Shock Value

For all the Arts community's grandstanding about its political value, none of its number was brave enough to protest the late, great M.F. Husain's plight

The British media did not know what to make of the sad news that M.F. Husain had died in exile in London. He was, or so journalists had heard, the greatest Indian artist of our age. He spent half the year living in London. And yet his life and work were a mystery to most arts correspondents.

The documentary maker Christopher Mitchell had tried for years to persuade a teleivsion company to commission a documentary on Husain. None would, but Mitchell generously offered the BBC’s Newsnight footage he had shot of Husain in his own time and at his own expense. Newsnight decided not to cover the story. Others who did, missed the point. They tried to persuade the audience that Husain fitted the Western stereotype of a modern artist. They drew him as an Indian Damien Hirst, a vainglorious celebrity who shocked for money.

As Standpoint showed a few months ago, (The Hounding of M.F. Husain, January) such glib assessments are untrue, and not only because Husain had a talent that so may contemporary hucksters lack. The shock value in his career was not of his own making. Hindu nationalists provided it when they hounded him with hundreds of lawsuits, attacked his home in Bombay, ransacked gallaries showing his work and drove him into exile. They went for him solely because he had been born into a Muslim family almost 100 years ago. They were determined to assert that it was blasphemous for a Muslim artist to find inspiration in the Hindu themes of the Indian cultural tradition. Their violence reached Britain, when in 2006, religious fanatics forced Asia House in London to close a major retrospective of his work.

Editors usually look for controversy the way that boozers look for brawls. The furore that Husain provoked — entirely innocently, I should add — ought to have made him famous here. But as we pointed out, the most telling aspects of the assault on the Asia House exhibition was that it raised barely a squeak of protest from the British cultural establishment. When making a stand involves tackling religious bigots, cultural contrarians, who boast of their edginess and willingness to transgress boundaries, fall into a cowardly silence. The fear of accusations of racism or prejudice shut up those who ought to have defended Husain, as surely as the fear of violent reprisals.

Hence his death in London passed almost unnoticed and the British are still waiting for a curator with the guts to put on a retrospective which will show them why the old boy deserves to be remembered. 

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