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An artist is an artist... knows no religion

By Rajiv Shah
It was, I presume, 1981. MF Husain had put up an unusual exhibition, about which none now seems to remember. Critics had said he had gone "pop." Put up at Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, the exhibits were, if I remember correctly, colour photographs he had clicked. There was, perhaps, some collage work in the exhibits, too. A young journalist with Link weekly, I dashed into Husain and asked him for an interview, to which he readily agreed. "Link is here, I will talk to you later, friends", he told those present, and we went and sat in his legendary black Fiat, which he had used as a canvas to paint on. Husain's "pop" realism had impressed me, especially a photograph which, I vaguely remember now, showed large number of film posters pasted on a well next to the railway station, with a cobbler or some other person down below doing his job.
While talking to Husain, it never occurred to me that I was interacting with a Muslim. In fact, belonging to an artists' family (my parents taught art education at the Faculty of Fine Arts for nearly 25 years at Jamia Millia Islamia), I always thought that an artist is an artist, he has no religion. One of our best family friends in my childhood was J Sultan Ali, a renowned artist, who used mythological images in his paintings. As a school-going child, I distinctly remember frequenting his house near Bhogal, at a place then identified as Nizamuddin Mod in Delhi, and how he used to pen his folk images. Animals, humans, trees, as if, jostled for space in the paintings he inked. I called his daughter Mumtazben and treated her as my elder sister. She was older by several years and studied in my school Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. I read somewhere recently that Ali - who bid adieu to Delhi and settled down in Cholamandal Artists' Village, Chennai in late 1960s - was a Gujarati Khoja. But I doubt my parents ever knew he was one.
Years have passed by since then. If one wishes to be heard that an artist has no religion, it appears, one has put extra effort to emphasize this aspect, whether it is Gujarat or Delhi. Though I have very little of artist in me, I was attracted to Nabibakhsh Mansoori in Gandhinagar, where I am based now. Mansoori is a young and upcoming painter who has held successful exhibitions of his oils in most parts of India, and abroad. Some of his paintings have used mythical images of Radha and Krishna. I can see a change in me, decades later. When I talk to him, frankly, I have to keep in mind that I am talking to a Muslim who is using Hindu images. "No, they are not Krishna and Radha per se", he tells me, smiling. "I have used them as ordinary humans in real life. The image of Krishna symbolizes the ordinary shepherd in our villages", he adds.
Indeed, we live in a divided world, more divided than three decades ago. If a Muslim artisan makes portraits of Hindu deities, he is considered "secular". That is supposed to be the artisan's credential of being part of the so-called mainstream. If Husain paints Indira Gandhi in the image of Durga, it is a great work of art. But the moment he creates his own personal image of Saraswati, it is supposed to be a sacrilege. Extremists destroy the painting calling it a "Muslim" painter's indecency, an attack on "Hindu culture", a natural reaction to an immoral act. Even the then political leadership condoned the event, which took place in late 1990s. In its extreme form, the so-called Newtonian "action-reaction theory" was revived in 2002 by the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots. And, The Times of India wrote extensively on it.
Husain is no more. Mansoori, who has met him several times, in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and London, is obviously sad that one of his mentors has passed away. Mansoori is a man of few words. He doesn't talk much, except art. The last time Mansoori met Husain was six years ago, in Mumbai. Aware that it was a question being posed to an artist who is supposed to be a Muslim, I ask Mansoori what he thought of the dastardly attack on Husain's work. "I posed the question to Husainsaheb once. The answer was quite straight. He told me, we should look forward, not backward. We must keep working, without thinking about what had happened. Then we talked on many things, art, artists, everything, but didn't recall the event", says Mansoori. There is reason to wonder. Why couldn't one allow the artist to use his freedom for himself and look forward, without calling him words? Artist is an artist, not a political animal. He has nobody to defend when his work is attacked.
A college friend, Biswaroop Das, who is professor at the Institute of Social Studies, Surat, had a chance meeting with an "old man" who had put up exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai in late 1970s. "I was told by a friend who accompanied me to the gallery to talk to the white bearded person. I thought why not, as his exhibition was on display. I didn't understand the paintings, so this man explained his paintings. The person talked to me, a complete novice in art, for about an hour, without any hitch. We also had snacks together, and parted company.
Before parting, he asked me how did I find the exhibits, and I said it was fine, though I didn't understand much of it. Coming out of the exhibition, I asked my friend who this person was. 'MF Husain, damn it', this friend declared. My mouth was wide open, I couldn't utter a word. He was so down to earth!", Das recalls.



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