Rabindranath Tagore is famously known to have said “Kobi tabo monobhumi ramer janmasthan, Ayodhar cheye satya jeno” (The poets’ mind is the birthplace of Ram, which is more real than Ayodhya). Icons of the national imagination who take birth in a poet’s mind, come of age in an artist’s canvas in every age, and today stand bereaved at the passing of this age’s best-known rearer and reshaper of India’s inherited iconography. For his vivid reimaginings of myth and bold recastings of symbols, M F Husain was much misunderstood and maligned by both rigid idolaters and rabid iconoclasts. For vivifying and animating on canvas figures which to the stultified imagination of his haters were familiar only in the rigor mortis of reverential orthodoxy, he was threatened in both life and limb.
The truism that criticism says more about the critic than the object of criticism was never truer than for Husain and his haters. A vivid illustration of this is this artist’s impression of India’s riparian pride, Ganga and Yamuna.
Someone reveling in Nature and with a taste for metaphor, might think that this painting could lend itself to an interpretation like the following: “Revelling in their pristine purity, undefiled by the viles of the wild world; these miraculous Maidens are ever itinerant, yet ever in royal repose.” But for someone intending to to rouse a rabble, with a sectarian worldview and with malicious intent, this painting is a disrobing and a denigration of deities, deserving a lynch-mob-enforced exile. What Indians must mourn is their acquiescence to this lynch-mob and their largely tongue-tied complicity in the burial of artistic freedom, before the time to bid farewell to this exiled artist himself after a fully lived life.
Imagine a cow trembling with fright under the onslaught of a menacing, raging bull. Imagine an undaunted, yet overpowered woman attempting in vain to save the cow and confront the bull. Imagine, as an unwitting witness of this paroxysmal scuffle a helpless child in the arms of the woman. This is how, perhaps the attacks of 26/11 in the artist’s mind’s eye, appeared the appalling sight of the nation’s pride being savaged by terrorism, with a distraught citizenry watching helplessly the ravaging of the motherland’s sovereignty. Self-proclaimed ‘defenders of the faith’ and thought-police acted as though this painting was a worse injury to national honour than the flesh-and-blood tragedy of the all-too-real event itself! The response from artists of the world to the thought-police of the world was given once and for all by Pablo Picasso. In more than one way, Picasso’s Guernica is to the Spanish Civil War what Husain’s ‘Rape of India’ is to the Mumbai attacks of 26/11. While living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, Picasso suffered harassment from the Gestapo. One officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”