‘Main great Indian circus ka rangeela joker hoon’

The Supreme Court has finally vindicated MF Hussain. He talks to Shoma Chaudhury about freedom and his relationship with India

September 20, 2008 in Politics
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Photo: Satish Kumar

Photo: Satish Kumar

What did you feel when you heard about the Supreme Court judgment? 
At last the freedom and dignity of Indian contemporary art has been upheld and restored by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the political and social structures were less effective. But I am always optimistic about India. Our work has been going on for 5,000 years, these are minor hiccups. But this judgment is important because it has a significance that goes beyond me.

If you were to describe your relationship with India in an image, what would it be? 
For about a year, I have been gathering my family together in Dubai every Friday, where I read out some thoughts and anecdotes. In one of these sessions, I had said ki main great Indian circus ka rangeela joker hoon. Over the years the circus tent has grown more and more full of people, there has been a lot of jostling. In this jostling, one day I found I had been thrown out of the tent. But my roots go deep, they could throw me out but they couldn’t uproot me.

What would you say to those who have been opposing you if you got a chance? 
I feel no bitterness. All I would say is that they have not understood contemporary art. But if they don’t understand today, they will understand some other day. In any case, we are a democratic country, and all kinds of opinions can exist. This is the unique strength of India that there have been so many influences and invasions — the British, Islam, Christianity, but it has all been absorbed and grown together.

Do you feel wary of expressing yourself now? 
No. Not at all. The only parameter I have followed in my art is whether something is aesthetic. Nothing else curtails me.

What is the essence of India that you have tried to capture? 
For me the most important thing about India is the idea of celebration. Joyous celebration imbues every aspect of life in India. I’ve always wanted my work to have a narrative and a folk element. I wanted it to tell stories and speak directly to people.

What is the essence of Hindu religion your art has pursued? 
In most Hindu texts nudity is a metaphor for purity. This is unique to Hinduism and is supported by a deep philosophical apparatus. There is also a great sense of play, yet complex calculations and insight about the nature of the world and the cosmos. These are things that I have been very drawn to in my art. I spent eight years painting scenes from the Ramayana. What else but love could drive that commitment.

There is a growing mood for narrow purity among both Hindus and Muslims in India. What do you think is the reason for that?
This is for sociologists to answer, artists are just visionaries. But I feel there is an economic dimension that underlies the wave of extremism across the world. In a time of economic upheaval — both deprivation and success — people cleave to their faith without understanding it.

Is there anything you consider obscene in art and life? 
Only hypocrisy, nothing else.

Will you come back to India now? 
I really would love to. But I might wait a while because the battle was not just in the courts, there is a still a real danger of violence on the street.

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