The Goddess, the Spokesmen and Censorship

[photopress:mfhusain_motherindia.jpg,full,alignleft]It is well worth highlighting another case of an artist causing offence to minority communities. Asia House has seen fit to close an exhibition by MF Hussain, after Hindu Groups protested against the depiction of Indian Goddesses in the nude. Many in the Indian community have found this offensive.
What is worrying is that the exhibition has had to close because of “threats” from offended Hindus. This is an unfortunate development, as it once again has the effect of portraying those from the Asian community as being intolerant and unintegrated. I await with resignation the familiar cries of “multiculturalism doesn’t work”.
As I have said before, if multiculturalism is simply about two groups living side-by-side without integration, then clearly it is not going to work. But if it is about two groups changing each other due to their co-habitation, then a more interesting process is at work.
In this case, the refusal of a vocal minority to uphold ideals of free speech, critically undermines the wider multicultural argument. Thankfully, the Pickled Politics blog is refusing to put up with this kind of sabotage, and a counter-protest and petition against the threats are being planned. In a related post at Comment Is Free, Sunny Hundal explains that the problem stems from various groups competing for victim status:

[The campaign against MF Hussain’s work] was backed by the supposed representative of British Hindus, the Hindu Forum of Britain, whose spokesperson, Ramesh Kallidai, has trotted out the familiar line that Hindus are being maligned in favour of Muslims and other religious groups … This competition for victimhood status has almost become de rigueur.

It is interesting to read how Hundal and others separate the issues of freedom of expression, from the issue of taking offence at an affront to Indian culture. If young progressives come to replace the religious conservatives as the de facto spokespeople for the Asian communities, then the multicultural debate could become much more productive. At present it seems to have entered a religious cul-de-sac which can never be resolved.
Finally, it is worth emphasising that these protests are hilariously counter-productive. As with the Mohammed cartoons, the furore has only served to advertise the exhibition to the likes of me. Now it comes to pass that the first image I have ever seen of Mother India is a nude!
I don’t know the intentions of the artist. However, it is worth pointing out that this is a classic case of how morality and sensibilities change with geography. In Europe, depicting a goddess nude is not just inoffensive, but almost essential. Instead of complaining of “hurt sentiments”, perhaps those who complain should rejoice that icons from Indian culture have achieve parity with the beacons of Western European art, such as the Venus De Milo, and Rodin’s ‘Kiss’. If I, an ignorant Occidental, am to learn about Mother India, Durga and Draupadi, what better way to begin the dialogue by presenting an image of Them in the classical style? Where did I read that early missionaries to India presented Jesus with blue skin, so He more closely resembled the existing deities?
UPDATE: Ah yes, I remember now. It was Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Who’d have thought?

5 Replies to “The Goddess, the Spokesmen and Censorship”

  1. “If I, an ignorant Occidental, am to learn about Mother India, Durga and Draupadi, what better way to begin the dialogue by presenting an image of Them in the classical style?”
    A correction to what you say above. While some in India have taken offence at the nude Mother India, it is not clear that the Hindu Forum has. The primary aim of this protest and protests in India, is not that the Goddesses are in the nude, since you can find semi-nude and nude depictions of certain Goddesses in classical Indian art. However, you will never find certain Goddesses or revered figures being portrayed in the nude much less depicted fornicating with animals in various sexual positions as painted by MF Hussain, a treatment he only reserves for Hindu icons and not for Muslim or Christian ones in his paintings. That’s entirely the product of Hussain’s imagination, which is rather overactive when it comes to Hindu icons and uninspired and restrained when it comes to icons from his own religious tradition. He is entitled to it, of course, but passing some of these paintings off as representing the “classical’ depiction of certain Goddesses in Indian art/religion to people who don’t know much about the tradition to begin with is incorrect.
    Indeed, in Indian classical art the major deities are almost never depicted in flagrante delicto. So when you say you are being introduced to the Goddesses as they are depicted in classical style, you are wrong. While no one has the right to stop an exhibition with threats no matter how offended they are, your post is incomplete in that it does not really give the whole context for the objections to Hussain. Thank you.

  2. When I say ‘classical style’ I meant ‘Western-European classical style’ (Which, in fact, I did in an earlier draft but omitted for the sake of avoiding repetition, annoyingly). I’m certainly not suggesting that Indian gods are presented nude… but Western deities are. The Madonna often flashes a breast or two I’ve noticed, and the Greco-Roman myths are full of naked, fornicating deities.
    What I’m driving at, is that to Western eyes, the Indian Goddesses in question are not being disrespected… unlike the Mohammed cartoon controversy, where Mohammed was an object of ridicule for everyone (regardless of culture) or Bhetzi, where a Sikh temple was depicted as engaging in acts that everyone would consider illegal.
    I’m aware this is perhaps a dubious argument in the case of MF Hussain, who I hear has been accused of hypocrisy over this, because he reserves this art for Hindu Gods alone. But the door swings both ways. If he is trying to undermine Hinduism with this art, he won’t achieve that aim here in the UK.
    As you say, there are two separate issues here. What is important is the way The Picklers are keeping them that way.

  3. I fully agree about it being two separate issues. However, I would like to point out to you that no matter what Hussain’s intentions were, some Hindus find depictions of certain deities/revered figures copulating with animals or the manner in which their nudity is presented as disrespectful and an object of ridicule as Muslims found the cartoons or the Sikhs found the play.
    So maybe one should ask, why is it that to Western eyes the cartoons and play set in Sikh temple are more disrespectful than certain Hindu icons fornicating with animals? Especially when some of those depictions have no basis in the history of Indian art? What is legal and illegal when it comes to the depiction of Islam and Sikhism vs. the depiction of the Indic traditions? What sort of understanding of the Hindu tradition is this Western viewpoint based? Do you equate a millennias-old still living, religious tradition with an (unfortunately) dead one like the Greco-Roman one? Do Westerners know the differences between the Hindu tradition and the Greco-Roman/ancient Egyptian myths or is it all “pagan” stuff to them?
    If Hussain painted Mary or Jesus copulating with an animal, would that be more disrespectful to Western eyes than a similar depiction of certain Hindu Goddesses/icons and why?

  4. I was talking about the nudity, not the animal fornicating. If a ‘westerner’ looks at a picture of Mother India in the nude, I’m suggesting they would not percieve that picture to be in any way disrespectful.
    Your are right, though, to point out this doesn’t hold for the the animal fornication. Not to address it is a sin of ommission on my part. Notwithstanding, an Occidental may well equate these acts with the antics of Zeus, or the myths of dragons. Given certain Indian God/esses take on animal form, the first glance at the pictures would look fairly run-of-the-mill. Sure, that analysis would be “wrong” to someone who knows more about the religious traditions under the spot-light. But the funny thing about “art” is that such considerations don’t actually matter. Its all in the viewer’s mind. Looking at the few of Hussain’s pictures I’ve found online, I don’t see anything offensive. Doesn’t Durga always ride a lion?
    Of course, I haven’t seen the paintings in the flesh to actually test this hypothesis. Perhaps if I had been able to I could give a more informed viewpoint, but that ain’t gonna happen now… We’re left making half-cocked conjectures, which I think we can agree is a sub-optimal outcome.
    Another thing about “art” is that you can always make counter examples, differing viewpoints of the same subject. They are often differentiated by the artists name (e.g. Rodin’s ‘Kiss’ I mentioned earlier). Thus we have Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” versus Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ.”
    Of course, I can see how the MF Hussein’s art my hurtful to many. But I am asserting that it is their sensibilities that have been hurt, and not their culture damaged. As I’ve written before, having one’s religion disrespected may be a sign of integration. That post should answer your question about Mary and beastiality too: no, it is no more or less offensive. In this day and age, they are equally banal.

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