Creative freedom of artists is in danger in India

On June 9, 2011, when artist M F Husain passed away in London, he was miles away from his home, the land that he so fondly spoke about in all his conversations. Friends recall how much he had wanted to return home in the years before he passed away but the threat of violence that had driven him to a self-imposed exile in 2006, at the age of 90, also prevented him from returning.

Arguably, the most recognised modern Indian artist, the maverick faced the wrath of the right wing, which alleged that his depictions of Hindu deities had outraged the community’s religious sentiments. His home and exhibitions had been ransacked and he had received multiple death threats, apart from the numerous court cases registered against him. The art community had stood by the nonagenarian but the state, perhaps, failed him. Since then, however, the limitations on artistic freedom of expression seem only to have grown. Last week, when members of right-wing groups barged into Maharaja Sayajirao University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara, Gujarat, they were on a specific hunt. They were looking for artworks they had apparently viewed on social media and found “distasteful and hurtful to religious sentiments”. One series reportedly featured cut-outs of gods and goddesses with newspaper reports of crimes against women, while another was a collage with the Ashoka pillar positioned in an “obscene manner”. Resisting the break-in, the faculty and staff of the department argued that the exhibition was still to be opened for the public to view and the display was being finalised. Speaking to the media, the dean, Jayaram Poduval, denied that the frames were part of the evaluation submissions and said that there could be a conspiracy against the faculty. It was also emphasised that the 2007 resolution would have been followed, according to which all works would have been checked and approved before the opening of the annual exhibition. The “resolution” itself was passed after a case was registered against then M S University post-graduate student Srilamanthula Chandramohan for his alleged objectionable artworks. In the recent instance, some of the defenders argued that the punishment was being meted out before a crime was committed but others raised a larger and more pertinent question: Should it at all be punishable to depict gods and goddesses? Isn’t all art open to interpretation and an artist entitled to conceptualise and create at free will?