Arun Shouries Articles

Weak to the Strong, Strong to the Weak | May 28, 2008

Arun Shourie
In painting Goddess Saraswati naked M.F. Hussein, his secularist advocates argue, is merely exercising his Fundamental Right to freedom of expression, he is merely giving form to his artistic, creative urge. The first question is: How come the freedom and creative urge of the thousands and thousands of artists our country has have never led even one of them to ever paint or draw a picture of Prophet Muhammad in which his face is manifest? I am not on the point of dress or undress, the features could have been made as celestial and handsome as our artists could have imagined — why is it that they never got the urge to draw or sculpt even the handsomest representation of the Prophet?

The rationalization is that doing so would have hurt the religious sentiments of the Muslims, the Prophet himself having forbidden all representations. The reason, as distinct from the rationalization, is different: were an artist to make such a representation Muslims would be ignited by their controllers to riot, they would not let that artist live in peace thereafter.

Notice first that in the lexicon of those who are shouting for Hussein the point about not hurting religious sentiments manifestly does not apply to the Hindus: in their case the alternate principle of the right of the artist to paint as he pleases takes precedence. The Hindus notice this duality more and more.

Indeed they notice the length to which some are prepared to exercise their right to give full rein to their creative urge, disregarding what Hindus might feel as a consequence. As recently as August last year, the art gallery of the INDIA TODAY group, ART TODAY held an exhibition of “modern Indian miniatures”. Prominent among the paintings on display was one that showed a naked ( that is, completely naked ) Radha astride a naked ( that is, completely naked ) Lord Krishna — the two fornicating in a garden. Posters with this painting prominently featured were put up inviting viewers to the gallery. The August, 1995 issue of the magazine, INDIA TODAY carried an advertisement — urging readers to purchase prints of paintings which were on display at the gallery, the advertisement too featured prominently the same painting of Radha laying Lord Krishna in a garden. Some persons protested. No one heeded them. A demonstration was then held outside the gallery, the demonstrators entered the gallery. The painting was taken down. Friends who heard of the incident denounced the demonstrators: “Hindu bigots”, “The saffron brigade on the look-out for issues,” “Fascist goons who want to impose their constipated brand of Hinduism on everyone.” To establish the principle, and even more to demonstrate the scorn in which they held “these goons” another publication, ‘The India Magazine’, as demonstrative about its secular credentials, put that very painting on its cover. That this was done with full knowledge that doing so was likely to offend others is evident from the fact that, simultaneously with putting the painting on the cover, the person most prominently associated with ‘The India Magazine’ applied for anticipatory bail.

Now, the collections of hadis contain scores and scores of descriptions of the Prophet, as they contain accounts — accounts in the words and on the testimony of the Prophet’s wives themselves — about his relations with his wives; how is it that none of our artists have ever felt the creative urge to portray even accurately any of those descriptions, to say nothing of these magazines ever inviting their readers to purchase colorful reproductions of the paintings or putting the paintings on their covers and posters. Indeed I have not the least doubt that if they received even an article — which, after all, can never be as tantalizing as a Hussein painting — an article which did no more than reproduce verbatim those accounts, they would refuse to print it: all the great principles about not hurting the religious sentiments of others, all the provisions of law — sections 153A, 295A, 298 — will be invoked in justification. But when it comes to a painting of a naked Radha astride a naked Lord Krishna fornicating in a garden, carrying it in advertisements, putting that on the cover is a Fundamental Right, to object to it is to throttle an artist’s right to give expression to his creative urge.

It is not the freedom of expression these worthies are committed to. They are committed to their having freedom alone: can you recall a single liberal protesting against the ban on Ram Swarup’s Understanding Islam Through Hadis — a book so scrupulously academic that it was but a paraphrase of the Sahih Muslim, one of the canonical compilations of hadis — to say nothing of any one of them deigning to put in a word against goondas — claiming to represent the Muslims — who tried to get at me in Hyderabad or the goondas — claiming to speak for the other lot these worthies champion, the “Dalits” — who did get at me in Pune? Not one deigned to do so. They are not the champions and practitioners of free speech, they are the practitioners of a very special brand of the dialectic: Strong to the weak, Weak to the strong. And that is what the Hindus are noticing: neither the gallery nor the magazine spared a thought for the religious sentiments it might offend till the “goons” marched into the gallery, but they had but to march in and the painting was immediately taken down; Hussein was all defiance one day, but the moment some paintings of his were burnt, he was suddenly sorry….

“But nude representations are a part of our tradition. Look at Konark, look at Khajuraho,” the advocates have been shouting. But what has the figure of a woman being had by a dog in Konark have to do with worship ? What basis is there for declaring the women portrayed there are Saraswati or Sita or Lakshmi ? And then, as a reader points out, there is the other consideration : depicting women completely naked has for centuries been very much a part of European painting and sculpture tradition; but do the artists not stop at using this tradition for portraying Virgin Mary naked?

And as for Saraswati being depicted naked, her image is set out in our iconography, in the mantras by which we invoke her; in all these she is referred to as “….yaa shubhra vastraavritaa….”, as one “draped in white”. That white dress draping her is one of the four distinguishing marks of representations of Goddess Saraswati — the other three being that she holds beads in one hand, a book in another and the vina in a third.

“But I have every right to portray her as I will,” a secular friend protested when I repeated to him this iconographic description to which one of the best known and sagacious authorities on our art had drawn my attention. Assume you do, but then you can’t simultaneously claim that what you are doing is in accord with that tradition. Second, if painting Goddess Saraswati naked is an intrinsic part of our tradition because sundry women have been depicted naked and fornicating in Khajuraho and Konark, then, my dear friend, what about the Dasham Granth of Guru Govind Singh and its 300 treyi chitra? How come not one of you has ever been stirred by his creative urge to put on canvas any of those — most vivid and vigourous — pen-portraits? Is the work of Guru Govind Singh any less a part of the Sikh tradition than the Gita Govind? What about the scores and scores of hadis I mentioned earlier ? Alongside the Quran, they are not just any old element of Islam, they are the very foundation. Let us see you affirm the right of artists to depict images — not imagined ones, not ones that depart from the mantras as the painting in question does, just the most scrupulously faithful and exact images — of what is described therein.

The next argument of our artists and intellectuals is just as much a manufacture of convenience: “All our religions, everything about our past is the common heritage of all of us, it belongs to each of us equally,” they have been saying. This presumably has been done to preempt those who would say that Hussein is particularly in the wrong to have painted Hindu goddesses naked because he is a Muslim. Fine. But how come so many of you are up in arms when I write on Islamic law? In particular, how come you work up such a fury even though, unlike a painter, I am not conjuring up an image and am instead documenting every single sentence and paragraph with the exact text of the sacred works of Islam? What happens at that time to this principle of all our religions and everything in our past being the common heritage that belongs to each one of us equally? Then these very magazines and intellectuals are full of sanctimonious sermons: If members of one religion start commenting on the practices and beliefs of other religions, there will be hell to pay, they proclaim.

It is this double-standard which outrages the Hindus more and more, it is this which these inchoate outbursts are revolts against.

Many Hindus also notice the other thing — the one I mentioned as the reason as against the rationalization for no artist ever being galvanized by the creative urge when it comes to painting the features of the Prophet. They notice that the artists do not do so, not because these masters cannot do so, nor because their muse never goads them in this direction, but because they know that, were they to do so, they would be set upon. And that the State — which is weak, and which also has internalized the same double-standards to rationalize its weakness — will not come to their rescue. Therefore, more and more Hindus are concluding that we too should acquire the same reputation, we too should acquire the same capacity. In a word, three things are teaching the Hindus to become Islamic: the double-standards of the secularists and the State, the demonstrated success of the Muslims in bending both the State and the secularists by intimidation, and the fact that both the State and the secularists pay attention to the sentiments of Hindus only when the Hindus become a little Islamic.

The secularists’ shout, “But these things destroy the very basis of our culture.” The Hindus see that argument as being no better than the Devil quoting the Scripture, or, to put it in words the secularists would find more persuasive, than my quoting the Quran: for they know that these are the very persons who have been deriding them for living a life rooted in that culture, they are the ones who have been denouncing that culture and every thing associated with it — the idols, the beliefs, the rituals — as being nothing but devices which the Brahmins have forged to perpetuate inequity, to perpetuate exploitation of the poor masses.

The arguments of the secularists therefore are mere pretense. Yet I believe that it was plain wrong to break the window-panes and burn the paintings. Free speech is vital for our country. If it is curbed, what will be killed is not a painting but reform — for all reform offends as it is a voice against the way things are at that moment. I believe that even if one’s singular concern is Hinduism and its rehabilitation, free speech is the best guarantee: the more Eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and others — are subjected to critical inquiry the more their luminescent essence shines forth; by contrast the Semitic religions — down to Marxism-Leninism — wither at the first exposure to exegesis and inquiry: and the controllers of these religions have been very conscious of this, that is why they have for centuries together put inquiry down with a lethal hand. The twin principles which the champions of Hussein’s right to paint as he will have been proclaiming are the exact pincer which will work — the principle that there must be freedom of speech and that every religion, and the principle that every aspect of our past is the common heritage of each of us equally. All we should ensure is that these principles hold good for all equally. And when someone paints like Hussein did in this instance, instead of burning his paintings we should use them to document the double-standards which mar current policies and discourse, and demand that either the standard apply to all or to none. Thus : education, not burning; parity, not suppression.

In Hussein’s case in particular, I feel that the youngsters who took offence missed a very vital point — not just about his painting but about his life. He is and has continued to be a Muslim. Now, as anyone who has read anything about the Prophet knows, the Prophet cursed and detested those who made representations of things. He put pictures at par with dogs, and, remember, he had all dogs killed. “The angels do not enter a house,” he declared on the authority of the angel, Gabriel, “which contains a dog or pictures.” Abu Huraira, the source of a large proportion of the hadis, states that God’s Messenger narrated that Gabriel had promised to visit him one day but didn’t turn up, and so, when he came the next day, the Prophet inquired as to what had happened. Gabriel, the Prophet narrated, said, “I came to you last night and was prevented from entering simply by the fact that there were images at the door, for there was a figured curtain with images on it and there was a dog in the house. So, order that the head of the image which is at the door of the house be cut off so that it may become like the form of a tree; order that the curtain be cut up and made into two cushions spread out on which people may tread; and order that the dog be put out.” “God’s Messenger,” the hadis concludes, “then did so.” His wife, Aisha tells us, “The Prophet never left in his house anything containing figures of a cross without destroying it.” She recalls how the Prophet reprimanded her for two cushions she had made because they contained pictures. The Prophet declared that those who made representations of things “will receive the severest punishment on the day of resurrection,” that “Everyone who makes representations of things will go to hell.” He declared them to be “the worst of God’s creatures.” He put them at par with “the one who kills a prophet, or who is killed by a prophet, or kills one of his parents.” [ Several other hadis, and of course several instances can be cited; for the few which have been quoted see, Mishkat Al-Masabih, Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore, Volume II, Book XXI, Chapter V, pp. 940-44. ]

Hussein on the contrary has made painting images his very life. Therefore, in a very deep sense, his entire life is an endeavour to open an aperture in that wall of prohibitions. It has been a banner for liberalism, indeed for liberation.

In sum, I am for Hussein, not for his champions;

The position which Hussein’s champions have taken up is just the one which our society needs;

We should hold them to their word, and have them stick by it in the case of one and all;

And we should await the day when their muse will lead them to exercise their creative urge, “that one talent which is death to hide,” paint as freely and with as much abandon themes from all our religions and traditions.

Finally, a forecast : the more the secularists insist on double-standards, the more Islamic will the Hindus become.

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