Home > Uncategorized > M.F. Husain: Horses and Horse Sense

M.F. Husain: Horses and Horse Sense

“… that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of time, our selves the difference of masks.”                        Michel Foucault on archeological analysis of history.

Horses and Horse Sense.

Art is not only creative but also disruptive. So was MF Husain’s art.

The unconscious & conscious scripts that run our lives come embedded in intricate ways in everyday reality. The discourse that sustains our world view is not in any one place that is easily located. It is pervasive. It is in the people you see around you. It is in the significant others who introduce you to it. It is in those that reinforce it through ever so subtle systems of reward and disapproval. It is in our books, in our mores, customs and beliefs, in the laws that we live by and in the moral code by which we judge ourselves and others. It is also in our politics, in our conflicts, in our debate & discussions. Its ubiquity is such that most of us forget it is even there!  This discourse is sustained by an equally pervasive power structure that both creates & evolves with the discourse – be it the power of the Sate, the education system, religion, personal influence, whatever – each reinforcing the other.

If art is disruptive it is because it challenges the power that backs the discourse as much as the discourse itself. When Husain rendered the Gods in the buff he hit upon a singularity in our discourse that exposed multiple fault lines.

Husain showed our discourse is flawed.  We could not fully accept that an artist has the right to inspect the metaphor in which we represent our mythology. We treat our Gods as near human but cannot accept their humanity. He showed our basic social contract embodied in the Constitution is flawed.  His art was banned on grounds of a religiosity that has no place under a secular constitution. He showed our fundamental right to expression wanting. We were unable to honour his right to free expression. He showed our commitment to rule of law wanting. We were unable to protect his fundamental right to liberty & property. He showed we were a flawed State that could be subverted by a handful of people who didn’t care either for our system or its laws. Above all he showed us up as an effete State that lacked the gumption to stand up to its professed ideals. The list could go on. Did he intend all this?  One doesn’t know and in the final analysis it doesn’t matter.  What matters is the reality of the fault-lines he exposed, with & through, his art.

How do we discover and map a discourse? We are a part of the discourse, an object that itself is created by the discourse and known to us only through that discourse. How do we then rise above it or make it accessible to ourselves? Why is the point of singularity, where our discourse dissolves in face of its own logic & inconsistency, that important? Singularities in a sense are gaps in the fabric of the discourse where the discourse reveals itself to us by its sheer absence – through it lack of logical consistency. It is at these points we realize that the invisible hand of an unseen master is no longer available to guide us through the maze. These are points at which we are forced to think about our options & possibilities.  It is at these points of discontinuity that we not only meet our discourse but also become aware of the ubiquity & pervasiveness of the power that backs the discourse. It is here that we face the power which was all along there but of which we were blissfully unaware. A few individuals in a given population have the mental make-up to rise above the discourse, to get a bird’s eye of the entire discourse & to identify which strands of it have got hopelessly entangled as we learn more & more about reality that the discourse represents to us.  For the discourse is not the reality; nor is it the only possible representation of it. Indeed there is no reality independent of our discourse. But we can experience reality only through our discourse and when we do, it is our discourse that parses and organizes reality for us.

Those few that are able to spot the singularities we call intellectuals.  Artists, writer, journalists, scientists, philosophers other individuals who can, and do, point out these anomalies in our world view & look at how we may modify our discourse or stitch together a new one. Over the recorded history of the past 6500 years, our discourse has changed profoundly, not once but many times over. Nor has it been a case of continuous development of the same set of ideas – a sort of orderly evolution. Far from it. Changes in our discourse have been exceedingly disruptive; have been accompanied by many wars & revolutions.  They have turned existing paradigms on their head, rubbished prevailing wisdom & but invariably led us to a richer, more subtle appreciation of what makes up our world.  And those who made this possible are these very people – the intellectuals – who in their own lifetime were rarely understood in their totality because at any given time the totality of our discourse or archive of knowledge remains inaccessible to us by its sheer ubiquity & imbeddedness.  Husain was one such artist who rose well above circumstance & discourse to bring us another perspective on who we are as a society. His art is important because it not only holds up a mirror but also points to something in & beyond the mirror that we cannot see on our own!

The difference between the episteme of the Greeks circa 450 BC and that of ours that took hold circa 1800 AD, and many in between as yet unexplored, is reason & a willingness to use it when faced with a problematic in our discourse. That difference was made by intellectuals. The reason we don’t kill sheep to read their liver to divine the future is reason itself.  There is no discourse without power just as there is no power without a discourse that grounds it. Every little thing that we have discarded as wrong involved a struggle not only with discourse itself but also the ubiquitous power that backed the discourse. Very little change was openly welcomed.  It took generations before even a manifestly beneficial practice was adopted. Such is the hold of the prevalent discourse & the powers that back it. Good art must necessarily spill over into politics. That we find MF Husain disruptive & offensive should therefore not surprise us.

Like all intellectuals Husain was a Parrhestic figure, his truth telling falling under the practice of Parrhesia. Parrhesia comes with three underlying constructs – the obligation to tell the truth, the right to tell the truth and the right to protection against harm while telling the truth.  It is a concept that arose out the discourse of Greeks around 450 BC when it was realized that telling the truth was no simple matter.  Every existing verity accepted as truth in a society has its own power backing the verity. While power pervades all through society it also has visible structures by way of priesthood, an aristocracy or a sovereign. Truth telling not only disrupts the existing verity but also diminishes & harms the powers that exist. Powers that can hit back at the truth teller in a variety of ways including death.  On the other hand, truth was recognized as being the basic virtue that drove a society towards greater wealth & prowess.  The city needed to know the truth.  And so the concept of Parrhesia evolved whereby the city & its power structure guaranteed that the truth teller would not be harmed when he rose to tell the truth.  That however, was not enough to encourage enough truth seekers to actively seek out the truth & render it visible. So the city actively promoted a certain category of people, the intellectuals of merit, as Parrhestic figures who were given the privilege of Parrhesia in return for an obligation to tell the truth.

The Parrhestic contract is the lifeline of an intellectual. Its purpose is not so much the protection of the intellectual as the encouragement of production of truth and the telling of it. We need the truth because it is fundamental to the growth of our society, its knowledge base, its power, wealth and prosperity. Without the Parrhestic contract intellectual activity diminishes, intellectual are discouraged, if not killed off, and society as a whole stagnates. The most fundamental of charges against a rigid interpretation of Islam, for instance, is the fact that it gave no space to its intellectuals and therefore, the Muslim world still awaits its renaissance. A Parrhestic contract is therefore one of the most fundamental and sacrosanct contracts without which the production and telling of truth grinds to a halt with deleterious consequences for society. It is a contract that should never be violated because it not only harms the one individual but sends out a message to all those capable of producing and telling the truth to cease and desist. That then was the tragedy of Husain’s exile from India. We grant Parrhesia not just to a class of people, the intellectuals, but also to ordinary citizens, anyone of whom may speak his or her mind to tell the truth. However, when the crunch came, we proved incapable of honouring the contract in respect of one of our most celebrated artist & painter. What does that tell ordinary citizens?

Husain’s rehabilitation in our society and discourse brooks no delay. We require an emphatic reaffirmation of the sanctity of Parrhesia in our society.  We need a deep, profound and loud commitment to the production of truth no matter how inconvenient that might prove to be.  We need a demonstrable commitment from State & society that Husain was an aberration in a young democracy that will never be repeated. Without these the noble principles enshrined in our constitution are merely empty words.

M F Husain challenged us -as a people, as a nation, as a person.  And found us profoundly wanting. How we deal with this challenge creatively going forward will make or mar the National project that we launched at Independence. In his death he leaves us with legacy resolving which will take years if not decades. That is the hallmark of a true artist.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. leena
    June 14, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Hi Sonali,

    Interesting read …and all very well for erudite art lovers to portray artist MF Husain, as a martyr, who was wronged by us. But choosing to embrace a Qatari citizenship was his personal choice and he lived happily in London, without any regrets.
    Coming to his work…
    How much creative liberty do you think can artist can take? Constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression doesnt mean you show insensitivity towards other’s religious beliefs. Am no supporter of the right wing here. What the right did was wrong and their behaviour cannot be justified in any way. But if you cared to go through his paintings he not only showed Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the buff, he showed Ganesha copulating with Goddess Saraswati, in one painting Goddess Saraswati is sitting on Ganesha’s head (both nude). Theres one painting where Sita is in the nude and sitting on Ravan’s lap. Now thats taking creative liberty a bit too far. Hinduism is a religion that believes in tolerance and universal acceptance. So, as an artist he shoudlve been sensitive while portraying Gods in the buff.
    Why didnt he show this kind of creativity with his own Gods first? Wouldve really admired his guts had he done that. Instead, he chose to show them fully covered from head to toe.

    • S.jefferson
      July 2, 2011 at 4:17 pm

      Excuse me leena you haven’t got ur facts right there are no gods in Islam and the monotheism professed is of one creator there is no form or genders of this creator plus if you make it a religious issue then Islam does not endorse drawing human forms let alone nudity so whatever hussain did was purely his artistic creation mo religious point there having said this we do not endorse any form of vulgarity for any culture or religion.but you must visit this site to see goddess saraswati painted nude in the Metmuseum by a Hindu artist Y.srimati http://www.metmuseum.org/collection_database/all/saraswati_goddess_of_learning_and_music_playing_a_y_g_srimati/objectview_enlarge.aspx?page=2&sortartist.collection_database/all/saraswati_goddess_of_learning_and_music_playing_a_y_g_srimati/objectview_enlarge.aspx?page=2&sort

    • esjay
      July 2, 2011 at 5:24 pm

      what is the ruckus about religion here and coming to that everyone thinks they have the birthright to talk about Islam for any issue…well coming to leenas ignorance for which she will be pardoned by muslims there are no gods in Islam only one creator whose genders or forms are not specifications in Islam well if you have chosen to put your ignorance on paper merely because MF hussain is a muslim then let me tell you Islam does not endorse nudity let alone portraying human form in the true sense of the term so point one is If he was portraying this as his religious viewpoint he would be painting still life not people secondly he would be questioned for his portrayal of nudity so definitely the point to be noted is that his was a purely artistic vision.As a muslim I condemn him for his portrayal of other cultures and religion but in hinduism arent nude carvings in different stages of copulation portrayed on temples and well the met museum has a painting of goddess saraswati nude on the top portrayed by a hindu artist y.Srimati please update yourself leena and all the likes of leena http://www.metmuseum.org/works of art/collection database/all/saraswatigoddess of learning and music playing a yg srimati/objectview enlarge.aspx well if you dont call this nudity then perhaps you can sift and filter through what is pervasive and whats not but for me its absolute nudity.So stop looking at this froma religious point of view and purely take him as an artist whether you credit him or condemn him is your choice then.

  2. June 15, 2011 at 2:05 am

    Sonali, thanks for giving rein to Husain’s horses…and what they really mean…the hooves of truth drumming into existence other futures. I so disagreed with Ruchir Joshi’s pusillanimous account of MF’s artmaking, particularly sad because Ruchir is a writer i place up there, but he showed his blind spot in the most glaring manner with his response to Husain’s death.

    Yes, Husain revealed our shortcomings to us, thanks for pointing that out and for shining a spotlight on Parrhesia, I didn’t know there was a word for the phenomenon.

    I think of Husain galloping headlong into the night, unbridled and free of petty, paltry passions…

  3. Mee
    June 15, 2011 at 4:07 am

    I stumbled upon your blog accidentally, what a marvelous piece you have written here! Kudos!! You have squarely hit the nail on the head and us masses indeed need to ask ourselves, can we allow a handful of motivated people, to usurp our plurality thus…

  4. Moon Mukherjee
    June 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Nicely said! A good artist must invoke and provoke. The Parrhestic contract is essential to keep the dialog going.

  5. Herman
    June 16, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    freedom comes with obligation. while the State must ensure freedom to express, it must doubly ensure that my freedom to speak or express does not offend sensibilities of vast multitudes who may have a “less developed ” or “primitive” idea of sacred or profane . Otherwise the discourse ends at “oh if he is abusive, just cover your ears”. Hussain’s paintings while being a work of art to those versed in fine arts, are a source of injury to the the rest. Where does Truth dwell. it dwells at least equally in those whose sensibilities hv been violated. What stand should the State take wrt the violated millions- their Truth too needs protection against Hussain’s “onslaught”

  6. Ajay
    June 16, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Stand up comedians cut jokes on their nation, religion, community or themselves first. This makes the audience more receptive and willing to listen to jokes on them.

    If only MF was willing to exercise his creative powers on his religion….

  7. June 17, 2011 at 2:01 am

    hmmmm I do find Leena, Herman and Ajay’s points of view persuasive, i’ve never thought that Salman Rushdie had some kind of Art-given right to mock a Muslim sacred cow, and yes, what if Husain had taken similar liberties with Mohammed? Why didnt he? I’m now seeing why and how Hindus might be offended at the liberties MF took with HIndu deities…

    The point about being careful not to offend the sensibilities of those with less ‘developed’ ideas of sacred and profance is really worth taking seriously.

    It still takes nothing away from Husain’s brilliance for me but i do see why and how offence was given.

  8. Rishi
    June 18, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    mala he kalat nahi, konala yevdha pulka aala tyacha.
    yevdhach jar pulka aala tar london la kashala Rahun dyayche? swatachya gharat aanayche.
    he vyakti-swatantrachya gappa khup zalya.
    swatantra dile mhanje swatachy hatatil garal kagdavar utraychi ka?
    aani yevdhach jar to kharach hot tar bhartat rahayche.
    dead person baddal vait bolu naye pan pulka aalelyanna vathnivar kon aannar?

  9. tcp
    June 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    A forceful argument in favour of freedom of an artist’s right to express … his truth. The aspect I have a reservation about, is the painting of Husain as a Parrhestic figure. His truth is no different than the truth of say, the random troll. Then why do we have special love for him? I don’t understand art, or the bird’s eye view but Husain’s truth was one that most didn’t care to know, nor did we need to know. True, it has exposed faultlines of a society incapable of repairing them. The individual’s right is important but showing a mirror by way of an inconsequential truth? I am always in conflict on the wisdom of that, but maybe Husain didn’t care either. Looking forward to more posts from you

  10. Maverick
    July 9, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Hey Sonali, nice viewpoint. I think people who raise voice against M.F Hussain are the same one’s who keep quite on the more evils(poverty,prostitution, child labour etc) that persists in the society. I would always love to remember for his art and not for the controversies the lesser minds create.

  11. Test
    July 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    I’d love to know if your views would be as balanced as this, if some artist painted god of one particular religion as homo-sexual and pedophile & another god (from DaVinci code) as someone who mated a prostitute. Artistic freedom is pious, no? Any mad imagination must be hailed!

  12. Mahesh Dhannawat.
    July 27, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    God may be worried reading this post, he created Husain and Husain created paintings, thus it was god creation itself.

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