Hussain, through his life and his art, represents the plural, composite and secular values of the Indian Constitution and embodies its spirit of modernity, progress and tolerance. Image Credit: AP

M.F. Hussain, arguably India's most celebrated artist, acknowledged the offer of Qatari nationality with a black-and-white line drawing of a horse, his trademark motif, and a short message.

He was "honoured" by Qatari citizenship, but saddened by the need to relinquish his citizenship of India, whose culture and values he has celebrated in a magnificent oeuvre that spans over seven decades.

Indian laws do not allow dual citizenship, and to maintain his ties with the land of his birth, Hussain applied for Overseas Indian status.

Tragically, however, Hussain's day of distinction also marks India's day of dishonour. It marks the conclusion of one of the most pitiful chapters in independent India's much-touted secular history.

After starting out as an impoverished painter of cinema hoardings in Bombay, Hussain spent decades as a successful artist and exhibited his works freely. His troubles began in 1996, when he was 81 years old, following an article in a Hindi journal on his paintings of nude Hindu deities in the 70s.

A raft of criminal cases followed, which alleged that the artist had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus through his paintings. Harassment by bigoted mobs and the brigadiers of saffronism reached epic proportions and several exhibitions of his works were vandalised.

All of a sudden, despite his artwork fetching millions at auction houses in the art capitals of the world, no one wanted to risk holding an exhibition of Hussain's work in India.

The nonagenarian artist, billed as India's Picasso, estimates that there are around 900 cases pending against him in various courts in India.

Just remembering the drastic extent to which creative genius can be hassled and made to feel insecure speaks volumes about the future of art and imagination in a growing India.

Will there be room for pluralist thought? Or will the country develop along narrow, parochial lines that stifle any expressions that run contrary to the prescribed narrative of the nation?

Following the threat of legal action and numerous death threats, Hussain went into exile in Dubai and London. Today, he can travel freely anywhere across the globe — but not to India though, where an impotent system is unable, or unwilling, to help in the face of bigotry and fanaticism.

Nothing new

India's religious art has brazenly depicted nudity and sexuality through the ages, whether through sculptures at the Khajuraho temple complex or through murals and frescoes across temples in southern India.

And so one finds it strange that the country's political parties, and their attendant public, have shown themselves so intolerant of art and culture as to banish their most prominent and successful artist into permanent exile. India's Home Minister P. Chidambaram said at a press conference that the government would be pleased if Hussain returned to India.

He said the artist's family had been informed that full security will be provided if the artist decided to return. India's Supreme Court has moved to quash a number of cases against Hussain.

Yet despite Chidambaram and the Supreme Court's best intentions, it is too little, too late. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government and the leading intellectuals of the country have failed spectacularly in supporting Hussain's cause and enabling his return to India in spite of their promises of secularism and pluralist thought.

Where were the courts, the government, the intellectuals and Chidambaram himself over the last decade when Hussain was being harassed and vilified across the country? Ultimately, the failure of those who matter revolves around the core issues of freedom and imagination that defines a secular nation's constitution.

Hussain, through his life and his art, represents as well as anyone the plural, composite and secular values of the Indian Constitution and embodies its spirit of modernity, progress and tolerance.

His battle is the battle for the kind of freedom and thought that should govern India.

Qatari nationality is a rare honour to Hussain and his artistic genius. It is also a testament to the broad, modern views of the Qatari ruling family. But it is a sad day for India, and her many millions of aspiring artists.


Rakesh Mani is a 2009 Teach For India fellow, working with low-income schools in Bombay.