SUDARSHAN SHETTY, Untitled, 2010, aluminium, wood, skeleton of a life-size horse. Installation view of “This Too Shall Pass” at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, 2010. Courtesy the artist.



With extensive scenes in New Delhi and Mumbai, and significant communities in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Kochi, India has become a global art force in the past decade. This is due in large part to the country’s commercial galleries, which lead the way in supporting contemporary art over historically conservative state-run museums, and in turn have spurred activity by private foundations and nonprofits.

Government support for the arts has long been contentious. Right-wing political parties and Hindu religious groups remain hostile to many 20th-century modern artists, in particular those of the Mumbai-based Progressive Artists Group. Most notoriously, MF Husain’s paintings based on stories from Indian epics have been repeatedly vandalized since the 1990s for their depiction of nude Hindu deities. In 2006, shortly after being charged with “hurting the sentiments of the people” and fearing imminent arrest, Husain went into self-imposed exile in Dubai. On February 27, Husain’s son Owais announced that the 95-year-old painter had accepted citizenship from Qatar, where he has been working on a state-sponsored project. Husain’s story questions whether the Indian state can safeguard the freedom—both public and individual—that allows the arts to flourish.

In stark comparison to the government’s equivocal response to the MF Husain controversy was the misplaced decisiveness displayed when 12 Rabindranath Tagore paintings went up for sale at Sotheby’s London in June. A small but strident section of the Bengali intelligentsia tried unsuccessfully to stop the sale, with culture minister secretary Jawhar Sircar visiting London in an alleged effort to persuade the auction house to remove the items.

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