MF HUSAIN. Photo by Kiran Valipa Venkat from Flickr.

Indian Modernist Cleared of All Charges


On September 9, the Supreme Court of India announced they had dismissed all charges brought against internationally renowned artist MF Husain. Led by Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan, the Supreme Court upheld the decision made in May by a Delhi High Court to dismiss three obscenity cases filed in 2006 against the artist by Hindu fundamentalists outraged by Husain’s paintings of nude Hindu gods and goddesses.

“What a great gift,” said the artist, who turned 93 later in the same month, “At last they have understood the dignity of Indian contemporary art.” He added, “This is not a victory for me only but for the Indian contemporary art movement.”

Friend and fellow artist Tyeb Mehta, despite his ill health, released a statement congratulating Husain. “The Supreme Court has lifted what was a national shame,” said Mehta, “I’m very happy for Husain and for the artist community.”

The controversy surrounding Husain’s paintings now spans two decades. In 1996, a monthly Hindi magazine, Vichar Mimansa, published an article entitled “M.F. Husain: A Painter or Butcher.” The magazine reproduced several of Husain’s paintings from the 1970s showing nude Hindu deities, sparking widespread and often violent protests. In 1998, Shiv Sainiks, members of the militant, Hindu-nationalist political party Shiv Sena, ransacked the artist’s Mumbai home, and since then Husain’s exhibitions and auctions of his work have been repeatedly vandalized.           

In August, India’s fledgling art fair, Indian Art Summit, opened without any works by the legendary painter. Although culture minister Ambika Soni decried the omission, saying that an event with Husain’s paintings “will not reflect the true art scenario of India,” when she inaugurated the three-day-long festival, which opened August 22. Venice Biennale 2007 curator Robert Storr, also in attendance, echoed many critics’ complaints about censorship after the fair decided to skirt controversy.

In protest, an event called the Husain Art Summit was organized by Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) at the Vithal Bhai Patel House, with photographs of the artist and prints of his work. The show was destroyed by 10 vandals on Sunday, August 24. One of the primary organizers of the show, photographer Ram Rahman, noted the lack of security provided by Delhi police and pledged not to be intimidated by further protests. In defiance, SAHMAT extended their exhibition for another two days.

Since receiving death threats from right-wing groups in 2006, Husain has lived in self-imposed exile in London and Dubai. With his obscenity charges fully dismissed, the artist expresses his desire to return home to India. “I want to have khus chai at an Irani cafe in Mumbai and eat jalebi sitting on the Cricket Club of India lawns,” he said. Husain’s friends have called upon the government to provide security to the artist when, and if, he returns.