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The Right to Offend

Maqbool Fida Hussain, one of the greatest artists of India has become a citizen of Qatar at the age of 94. The reason: He doesn’t feel safe in India. He was on an exile from 2006, as of the protests against his controversial nude paintings.

Is this how we treat a great artist? He was the highest paid painter in India. One canvas of his was auctioned for 2 million $ recently. The Forbes Magazine called him the “Picasso of India”. He has been awarded both Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. As Salil Tripathi observed, “Husain’s art has captured India’s ethos. As the nation’s chronicler, he has been a laureate, portraying the stark agony of a cyclone; a court jester, like when he painted Indira Gandhi as Durga astride a tiger; a cheerleader, celebrating the centuries of Sunil Gavaskar; an inventive exhibitionist, painting as Bhimsen Joshi sang, painting with Shah Rukh Khan, painting on the body of a woman. He revels in India’s gaudiness, its zeitgeist.”

Yet, for religious fundamentalists, all this counts for zilch! Though the state hasn’t meted out any legal punishment for Hussain, it has done little to protect him from fanatics. Leaving him alone to face the consequences is no different from punishing him. His house was attacked by Bajrang Dal in 1998. He was charged with hurting religious sentiments of people. There were death threats against him. A non bailable warrant was issued against him. More than 900 cases were registered against him in various parts of the country. The Government of Kerala was prevented from granting him the Raja Ravi Varma award.  His house and exhibitions were vandalized. The fact that Husain had to apologize to these criminals is a shame on the law and order system of this country.

“I am proud to be born in a country which banned ‘Satanic Verses’”, proudly announced one such zealot in a television show on this issue. “Try this creativity in Qatar. No other country is as tolerant as India”, warned Sri Sri Ravishankar. If India is the most tolerant nation, I shudder to think of other countries.

Such paintings hurt religious sentiments and would lead to communal violence, it is said. Perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn’t. So what? Why should someone be punished for the irrational actions of others? Freedom is an absolute. It is a value no matter what the consequences. People should have the right to offend. It is their problem if some people hold beliefs which are so fragile. Vikas Kamat writes: “Perversion is in the eyes of the beholder. cloth is man-made! Showing men, women (and gods) in nude is a honest and most natural way to depict them. What is so offensive about nudity anyway? Hindus are ones who invented nudism. Aren’t we the culture that worships genitals?” As a joke goes, “Hinduism is a 5000 year-old religion that collapsed overnight due to a few paintings.” If one is consistent in his positions, he should demand regulation of all art and literature. That would mean totalitarianism. An innovation is what crushes all existing conceptions. This crucial aspect is at stake when ideas and art are let to be regulated by a horde of old bozos. Every new idea will be opposed out of the simple fact that it refutes all prevailing myths. It is in human nature to be suspicious of any innovation & they are not to be blamed on this account. The most competent of men, having considerable investment in prevalent myths, are worse than the man on the street in this account.

A piece of art is an expression of the artist’s creativity. The material expression of art is in fact, an idea conceived in the artists mind, put into action. The same goes for any literary work or scientific invention. The content of ones mind is his own property & if obtained through legitimate means, so is the material through which he gives expression to that idea.

A creator has every right to sell, give away or even destroy his work. No one has the right of objection to the possession of an object or the resulting subjective evaluations in the mind of another person. Ones right to deviate from the common path is the most crucial of human rights. It is no exaggeration to say that one who stands against the right to disagree stands against the right to live, as from that right comes all of our inventions and innovations.

An image conceived in an artists mind, materialized by the paint spilled on his canvas & the subjective evaluations hence created in the mind of the public isn’t a blank check on anyone else’s freedom. Fight for ones life by start out to fight for the freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is the foundation of a free, prosperous society.

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