Note: A shorter version of this had appeared in print in Sunday's "The Free Press ePaper"
This morning was abuzz with the news our celebrated controversial painter M F Hussain was no more. Social media exploded with opinions. What stood out to my mind was that everyone had something to say. His depictions of our country and goddesses in the nude in 1996. A decade of protests, vandalism and court cases later, The man who was a part of India before its creation had given up our citizenship and moved to Qatar.
His death brought everything to the front again. Many criticized him and thought that those mourning him were excusing his behaviour. People spoke in support of him and thought it was a great pity that an artist like him was not allowed to flourish. Others respected him in death, but thought that he had insulted India. A few said that the government failed in creating safety for him.
Pritish Nandy wrote a series of Tweets in his memory describing him as a friend and artist. "Husain was one of my best friends and I shall miss him deeply. One of the greatest artists of our time. Few people had that zest for living as Husain. My walls are full of his notes and drawings left in my office when I wasnt there."
Sunny Singh was direct and vocal about intolerance. "So 'offended sensibilities' are not a particularly interesting or relevant criteria for art. If you dont like it, dont see/hear/read it. However in India the problem is shutting out of voices from public discourse which then leads to frustration and a stilted debate!"
Others remembered his contribution to India's post independence asthetic and how his thousands of paintings were shown in such a way that the rural masses could enjoy them.
"I cameaway myself because I am an old man and vulnerable to physical danger. It’s not just the cases. If I came back, given the mood they have created, someone could just push or assault me on the street, and I would not be able to defend myself." quotes an article from Tehelka about his move to Qatar.
As the day passed and more people joined conversations, and voices mellowed. Perhaps it was the dawning realization that here was a man who had produced thousands and thousands of paintings and the ones causing anger were a few.
Nitin Pai made it simple on twitter: "Always a good idea not let your politics get ahead of your humanity."
“He may have been controversial, but he was an Indian. So, his last rites should be performed in India,” said BJP general secretary Ananth Kumar.
“Damage may have been caused to modern art due to his demise. Thats all. May Allah give him peace,” Thackeray said. “As an artist, everyone has a domain and Husain handled his modern art with zeal. However, he ‘slipped’ while drawing paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses,” he added.
Raj Thackeray called Husain a “national asset” and said that all controversies related to paintings of renowned painter Husain should be laid to rest with his demise.
Javed Akhtar commented "A truly Indian artist has left the world misunderstood and back stabbed but thru his art he will out live all his adversaries."
A new understanding of the man and his relationship with India started to emerge. I saw M F Hussain as the great artist he was and recognized his dedication to his art. I pondered artistic freedom and how things may be misunderstood by an audience, when an artist is so lost in his art that he uses his own symbolisms and meanings. Can it be called a fault? Certainly his years and years of interest and keen knowledge of Indian mythology couldn't come without a deep interest and love. I didn't believe that he intended disrespect. While there is no doubt that he is responsible for his actions, perhaps we ought to respect an artist's right to stand by his creation and his intentions in the face of controvesy.
Content strategist Amrit Hallan puts it beautifully on his Twitter account "Maturity of a country manifests in the way it protects its artists, no matter how revolting."
We are failing to show ourselves as mature people. From Arundhati Roy to Baba Ramdev... we have lost the ability to allow a thought we don't like to exist. We have lost compassion and tolerance. We have lost the ability to question and clarify differences and make peace. In every case, we have polarized opinions.
As we honor this great son of India, who was older than the country itself, the best tribute we can pay him is learning to bridge chasms. Learning to be less fractured as a country.
Put up this version mainly because the edit used some quotes without attributions, so acknowledging them here.