH Ara and FN Souza, which sought to shed European influence in Indian art.
Raza came into his own when he began to incorporate Tantric motifs into his work. He is best known for his use of the ‘Bindu’ (origin), the most profound symbol in Hindu philosophy. From this he moved to incorporate other sacred symbols such as the tribhuj (triangle) and Prakriti-Purusha (female-male energy) and other concepts rooted in Kundalini (the divine source of energy in the human body). Raza’s engagement with Hindu themes has always been reverential.
Maqbool Fida Husain, who began life as a film poster painter in Mumbai, was also associated with Souza’s modernist movement from the 1940s, and earned renown for his ‘horse theme’, a direct take on the celebrated Marc Chagall. He painted a range of political and religious figures, and enjoyed immense political patronage which won him numerous commissions for murals in public and private buildings.
Husain first courted controversy some decades ago when he participated in ‘jugalbandi’ with famous musicians to paint ‘ragas’ while they sang. These were usually depictions of Hindu Goddesses, which he erased after the performance, raising eyebrows as it was seen as soft iconoclasm.
He then painted Hindu Gods and Goddesses unclothed, in sexually explicit postures, often coupled in unacceptable ways with figures they could not even be linked with as per tradition. Thus, he depicted Sita seated on the back of a monkey (a clear allusion to Hanuman), clinging to its tail; when the painting came to public attention in the late 1990s, Hindus felt hurt and enraged at this humiliation of a goddess famed for her chastity. Possibly delighted by the controversy – the Delhi High Court dismissed all complaints against him – he painted the goddesses Durga and Sarasvati in an equally obnoxious manner. This climaxed in a painting of Bharat Mata as a nude woman juxtaposed across a map of the country with the names of Indian States on the various parts of her body.
Though vociferously defended by the secular anti-Hindu lobby, it was clear to many that Husain had crossed a red line. He received a court summons, but escaped the hearing by going into self-exile in London, taking Qatari citizenship, and living outside India until his death in 2011.
This brings us to the contemporary controversies over an exhibition in Delhi and another in Bangalore; one was shut down for depicting nude paintings by renowned artists like Souza, and in the second the police demanded that some paintings that offended Hindu sensibilities be removed. In Bangalore, the painter was an upcoming artist, Anirudh Sainath Krishnamani.
Since the impugned paintings can be seen on the internet, we have a paradigm in which to assess whether a Divinity can be treated at par with a secular motif and exploited for crass commercial ends.
Television anchors and panelists who pilloried the removal of the paintings must answer why, if they felt the paintings were in order, they did not show them and explain the ‘high art’ involved to their viewers. After all, the same channels did not carry the incendiary speech of MIM legislator Akbaruddin Owaisi precisely because they realised its hurtful potential.
Regarding Anirudh’s painting, recall the posters of the famous Shashi Kapoor–Zeenat Aman starrer Satyam Shivan Sundaram. Aman’s skimpy dress was possibly the boldest ever in that era. Now imagine if an artist today were to paint the same poster showing a known actress or public personality topless – this is what Anirudh has done to Sati and Shiva.
The second painting is of a blue woman lying naked in bed, lightly draped, in a posture reminiscent of leading Hollywood and Bollywood actresses in some famous movies. The third painting shows a wild-eyed naked goddess, snarling for gratification, like a character in a western film or soap opera.
Anirudh got his pound of fame but showed callous inability to concede that his sensationalist demeaning of loved deities had shocked and wounded devotees. Glibly claiming parity with the great Sanskrit dramatist, Kalidas, he said the Kumarasambhava describes the amorous love of the gods ‘much more’… The Baroda art school student Chandramohan showed similar vacuity when confronted with controversy over his poor understanding of the icons and symbols of the religions he was toying with.
Secular Indians are unable to distinguish between digambar, sky or space clad, at par with the gods who are made of akasha (and not the five elements like the rest of us), and nude, without shame, without clothes. Digambar has deep meaning and awe in Indian civilisation, particularly among Jainas and some Hindu lineages (Samatabhadra, Naga) as representing the highest asceticism, renunciation, and non-attachment to worldly goods and desires. Persons with zero comprehension of the deep layers of meaning in the symbols of a culture are not qualified to interpret it.
NitiCentral.com, 15 February 2013