An artist and an exile.

The 95 year old painter, Mr. M. F. Husain is in the news again. This time, for renouncing Indian citizenship in favor of the Middle Eastern kingdom of Qatar.

Many in the educated sections of our society feel that it is a great dishonor to India. And indeed it is. Whether to pursue his artistic freedom or to face the law for hurting religious sentiments, he should have stayed or made to stay in the country of his birth and lifelong work.

In another example, two lives were lost in the recent violent outburst against Ms. Taslima Nasreen’s expressions in her writings. The banning of the book ‘Da Vinci Code’, the fatwa against Mr. Salman Rushdie, are amongst the infamous examples of this curtailment of an artist’s freedom of expression.

This post is not to defend or stand against Mr. Husain, Ms. Nasreen, Mr. Brown or many others from the creative community. It is an attempt to analyze the reason(s) why a creative person becomes the subject of violent treatment, when basically his job is to just express himself.

Let’s start with the definition of an artist. According to the dictionary, an artist is a person whose creative work shows sensitivity and imagination. But for me, it is a category which is much larger than this narrow stream of writers, painters and performers it is used to denote. Any individual who looks at life from a fresh perspective, who expresses himself in his own unique manner and whose work generates emotions in the audience is an artist. From every child learning to grow to my mother and from Galileo to Rama to the Prophet, everyone is or has been an artist in varying degrees of expression.

But then why do some artists get persecuted? Is it because all true artists are natural nonconformists, creating something against the wishes and patterns of the society in which they operate? Or does it happen when an artist crosses the line between creative expression and deliberate transgression? Or perhaps it is a mixture of both.

Coming back to the people in the news, what makes Mr. Husain the subject of persecution from one section of the society is the same thing that makes Ms. Nasreen a criminal from the point of view of another section of the same society. Both, in their course of artistic expression (might) have crossed the line and thus are guilty of hurting religious sentiments of these sections of the society. But then the question that arises is of who draws this line. Who decides what is right and what is wrong and who should be branded a criminal for life? And who manages that one set of these ‘rules’ or ‘laws’ apply to all the ‘wrong-doers’ equally?

Difficult questions to answer. But questions are important. And in the cacophony of reactions and outrage every such ‘creative expression’ generates, it is difficult to maintain an objective outlook.

A true democratic society is one which gives space to these kinds of debates and arrives at a conclusion through dialogue. But in this age of sensational politics and TRP games, is too utopian an idea to take shape.

Till such a public debate space is created, till people stop reacting without thinking or being the puppet of forces with vested interests, till then, the Husains and the Nasreens of this world will continue to be in exile, whether by choice or by force.

P.S. Some links you might consider going through regarding the current controversy

 Saba Naqvi’s article in Outlook on Muslim Liberals

Chandan Mitra’s editorial piece in The Pioneer on why should Husain stay back in India

Javed Akhtar’s interview by Karan Thapar on the artistic freedom of Mr. Husain and Ms. Nasreen


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