Many people ask this question:
Why did M F Husain NOT paint Muslim icons in nude? Why did he paint only Hindu gods in nude?
To start with, I believe that answering such a question is a foolish exercise. Artists do lot of things which ordinary people cannot comprehend or understand. Picasso and Dali did lot of bizarre things. It is a pointless exercise to try to understand the motives of an artist or a poet. But since M F Husain’s paintings of nude Hindu goddesses has allegedly ‘hurt’ so many Hindus in India and abroad, we might as well waste some time to understand why he might have painted Hindu goddesses in nude, but not Muslim figures in nude.
Before you read this further, let me make it clear that no explanation that I provide here would give the actual reasons why he painted Hindu gods in nude, and this exercise is only an attempt to make those Hindus understand who are otherwise quite rational and liberal in outlook but have the same nagging question as the one above.
For all we know, may be MF Husain was doing what every other artisan in India did for centuries – conform to the practices already in vogue, and not deviate from those practices by a lot. It is a common practice that an artisan who works on Hindu temples sculpts Hindu goddesses in nude and then goes to work on a mosque to etch Arabic texts onto the walls. That practice happened for centuries in India, where the local artisans were both Hindus and Muslims working on both temples and mosques.
Traditionally, most Hindu female icons were portrayed in nude for all our history, including the modern times. Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati were all portrayed in nude with big breasts, narrow waists, and prominent nipples. Even the contemporary artists have sculpted Saraswati in nude. M F Husain differed from the other artists who sculpted our Hindu temples in the sense that he was actually being very conservative. He did not portray Hindu goddesses in the same voluptuousness as other artists. He made his nude goddesses less erotic than those found in most Hindu temples and museums. His nude Sita or nude Saraswati does not evoke eroticism but rather sadness.
Many artisans, both Hindu and Muslim, took small liberties in carving their statues, and that can be seen in the variations across the temples in India. At the most, M F Husain might have used his artistic freedom to expand the horizons only a bit further than what most artisans do, but I don’t think he went really bizarre in his creative expression. The Indian in him has still constrained him to be a conservative artist.
Coming to Islam, traditionally, it has no practice of painting human figures, and even if they do, they do it quite conservatively. Any experienced artisan while working on a mosque would concentrate on intricate designs that mosques look for, and not nude pictures.
We don’t look at the mosques and ask the artisan why he did not paint nude gods and goddesses in that mosque. In the same way, we don’t look at temples and punish the artisan for sculpting nude goddesses, even when the artisan is a Muslim. That prevailing practice might be what M F Husain embraced.
Some Hindus believe that there was some kind of malignant intention when M F Husain painted Hindu icons in nude. They believe it has to do with his religious fanaticism. They believe that M F Husain being a Muslim has deliberately painted Hindu goddesses in nude to insult Hindus and Hinduism.
There’s no end to such far-fetched interpretations seeped in bigotry and prejudice. Knowing M F Husain from his speeches and interviews, it becomes clear that he celebrates India and its traditions. He was a lover of what India is. And in his India, the artisan, whether he is Hindu or Muslim, painted Hindu goddesses in nude, just the way so many temples around him depict them. M F Husain celebrated the India that he saw. If you happen to be that Hindu who went to a temple and shut your eyes each time you saw nude Hindu goddess – tough luck.
While the conservative lot visit the regular temples and see their gods dressed in modern sarees, some of us visit the other temples to see our gods naked prancing in each other’s arms, sometimes copulating and making love. The conservative lot may look the other way when they see Shiva holding Parvati in his lap to tweak one of her nipples, but some of us look at the same statues boldly to celebrate how liberal Hinduism is.
These other Hindus may want to close their eyes to such reality and believe that M F Husain did what he did only to piss off Hindus. There is no limit to how peevish Indians can be. We Indians can get peevish about almost anything anyone does and call it an insult. When served non-veg in foreign nations, we get peevish, when joked about Indians, we get peevish. We can get ruffled very easily, and that’s what is happening here. When you want grow as a great nation, you have to allow yourself to be criticized. Instead, we stop every nation and every citizen from criticizing India or Indians.
Some people ask me:
Why do you expect Hindus to be tolerant and not ask other religions to be tolerant?
Well, my answer is simple. I am not exhorting Hindus to be more tolerant. I am exhorting them to open their eyes and understand Hinduism as it is. The beauty of Hinduism is that it is not the same for everyone. I exhort them to go and see various temples in India, instead of closing their eyes. I ask them to visit some museums and see Shiva tweaking Parvati’s nipple. Some of these sculptures might have been done my Muslims back then. Should we go about destroying those statues just because we find out it was done by a Muslim sculptor?
Some people complain that while the temples were commissioned by a Hindu patron, these paintings by M F Husain are not. I believe that it is a mere technicality. What if we find out that most of M F Husain’s paintings are commissioned by various patrons? Are we ready to absolve him of all his crimes?
M F Husain is no different from thousands of Muslim artisans who came before him. Many of them sculpted nude goddesses in temples. If a Muslim artisan sculpts a nude Hindu goddess in nude, then he is not called a religious fanatic. He is called an artisan, who did his job well, who is trying to make a living by drawing and sculpting those things which are considered standard practices. M F Husain is just a refined and sophisticated artist, who was getting paid by patrons for the work he did; and he conformed to the mores of our times, not deviated from it.