Modern art has always been a front in the so-called Culture Wars, with religion as the main battleground. Works like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin’s Ecce Homo are seen by some as significant interrogations of religion and freedom of expression, and by others as deeply insulting and to be eliminated either through force of law or through violence.
Last Thursday, a painting by Maqbool Fida Husain, India’s most controversial artist, sold for an astounding $1.6 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. Lot number 57 in the catalogue, Husain’s “Battle of Ganga and Jamuna” (panel 12 in the series of paintings based on the Mahabharata he painted in the early seventies), was snapped up by an anonymous bidder for more than twice its appraised value.
The auction demonstrated that contemporary Indian paintings are a hot commodity on the international art scene. Another lot, Ram Kumar’s “The Vagabond” (painted in 1952), sold for $1.1 million.
As the Times of India reported in 2003, Husain has been the driving force behind bringing Indian contemporary art to international attention. Chester Hirwitz, a man described by the New York Times as Husain’s “most avid collector in the United States” compares the artist to Andy Warhol.
But not everyone is pleased by Husain’s success. Christie’s was picketed by members of the Indian American Intellectual Forum (IAIF) and the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, who argue that Husain’s work is tantamount to hate speech. (Rediff interviewed several of the protesters.) The artist has angered some Hindus over the course of his more than half century long career with what they regard as “sacrilegious” representations of Hindu deities and characters from the Sanskrit epics.
Many in India and abroad, myself included, think that Husain is being victimized by right-wing Hindu groups because he is a Muslim. (I use “right-wing” not as a slur but because I consider it an accurate description of their views.) The problem is not Husain’s art as such — one can argue that Sanskrit texts and traditional visual representations are more explicit than anything Husain has done — but rather these groups apparently believe that as a Muslim Husain’s only purpose in painting Hindu gods must be to denigrate Hinduism.
This gets tied up in the Hindu nationalist formulation that India is strictly for Hindus and Muslims should be viewed as a fifth column. Indeed, as Arish Sahani, a co-founder of IAIF, told Rediff.com, Husain “is an Indian Muslim who has shown willingness to betray his country.” But that’s nonsense. As Shashi Tharoor convincingly argues in The Times of India, Husain is an Indian first and a Muslim second.
Although the Christie’s protest did not turn violent — a desi friend of mine who was there says he was brusquely asked by one of the protesters to identify himself as a Hindu or a Muslim but that’s as far as it goes — there is a long history of destruction of Husain’s work by right-wing groups. For comparison of how little things have changed, read this piece by Somini Sengupta in the New York Times ten years ago, when members of the “far-right” Bajrang Dal broke into Husain’s apartment, and then read this Times of India story from last December, when Shiv Sena activists damaged paintings at a show.