[Reader-list] Feel free, Mr. Husain. Go paint Qatari leaders

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Fri Mar 12 01:46:42 IST 2010

Dear Rakesh,

Thanks for your points. I think that anyone (regardless of whether or  
not they are believers) should have the right to be as critical or  
creative or heretical or blasphemous (or even flippant, or  
irreverent) with any figure or motifs in any religious tradition, be  
it Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism (or any other). This does not  
mean, that I will automatically agree with or endorse any and every  
such attempt. But who is to decide as to what is a serious  
engagement, and what is heretical, blasphemous or creative?   
Ultimately, tese are questions not only of intention, but also of  
interpretation and reading. And every question of interpretation and  
reading is deeply subjective. There simply cannot be objective  
criteria for the validation of one reading over another. To even  
pretend that there can is to profoundly misunderstand art and any  
form of human creative activity.

In some Shia traditions, it is perfectly legitimate, even respectful,  
to make images of Imam Ali, even (in some rare cases)  of the Prophet  
Muhammad himself. There is also a strong body of frankly erotic  
poetry that addresses the prophet as a beautiful and beloved man. It  
is not a reticent tradition. But the same image, and the same words  
may be counted as insulting and derogatory in certain streams of  
orthodox Sunni Islam. Now, why should only the latter, prohibitory,  
practice prevail, and not the former?

The loss, and gradual shrinking of spaces of heterodoxy within  
Islamicate traditions in South Asia is a profound tragedy. Just as  
tragic as the attempt to straightjacket popular Hinduism in an  
unthinking, unreflecting, unfree space of cultural repression and  
denial by the Hindu right. Both need to be mourned, and combatted.  
Some years ago, a scholar by the name of Jeffrey Kripal wrote a book  
called 'Kali's Child' in which he argued, on the basis of his close  
reading of a memoir of the bengali mystic Ramakrishna by one of his  
dsiciples (identified as 'Sri M') that Ramakrishna Paramhansa (Swami  
Vivekananda's mentor) was homosexual, and that he was erotically  
attracted to the young Vivekananda. Now it is possible to argue  
against this contention, on the grounds that it is an interpretation  
that cannot be logically defended. But, we saw a call to ban the  
book. I think it is not an insult to Ramakrishna to suggest that he  
was homosexual. It may, or may not be accurate. I do not think that  
the author viewed his scholarship as insulting of Sri Ramakrishna by  
any stretch of imagination. But he (and his book) was treated not as  
parties to an argument, but as criminals. It is this illiberality  
that is profoundly debilitating. And, no, I do not think that either  
Hindus or Muslims have more of this illiberality in them. Frankly,  
there is intolerance, as well as open-mindedness in all traditions.  
So, I think to make this a 'Hindu versus Muslim' question is to  
pursue a red herring.

I have at all times defended the rights of people like Taslima  
Nasrin, Irshad Manji and Salman Rushdie to have their work seen,  
read, and heard in India, (and elsewhere) and no amount of hysterical  
'Islam in danger' rhetoric spouted by Muslim fundamentalists and  
obscurantists, or patronizing 'Muslims must be treated differently'  
by so called secular progressives will make me change my mind that  
the cases of M.F, Husain and Taslima Nasrin are identical, and should  
be treated identically. Both should be free to do, or not do whatever  
they choose, based on their own volition and understandiing. I think  
too much is made of the 'hurt sentiments' of the spokesmen of this or  
that community, and not enough is made of the fact that those of us  
who are comfortable contemplating a nude Durga or Saraswati or a  
frankly erotic 'naat' about the prophet Muhammad may also have  
sentiments worth defending.

Finally, there is the point of 'why does Husain not paint Muslim  
personages', that has been raised on this forum, sometimes  
repeatedly. I do not think we have any business telling artists what  
they should be painting, just as we have no business telling artists  
what they should not be painting. There is nothing wrong in someone  
not wanting to make a particular work, or in a particular kind of  
way. I see absolutely no justification in demanding that just because  
an artist has done 'X' he or she should automatically also be  
expected to do 'Y'. An artist is not at any person's beck or call,  
and this kind of 'farmaishi' or command tyranny is totally  
antithetical to the spirit of the freedom in the arts.

However, if any one (including Husain) were to decide one fine day  
that they wanted to paint an image of the prophet Muhammad, that they  
wanted to paint an erotic episode from his life, or that they wanted  
to represent say, Hazrat Ayesha, or Fatima, or even make what might  
be considered (by themselves, by others, by some, or by all) to be a  
derogatory image, I would categorically say that they should have the  
full freedom to do so. And I would defend their right to do so.  
Please understand that by defending their right to do such an act, I  
am not by any means defending the content of their actions.

In the case of the Danish cartoons, I have said repeatedly, and will  
say again. I find the images to be in abysmally poor taste, and I am  
sharply critical of them. However, I think that if some people want  
to debase themselves by making or publishing such images, they should  
have the freedom to do so, and that freedom should be protected. I  
have argued this position at length elsewhere, and I have used  
precedents from within Islamicate history and the Muslim tradition to  
make my argument. I see no contradiction in these two positions. I  
think that the Danish cartoons must be relentlessly criticized, as  
all bad art should be, by all those who recognize it to be bad art.  
But that does not mean that we have the right to threaten people, or  
commit violence, or censor, or otherwise prevent such images from  
being circulated.

The only exception that I make is for documentary, live-action  
photographs of children, animals or people who are not in a position  
to consent to be represented,  for pornographic purposes. In such  
instances, I would call for a ban, because the taking of the  
photograph itself constitutes a violation of the right to consent or  
not consent to the making of an image.

However debased or obscene an image of someone we consider holy may  
be, the mere fact of the production of the image does not constitute  
a violence on the person represented by the image. Hence, since we  
can all choose, either to not see, or to criticize such images, by  
our words, or by making 'counter-images' , I do not consider mere  
insult, or obscenity, or heresy or blasphemy to be sufficient grounds  
for the censoring of artwork.

I hope I have made myself clear.



On 11-Mar-10, at 2:34 PM, Rakesh Iyer wrote:

> I would say just one thing. In India, it's only possible to  
> denigrate Hindu
> gods and goddesses, abuse them, paint them in nude, and then get  
> sympathy of
> a large cross-section of people, including the secularists and the
> pseudo-secularists. But when it comes to Islam and Christianity,  
> try doing
> that, and you will find violence being organized on the slightest of
> pretexts. And the pseudo-secularists would go on a humbug spree to  
> stop
> this. And Hindus have started aping them too.
> Why this appeasement? What is this all about? Is it secularism? Are we
> willing to turn our country into a neo-Taliban society where any  
> criticism
> about Islam and Christianity will be dealt with capital punishment and
> violence on the streets?
> @Shuddha: It's not the question of rights. It's the question of  
> enforcement
> of these rights. Howsoever much Hussain may try, the state would  
> never act
> to ensure that the rights are enforced. And it's one thing to say  
> Muslims
> have rights to paint the Prophet in a 'negative' sense, it's  
> another thing
> doing it. Remember the protests in India over cartoons published in a
> certain newspaper in a certain European country named 'Denmark'?
> Rakesh
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Shuddhabrata Sengupta
The Sarai Programme at CSDS
Raqs Media Collective
shuddha at sarai.net

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