MF Hussain

India shamed as its greatest painter is driven abroad

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 10, 2010

India’s treasured painter Maqbool Fida Hussain officially handed over his Indian passport and became a Qatari citizen yesterday. He is never returning home and Indians should not have let him go. Forced into exile five years ago due to death threats from Hindu hardliners, Hussain told interviewers that Qatar is his home now. While he loves India, the 94-year-old artist said, the country didn’t need him or want him. All overBharatmata, the Mother India painting.

I wonder if the Hindu fundamentalists who made death threats and lodged criminal complaints against Hussain had actually seen the painting in question. It is a stunning piece of art that does everything a great work should – it inspires and provokes; offers a point of view and forces you to question yours; it offers a window to the painter’s psyche; most of all, it is quite beautiful. The right-wing rebellion against Hussain boils down to a single and tragically polarising factor: MF Hussain is a Muslim painter portraying nude Hindu goddesses. How dare he?

As it turns out, the Mother India painting has nothing to do with Hindu goddesses. It portrays a distraught kneeling woman who is artfully drawn in the shape of the Indian map. Her hair becomes the Himalayan mountains while her knees portray the southern tip of India. In its geometry, it looks like a Picasso, whom Hussain is frequently likened to; in its emotion, it resembles Edvard Munch’s The Scream painting; in its use of bright but tranquil colours, it is akin to a Rothko. The names of Indian states are scratched out and the woman is nude, yes, but not in a tawdry way. The painting is more tasteful than most of the Bollywood dance sequences, none of which, I might add, evoke such ire from the religious radicals.

The reason that this painting is targeted is because a Muslim man has dared to depict Bharat Mata, who is traditionally viewed as a Hindu woman, thus reflecting the majority of Indians. But Mother India is beyond religion and region. Hussain has as much claim on her as Lal Krishna Advani, the former leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP. In portraying her as a distraught woman, Hussain is reflecting the sentiments of many a secular Indian. That he has done so beautifully is an added bonus. He should be lauded, not reviled, for this painting is one of his strongest.

Hussain doesn’t make it easy, I admit. He has painted nude Hindu goddesses in the past, and continued to do so in spite of widespread protests. Unlike his more reclusive contemporaries, he has allowed his eccentricities to flower to the point of caricature. The white beard, the bare feet, the flowing clothes, the cloth bag, are all portraits of this artist as a young (at heart) man. In his courtship of Bollywood beauties like Madhuri Dixit and Tabu, in his willingness to let the world into his heart and home, Hussain is perhaps more innocent than the other painters of the Progressive Artists’ Group of Mumbai. And unlike other Indian art luminaries, he took a chance on India. While his contemporaries such as Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza exiled themselves to Paris and New York respectively, Hussain remained determinedly Indian. He loved India and it loved him back.

Hussain has said in interviews that even when political parties sent mobs to destroy his home, the young men who invaded his home never touched his paintings, in spite of orders from the parties’ top brass. Such is the power of a Hussain. While the general public only remembers his controversial paintings, these are a small fraction of his body of work, which comprised other, less-controversial but equally inspiring Sufi paintings, his paintings of horses and chariots and of nameless Indians and shrouded women.

Hussain has said that he will visit India if invited. Several political parties and the home minister P Chidambaram have already asked him to return home. His son, Owais Hussain, told Arab News: “You can take him to any part of the world, but he would still remain an Indian personality.” Asked whether his father could change his mind about his citizenship, the son didn’t know. Meanwhile, masses of Indians have brought a petition that Hussain be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. But these are mere palliatives to what is essentially India’s national shame: it has lost its greatest painter.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary, a memoir about growing up in South India


In reference to Shoba Narayan’s opinion article India shamed as its greatest painter is driven abroad (March 10), it takes courage to speak out as boldly, and forthrightly, as Ms Narayan has done about Maqbool Fida Husain, a modern-day Picasso, a prophet without honour in the home of his birth. What a shame! Vernon Ram, Hong Kong

Secular India

A tolerant and secular India is a myth to make real

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 29, 2010


While the roots of Hindu-Muslim enmity in India run deep, every now and then – and dishearteningly, with increasing frequency – certain events serve as touchstones. These events become both symbols and a shorthand; a single word or phrase that encapsulates a community’s anger. For my parents’ generation, it was partition; for mine, it was Babri Masjid, the demolition of a mosque in 1992 by a large group of Hindu fundamentalists. For today’s thirty-somethings, the event was Godhra, where 59 Hindus aboard a train were burnt to death in 2002. Hundreds of both Muslims and Hindus died in the riots that followed.

The partition of India in 1947 was initiated by a small group of Muslims led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, resulting in carnage that my parents’ generation would never forget. A cycle to the violence has continued with a narrative of its own. With partition, the Muslims were at fault; at Babri Masjid, the Hindus were to blame; at Godhra, both communities were culpable. The Hindu-Muslim divide within the subcontinent has become an irreparable chasm. Or has it?

Recently, there has been reason for hope. For secular Indians such as myself, who abhor the religious sentiment that the BJP has foisted upon national politics, that party’s resounding defeat in the last elections is cause for celebration. Recently, the Liberhan Commission’s report on the Babri Masjid killings, 17 years in the making, was handed to the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh. The report indicts many of the top BJP leaders including the party boss LK Advani, who incited Hindu mobs that eventually rased the mosque. Mr Advani later called the demolition of Babri Masjid “the saddest day of my life”.

At about the time that Mr Advani solidified his status as leader of the BJP in 1988, I was a college student in America with a crush on a Muslim man. Ahmed and I tried to gauge family sentiment towards any future union by asking a rhetorical question of all our family elders:”If you could come up with a hierarchy of castes and cultures that your child could marry, what would it be?” Ahmed and I asked our parents, aunts, uncles, friends’ parents, and grandparents. The mother of my best friend, a Kashmiri Brahmin, told me that “obviously” it would be good if her daughter married a Kashmiri Brahmin. Second on the list was a Kashmiri “non-Brahmin”. Even though the caste was different, at least they would share the same language and state. Her third choice would be a North Indian, then a South Indian, then a Caucasian – perhaps someone that her daughter had fallen in love with while studying at Oxford. Jewish boys were good, then Asians, then Blacks, then Hispanics and finally, last on the list, an Indian Muslim.



This was telling because my friend’s mother had lived her entire life in Kashmir, the only Indian state with a Muslim majority. As a Brahmin in Kashmir, Sanjana’s mother had many Muslim friends, some of whom she had known for decades. Still, she preferred that her daughter marry almost anyone else but a Kashmiri Muslim. Different family members gave me different versions of this list. One uncle preferred that his son marry a black woman to a poor, white one. Some didn’t care about caste or vegetarianism. What they all shared was where Muslims appeared on their lists.

Ahmed’s family had the same opinion about Hindus. He told me that his family would oppose our union because of misconceptions about the way Hindus venerate cows. They thought we were infidels because we didn’t pray five times a day and assumed we that we were kanjoos (stingy) because we were not required to give a percentage of our income to the poor. They preferred a Caucasian bride to a Hindu one.

Both my family and Ahmed’s were sophisticated and well-travelled. Ahmed’s family was from Lucknow but lived in New York. They celebrated all the Indian holidays in a community centre, wearing saris and dancing to Bollywood tunes. They spoke Hindi at home but didn’t want their son to marry a Hindu girl. Our romance fizzled out but the way our families perceived each other has stayed with me. As a Hindu mother, I am trying to raise my two daughters without the same prejudices. Secular and tolerant India was a myth that I grew up with – one that reality frequently contradicted.

I cannot prevent the Hindu-Muslim hatred that exists in my parents’ generation but I can influence my children. I can influence the way my daughters choose their boyfriends. I can make the myth of a secular, tolerant India more of a reality.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary, a memoir about growing up in South India