Reclaim the female gaze Hussain from the front stall

Published: Mon, 05/10/2010 - 07:19 Updated: Tue, 05/11/2010 - 06:07

A not-so-clinical rethink from a feminist perspective on Hussain's condemnation and exile, and the Hindu goddesses on his canvas
Pallavi Paul Delhi

The last late night show. A forgotten, mossy, single-screen theatre. The burgers are too oily here and the popcorn never warm. A balding carpet smells of wood, spit, chips, sugar, plastic and hands. The man sitting behind me snores a musical snore, with high and low notes in place. In the corners some heads move involuntarily to a rhythm which bodies of lovers instinctively recognise, from other films seen in other rooms filled with blue, gauzy light.

 Everyone else is watching with rapt attention, the terribly overplayed drama of a good-hearted practising Muslim in search of a man who can not only solve all his problems but also those of the rest of the world - the one, the only, president of the USA! 
Killer story, for the 'sensitive types' and the 'liberal upwardly mobile republics' of the PVRs. But for the last show, single screen, front row  scum? Really?

As my stomach growls, something that my best friend once said suddenly hits me, "I can't believe how everyone can sit in a dark room and watch something in complete silence!" All these people could have been anywhere, doing anything - eating dinner (it's past 11pm), sleeping (barely at day break, overcrowded, rickety buses take workers to far away factories),or simply talking! Instead, they are here. Getting sucked deeper and deeper into this dream, where prices start at Rs 30 onwards. Unlike the multiplexes.

These dreams on a single screen, I realise in a flash of clarity, make the poorest sit closest to them, appearing even larger than the promised 70mm. Dreams that try to overpower and numb imaginations lest they start inventing dreams of their own; dreams in which presidents don't matter and disability doesn't have to be extraordinary. The rich, in contrast, get to sit at a considerable distance. Distance that gives them 'perspective, judgment, taste and understanding'. All this, so they can tell 'serious' from 'mass', 'cinema' from 'entertainment'.

The fun obviously is that this no fun, top down, set in stone blueprint is violated left, right and centre. Those meant to be overpowered and intimidated stand up and hoot, whistle and howl, critique and love, embrace and reject, laugh and cry, do everything that disrupts the judgment of those watching from the balconies above.

These lines between front stalls and balconies which can tell the good from the bad, the desirable from the acceptable, are lines that can be used to understand most discourse about art in public spaces. Who can talk and who can't, who can understand and who just can't, who can attack and who must defend?

In this respect, the most interesting and contemporary is the debate around MF Hussain. 

Widely discussed, defended and attacked, his artistic work has become one of the axes on which the tolerance of the Indian State and civil society can be graded. As Monica Juneja writes in Reclaiming the Public Sphere: Hussain's portrayals of Saraswati and Draupadi, "...the arguments and positions advanced in this debate have tended to posit a series of oppositions - between the freedom of an artist and the 'sensibilities' of a community, between virtue and obscenity, between an elite of the intellectuals and the 'common man', between a harmonious composite definition of 'Indianess' and a homogenising exclusivist definition that represses all strains of cultural plurality..."

The opening of Juneja's paper is an excellent summing up of the threads around which the 'Hussain controversy' has been debated since the first Rightwing tirade against him by 'Vichaar Mimansa', which carried a piece by one Om Nagpal titled,  Ye kasai ya chitrakar? (Is he a butcher or an artist?). The title not only mobilised deeply communal stereotypes about Hussain's religion but also played up the irreconcilable binary between the 'intellectual' and the 'savage'. It derided nudity in Hussain's paintings calling his depictions of Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge) vulgar, demeaning and deeply offensive to 'Hindu sensibilities'. 

What has followed since is violence, vandalism, name-calling, attacks on places that exhibit his work, several cases against Hussain all over India, even, allegedly, announcement of exorbitant premiums for anyone who can come back with his severed head. After having lived in exile for more than a decade, the painter has finally accepted the citizenship of Qatar. 

About his own work, Hussain says, "...I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva's thigh, with his hand on her breast - the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to?" At another point, he says, "...We are all part of a large family and when a child breaks something at home, you don't throw him out, you try and explain things to him. Yeh aapas ka mamla hai. (This is a family matter.) Those opposed to my art just do not understand it. Or have never seen it." 

Those who support Hussain and his art talk of him as only a part of a larger tradition of art which uses nudity and Hindu mythology as artistic tropes. Rightwing attacks on him are condemned as representing an exclusivist vision of who can or cannot be mainstreamed as a citizen, more so, be in playful engagement with the collapsible categories of religion and nationalism. His exile from India and the Indian State's inability to protect him has been mourned as the loss of an artist whose aesthetics and politics were not meant to offend anyone; they were, in fact, the celebration of the creative, pluralist 'tradition', 'secularism' and the 'spirit of tolerance' of India as it were.

These are the broad markers that inform the debate. Before I begin to look at them more closely, I must admit that within it my position is that of the typical front-staller, a young student with no understanding of modern art, no idea about tones, colours, textures or the 'essential' markers of 'great art'. If a comment on aesthetic merit were the reason for this intervention then this should have been my last sentence. Further, what does not help is that the artist at hand is much bigger than many 70mms put together. Internationally celebrated, widely admired, and by now forever canonised.

 In such sharply polarised contexts where one's loyalties are quickly called to test, it's crucial to see how both sides of the debate apply, over and over again. This concerns a barely 60-year-old plus idea of the Indian nation-state, its triumphs and failures, to a consciousness which precedes it by nearly three decades. 

Born in 1915, Hussain must have been 32 at the time of the creation of the 'Indian' State - over the years responsible for the cruelest reversal, for many, of the dreams of the freedom movement. Moreover, the departure from secularism as an 'aberration' in an otherwise 'tolerant' history is in itself naïve in a context where the birth was followed by a carnival of blood spurting and mass exodus, though it was described by Nehru as an "awakening" to "light" and "freedom".

There must therefore be another question, another story we must look for in Hussain. This one seems over explicated, yet inadequate. 

In the centre of the attacks on Hussain is the revelation which dictates the limits of how much a woman can be seen in public places, whether in representations or reality. Where the body is the training ground of the spirit, a spirit which learns to never ask any questions of its body. Sacrilege befalls when the body in question is sacred, that which ought to have all markers of the human form but none whatsoever of human desire. So when the goddess becomes just like any other bare-breasted poster girl deciding to play coy, hundreds of men rise to the challenge of playing the protective patriarch and set her right. 

Scholars have argued how Hussain's depictions have come under attack as they make upper-caste Hindu patriarchy uneasy. This must indeed be true of a religious and social ethos that would rather burn and kill women at their husbands' death pyres than run the risk of having them desert 'virtue'. But a question that glides between the oils on a coarse, white and starched canvas is that whether Hindu upper-caste patriarchy is the only sort of patriarchy there is? Is the desire to cover up women and keep them in the confines of a house, the only way in which it functions? 

John Berger in his delightful book, Ways of Seeing, writes about female nudes: "...Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own..." These words come back again and again as I see Hussain's most attacked and by extension the most defended work.

His depiction of Bharat Mata as a naked woman, her knees bent and hands stretched to one side to create the semblance of the map of India. From her hair rise the Himalayas, in the curves of her full-ish torso rests the Ashok Chakra from the Indian flag. Like most other patriarchal nationalists, Hussain too implicates the body of the woman within the body of the nation. The 'nation' must be identified and glorified through representations of its geography - its mountains and rivers, plains and plateaus. As the woman must be 'seen' and appropriated through her 'body', the real only too willing to fill in for the imaginary.

His Ramayana painting: a naked Sita sitting on the lap of a naked Ravana, while Hanuman, also naked, trying to rescue her. To think within Berger's motif of need fulfillment, it reinstates and reinvigorates the dominant and repressive need to divide good and bad, virtue and degradation, man and woman. In the painting, Sita is seen by the spectator crouching in withdrawal from the menacing Ravana painted in black, while Hanuman aggressively bares his teeth as he is about to attack. What is 'spectacularised' is the masculine duel being undertaken for a woman, who in this painting as in the source of its inspiration has nothing to fear but her own body - site of the honour which once clouded in suspicion can never be reclaimed.

Finally, before trying to round off this front-staller's enquiry, it is important to mention Hussain's aesthetics as being significantly tied up with the idea of a 'muse'. The muse who inspires his gaze, eggs him on to create and whose only ambition ought to forever want to be worthy of being looked at, even at the cost of becoming invisible in his larger artistic universe.

Often on mornings I wake up with half-dreamt, half-forgotten, half- remembered dreams. Sometimes I close my eyes and pretend to sleep trying to dream what I want all the way through to the end. It makes me understand like nothing else the joy of freedom, creativity and hope. The freedom that every artist must have, to create, to be able to espouse any kind of politics irrespective of who or what its threatening, the freedom to speak out; also, the freedom to be silent. As important as this is the freedom to be able to question all kinds of art, irrespective of whether it's internationally celebrated or completely unknown.

The space for progressive and democratic questioning is shrinking because loud and dangerous attacks must be kept at bay and dealt with first - this is a failure of our times. It is in keeping these spaces alive, not letting our front stalls disappear into 'all balcony' PVRs, that our struggles must be directed at. 

The writer is a student at Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

A not-so-clinical rethink from a feminist perspective on Hussain’s condemnation and exile, and the Hindu goddesses on his canvas
Pallavi Paul Delhi

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