This article is being written in response to certain questions raised at a social networking site. The principal question was why Hindus find certain paintings of M F Hussain (MFH) offensive. The paintings under consideration depict various Hindu deities in the nude. Further, the inquiry asked for a justification for this feeling of being offended in the background of sexually explicit sculptures in certain Hindu temples and Sanskrit erotic literature.
Before these issues are addressed it is necessary to set the context clearly so that there is no dilution or diversion of the discussion. Artistic freedom is not the issue that is being discussed. Every artist has the right to freedom of expression as long as he or she is not violating the law of the land. Certain paintings can justifiably cause offence to a section of the viewers, even if they are very obviously within the ambit of the law.
Before getting involved with paintings of MFH, it is also essential to understand in general terms what in a painting can be offensive to a group of viewers. Sometimes images, icons or symbols depicted in a painting represent persons or objects held in reverence or admiration by the group. If the painting misrepresents what these images actually stand for and denigrate the persons or objects depicted then they will cause offence. Here a couple of clarifications are in order. The finished painting is the complete product for the viewer group. The viewer group is not concerned with what clarifications the painter may have externally issued, nor is it concerned with how the critics have evaluated the painting. The viewer group is only concerned with the response that the finished painting invokes in a majority of the group members. The viewer group is also not concerned with the intent of the painter, in the sense that whether the painter intentionally desired to offend the viewers or not. The viewers can belong to the public domain without knowledge of academic matters in art evaluation. Absence of academic knowledge cannot rule out the viewer from being a bona fide one. Hence the crucial question is whether there is reasonable justification for a homogenous group of viewers to perceive the paintings as denigrating those it holds in esteem or reverence.
It would be counterproductive to discuss the issue taking the said paintings of MFH collectively. Each painting is unique and can have different reasons for being offensive. Therefore this article selects one representative painting from the lot for analysis. Other paintings of MFH can be analyzed in a similar manner to assess whether they are justifiably offensive to Hindus, and if so to what extent.
The painting being selected is titled Hanuman in Flight. The painting has been sourced from the Internet. It is being reproduced below for ready reference. The painting bears the signature of MFH and this is being taken as evidence of it being a genuine work of MFH.
The status of Hanuman in Hinduism is well established. Given the title and that Hanuman is a vanar, one can reasonably conclude that the monkey in the center of the picture is a depiction of Hanuman. Hanuman has several attributes, but two are relevant to this discussion. The first is that he was an avowed celibate or brahmachari, which means that he eschewed sexual contact of any kind. Yet in this painting MFH has depicted him between two explicitly naked human figures, one a man and the other a woman. To Hindus this would be a derision of Hanuman’s celibacy. MFH has shown no justification for juxtaposing naked figures alongside Hanuman. There is no evidence from the scriptures, mythology or folklore that Hanuman encountered such naked persons. In the absence of any rationale for the naked figures, it is understandable for Hindus to be justifiably offended by the painting, which beyond doubt misrepresents the celibacy of Hanuman.
The question that automatically arises is whether these two nude figures represent any nudes or specific personages. It is here that the second attribute of Hanuman becomes important. Hanuman was an ardent devotee of Rama and Sita. Whenever he has been depicted in painting or sculpture with a couple, that couple has been Rama and Sita. One of the most iconic representations of Hanuman in Hinduism is of his tearing open his chest to reveal Rama and Sita in his heart. MFH has himself depicted this in one of his paintings. In the absence of any other explanation it would be normal and justifiable to perceive the nude couple in this MFH painting as Rama and Sita. If seeing Hanuman with naked figures would be offensive, then the feeling of being offended would be compounded manifold when the naked figures are Rama and Sita, whom Hanuman revered as his Lord and Mother respectively.
Naked figures of Rama and Sita, particularly Sita, would directly offend Hindu sensibilities as well. And there is justification for this. Hindus worship Sita as the paragon of fidelity and to see her depicted in the nude will hurt. And to add insult to injury, the depiction in the MFH painting is crass and provocative. It can be argued that in so many years of marriage Rama and Sita must have had their moments of intimacy. But the fact remains that no credible narration of Ramayana depicts any moment of intimacy in this explicit manner and any such intimacy is not crucial in the events in the Ramayana. And do not forget that Hanuman is present in the painting, which in fact is named after him, and this puts an end to any argument of personal intimacy. Therefore on several counts icons have been misrepresented and the feeling of being offended is more than justified.
The issue of erotic sculpture and literature must be addressed. Again one cannot deal in generalities. This painting depicts Hanuman, Rama and Sita and therefore it is essential that the depiction of these three characters in sculpture and literature be examined. There are temples with sexually explicit sculptures. Most of these sculptures portray the normal humans. Some of them would also portray deities and events from Hindu mythologies. However, no such sexually explicit depiction of Hanuman, Rama and Sita has been generally reported. One cannot justify depiction of a particular deity in a particular manner simply because some other deity has been depicted in that manner. As explained earlier, each deity has his or her individual characteristics and attributes and mythologies.
Again, while discussing Sanskrit literature one has to look at specifics. The passage that immediately comes to mind is Ravana’s description of Sita in Valmiki Ramayana, in which her figure has been explicitly described and praised. This is a reflection of the lustful desire of Ravana. The MFH painting in question is in a different setting. To use this passage or others like this to justify a naked a depiction of Sita totally out of context cannot be considered reasonable by any stretch of imagination. The fact remains that there is no basis whatsoever for the painting and it misrepresents the attributes that Hindus hold in Hanuman, Rama and Sita. It is natural for these misrepresentations to offend Hindus.
In conclusion, a discussion on how the offended Hindus should react is in order. The best option by far is to ignore such provocations. If one has faith in one’s religion then such misrepresentations, whether malicious or unintended, should not become a disturbing element. If at all some reaction is warranted then that has to be within the ambit of law. Several lawful options are available. Threatening and inciting violence is a symptom of immaturity and just because groups from other religions have resorted to it in the past, it does not mean that the Hindus should follow suit. If the offended Hindus do not respond or respond in a mild manner, it does not imply that there is no offensiveness in the painting. That exists independent of the response adopted.