Recounting MF Husain’s court ordeals on his death anniversary

Written by Ujjawal Krishnam | Published on: June 12, 2018

On his death anniversary, we recount some unheard court moments on his most objectionable ‘Naked Painting,’ branded by Hindutva fundamentalists as ‘Bharat Mata,’ that resulted into the most cited ruling on the expression of art.


MF Hussain

The controversial artist is the one who touches exceptions and portrays the theme in its natural way. This has also been a social perception towards art maestros of modern civilization. The Picasso of India was also the only MF Husain of India, his paintings being best blends of cubism and Indian styles. It is now seven years since his passing on June 9, 2011.

On his death anniversary, we recount some unheard court moments on his most objectionable ‘Naked Painting,’ branded by Hindutva fundamentalists as ‘Bharat Mata,’ that resulted into the most cited ruling on the expression of art which included the right to paint in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution as it is the painter’s method to express his opinion and to entertain the fundamental right given by founding fathers of nation, in addition to segregating ‘Nudity’ from the ‘Obscenity.’

Earlier in the case of Sakal Papers (P) Ltd. v. Union of India, Mudholkar, J. said:
This Court must be ever vigilant in guarding perhaps the most precious of all the freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution, The reason for this is obvious. The freedom of speech and expression of opinion is of paramount importance under a democratic Constitution which envisages changes in the composition of legislatures and governments and must be preserved.

Court orders as suchto protect the fundamental rights of Indian citizens have for sure enriched our democracy and made it a vibrant one. But developments on such peripheries are observed when exceptions are exempted and law-abiding citizens are strained by the rigid social cult. For instance, in 2007, the infamous ‘Obscenity row’ thrilled Vadodara resulting in charges on artist Srilamanthula Chandramohan for drawing nude paintings of Jesus and Durga. Chandramohan, a final year postgraduate student at Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU Baroda was also denied his degree against the right of artistic expression.

This was one chapter on legal suits against an artist and followed by many such prejudices in his career, a humiliated MF Husain was forced to knock the door of Delhi High Court at the age of 92, three years before he died in exile.

In the landmark judgement of Delhi High Court in the favour of maestro Husain, delivered on May 8, 2008, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul read the order by quoting Picasso:
Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.

The judgement further read:
•Art, to every artist, is a vehicle for personal expression. An aesthetic work of art has the vigour to connect to an individual sensory, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. With a 5000-year-old culture, Indian Art has been rich in its tapestry of ancient heritage right from the medieval times to the contemporary art adorned today with each painting having a story to narrate.

•Ancient Indian art has been never devoid of eroticism where sex worship and graphical representation of the union between man and woman has been a recurring feature.1 The sculpture on the earliest temples of 'Mithuna' image or the erotic couple in Bhubeneshwar, Konarak and Puri in Orissa (150-1250 AD); Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh (900-1050 AD); Limbojimata temple at Delmel, Mehsana (10th Century AD); Kupgallu Hill, Bellary, Madras; and Nilkantha temple at Sunak near Baroda to name a few. These and many other figures are taken as cult figures in which rituals related to Kanya and Kumari worship for progeny gained deep roots in early century A.D. Even the very concept of 'Lingam' of the God Shiva resting in the centre of the Yoni, is in a way representative of the act of creation, the union of Prakriti and Purusha. The ultimate essence of a work of ancient Indian erotic art has been religious in character and can be enunciated as a state of heightened delight or ananda, the kind of bliss that can be experienced only by the spirit.

Justice Kaul agreed that the art is coming of an age and India having embraced different eras and civilizations gives her a colour of mystery and transformation into her glorious past adapting various cultures and art forms. The murals and miniatures from the Mughal period also depicted mating couples and it has been the beauty of our land.

Art and authority have never had a difficult relationship until recently. In fact, art and artists used to be patronized by various kings and the elite class.  Unfortunately, the works of many artists today who have tried to play around with nudity have come faced severe scrutiny and rejection. Justice Kaul also in his 2016 judgement on Prof. Murugan noted that drawing a conclusion by handpicking things to suit personal objectives of hypersensitivity is the injustice to the heart of the theme with which an artist sketches the nuances. The aim of the judiciary has been to arrive at a decision that would protect the "quality of life" without making "closed mind" a principal feature of an open society or an unwilling recipient of information the arbiter to veto or restrict freedom of speech and expression.
Shashi Tharoor also welcomed the verdict, he noted:
The landmark judgement on a number of petitions submitted by the great Indian painter Maqbool Fida (MF) Husain, not only ensures that justice has been done to an authentic national icon, but contains observations that are both refreshing and true about the role of art in our society which I hope will guide our national discourse on this vexed subject in the future.

The judgement not only provided justice to MF Husain but also set a legal line in defence of art to fall under 292 of Indian Penal Code(IPC,) 1860 which will keep benefitting artists against socio-political vendettas. The court order remarkably differentiates how nudity can't be obscene, it reads:

•MF Husain’s creativity in the painting is evident from the manner in which he by way of a tear and ruffled, unkempt, open hair of the woman tried to portray the sad and the dispirited face of our nation who seems to have suffered a great deal of anguish and agony. A woman's sorrow has been described by the way the woman is lying with her eyes closed, with one arm raised on her face and a tear dropping from the eye. The object of painting the woman in nude is also part of the same expression and is obviously not to stimulate the viewer's prurience but instead to shake up the very conscious of the viewer and to invoke in him, empathy for India and abhorrence for the culprits. The person who may view the painting is likely to react in tears, silence or analogous to the same but no way near the feelings of lust. There can be many interpretations of the painting. One of the interpretations to it can be to show the disconsolate India which is entangled in various problems like corruption, criminalisation, the crisis of leadership, unemployment, poverty, overpopulation, low standard of living, fading values and ethics etc. The other can be that Bharat Mata is perhaps just used as a metaphor for being so bereft because of the earthquake which occurred around the time when this painting was made. Other than this, the bold use of colour and the depiction of the great range of Himalayas by way of the hair flowing of the women restore the artistic touch in the painting.

•An attempt to understand the said painting from the artist'perspective would show how the painter by way of an abstract expression has tried to elucidate the concept of a nation in the form of a distressed woman. No doubt, the concept of a nation has had a long association with the idea of motherhood but just because the artist has expressed it in nude does not make the painting obscene per se thereby satisfying the test that nudity or sex alone cannot be said to be obscene. If the painting is looked as a whole, it would reveal that the revulsion referred to by learned Counsel for the respondents of patriotic nationals would not arise for the reason that except the fact that it is in nude, there is nothing which can be considered as pinching to the eye. As a matter of fact, the aesthetic touch to the painting dwarfs the so-called obscenity in the form of nudity and renders it so picayune and insignificant that the nudity in the painting can easily be overlooked.

It has been a decade since this judgement came into inception but its vocalism can still be felt on an artist’s paintbrush who feels protected by law to serve his duty to his brethren and his nation at his best. In a large democracy like ours, it is impossible to fill everyone’s cup with sheer satisfaction, so there is a law to protect everyone’s right to opine within large boundaries of constitutional righteousness. But there are few who come forward to practise their rights without any fear. Undeniably, MF Husain was one of them. The significant judgment is regularly cited in the favour of artists and their artistic expressions and it can be credited to MF Husain whose horses like Alice Munro’s Clara have covered meadows, trenches and hidden catacombs and have raised an invincible cadre of jockeys who ride on these horses to bring justice and beauty towards art practices.

Edward Hopper once said, "Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist.” Husain was a liberated soul who not only understood the ultimate sense of art but also the essence of human rights. He was charismatic and an immortal artist. Such artists have prolific voices that never go silent. They echo and generate ripples for generations to come.

“I only give expression to the instincts from my soul. They can put me in a jungle, still, I can create”
-Maqbool Fida Husain( 1915 - 2011)

The Author is a research scholar at The MS University of Baroda and serves as an editor to Academia.edu and WikiProjects.