A quarter century ago sitting amid designer chaos of paintings and sketches in various stages of completion in his Cuffe Parade apartment in then more-tolerant Bombay, painter Maqbool Fida Husain had a telling response to a question about being Indian.
‘I am not an Indian merely because I was born here but because India’s cultural exuberance made an artist out of me,’ Husain, then 70 and already firmly perched on his formidable reputation as one of India’s greatest painters, had said. As India today debates his decision to give up his Indian nationality and choose to be an honorary citizen of Qatar, it is much more about Husain ceding ground to the lunatic rightwing fringe than just a change of passports.
It is perhaps unfair to expect a 95-year-old painter, who faced real physical danger from bigots before he left India in 2006, to fight a battle for loftier ideals. But an unintended consequence of his renouncing Indian citizenship could be to embolden the very lunatic fringe that the liberal India ought to challenge.
It is true that Husain has led his peripatetic life more in the mould of a detached world citizen than a constricted Indian nationalist but he has frequently let it be known that at his core he remains Indian. While he does not have to live in India to assert his cultural identity, the circumstances under which he has chosen to disengage ends up undermining a lot of what he stands for.
His choice of Qatar to forsake his Indian nationality is a conspicuously bad judgment if his intention was to make a larger philosophical statement about artistic freedom. Qatar may be a marginally more moderate regime in a region notorious for its unabashed suppression of great many personal freedoms, but it is no shining example that can be held up as a counter to India. At best it is erroneous and at worst it is egregious for him to take this step. If it was about expressing profound personal anguish at being practically hounded out of India, an artist of Husain’s stature could have chosen many other clearly more democratic countries.
Despite his well known quirks such as moving about unshod and fraternising with sections of society that the elites in India wince at the mention of, Husain has for decades been a much sought after presence in the rarefied circles anywhere in the world. To that extent his decision was obviously not influenced by any consideration of being in the proximity of royalty or movers and shakers as he is in Qatar and elsewhere. It is not right to second-guess his motivations other than concerns about personal safety at an age where a minor fall in the bathroom could prove devastating. However, somewhere along the line strongly felt emotions at having been let down by his home country would have played a significant role.
Husain has seen enough life, certainly way more than his detractors, to know that the kind he has chosen comes with its own intrinsic hazards. While he may not have anticipated the hazards of the kind he had to eventually confront, he ought to have been conscious of something approximate. Without minimizing his genuine sense of loss, it is possible to argue that Husain may also see this turn of events as a fitting twist to a gloriously eccentric life.
Husain understood before anybody else the value of creating stories and idiosyncrasies over and above his resplendent talent. He recognized very early that people are drawn to the superficial first and then perhaps to something more substantial and deeper. Trimmings are a great way to lure people in. They want the art as much as the artist. So while there may be equally talented painters in India, there is none quite like Husain in creating irresistible folklore about his art. A fine recent example of that attribute was Husain painting a silvery white Arabian stallion.
On balance, Husain’s decision should be of grave concern in so much as it bolsters the lunatic fringe, which may not be just a fringe, that uses his exile as a triumph that can be replicated in many similar instances. This is particularly because Husain knows well that as complex multicultural, multi-religious and multilingual societies go India is still easily one of the most tolerant. That alone is a worthwhile India, which he called culturally exuberant, to return to.
(1.03.2010-Mayank Chhaya is a US-based writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)