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Battling the cultural Taliban

June 15, 2011


MAQBOOL Fida Husain and Ustad Asad Ali Khan, who both passed away in the span of a week this month, were furiously creative artists whose eclecticism transcended stereotype definitions of religion and nationality.

Husain rose from a billboard artist for Bombay movies to global heights as India’s most sought after premier painter. His brush with religious fanatics at home who mocked and violently challenged his motifs as blasphemous was quite possibly a deliberate ploy to put art in a political context.

In a way his self-imposed exile following threats by Hindutva groups to harm him was of a piece with the prevailing political climate in India. Years of ideological decay of the political Left — once the mainstay of liberal arts in the country — followed by its recent electoral rout came with the ascendance of the Indian variant of a cultural Taliban, be they of Hindu or Muslim or of any other religio-political DNA.

Asad Ali Khan was the last of India’s legendary beenkars — practitioners of the ancient rudra veena. His orthodox grooming as a devout Shia Muslim had left enough space for him to be in obeisance to a deeply resonant string instrument that claimed lineage from Lord Shiva. Husain’s aloofness from religion did not obscure his reflections of it on the canvas. Khan’s engagement with religion represented a multilayered dialectic between faith and music that straddles much of our region. In his increasingly Talibanised milieu though he was susceptible to being seen as a sinner.

The ustad’s dhrupad ang music enriched the rudra veena as an instrumental variant of dhrupad vocalism. The genre has been traditionally rooted in the celebration of Shiva as both a subject of adulation and as an invisible but ever-present audience.

Husain was more at home with his understanding of ancient religions but it did not result in ritual or a deeper tryst with faith.

He flaunted the frequently present horses in his paintings as his muse.

But when he drew the horse in his ‘Iraq war canvasses’ it was as much a symbol of Imam Husain’s steed wounded in Karbala as it was a protest against unacceptable violence perpetrated by foreign armies on a peaceful people. That narrow religion, whose practitioners tormented the painter in his last years, is an ally of global militarism is evident from their critique of the iconoclastic Husain, and his of them.

Of course, this was neither new nor unique to India. Husain himself affirmed so in his tribute to Pakistan’s equally loved and reviled artist Sadequain. They met in Delhi in 1981. Husain’s reflections on the meeting offers a glimpse of the common cultural moorings they shared.

“Very seldom I use words. That too for a painter of my time,” he wrote. “With great reluctance my felt-pen begins to roll on a virgin white paper. An absolute trespass. Wish the instrument had been a Chinese brush, not pen. Sadequain has drawn inspiration from medieval Arabic calligraphy. His present phase is heavily etched with Quranic scriptures.”

Hussain was familiar with Sadequain’s work since the 1960s. Occasionally, he would peep through the Pakistan airline office in Paris or International Biennials where Pakistan’s ‘holy sinner’ was on display.

“Half open suitcases,” recalled Husain of his visit to Sadequain’s hotel room in Delhi. “Ruffled newspapers spread on the floor.

Suddenly, Sadequain bent over the newspapers reshuffling. Thought he is about to read out a shocking news item. Instead, he took out a broad point pen. Scribbled on newsprint the Arabic alphabet ‘noon’ twice, two semi-circles side by side with dot in each. Sadequain stopped there and chuckled. Said, ‘whenever so-called mullahs see this in my country, they proclaim the nudity of feminine breasts immoral’. Later the two alphabets joined together to become [another] word … and there the mullahs are terribly disappointed.”

He then goes back to Sadequain’s hotel room “where couple of thirsty glasses in search of ‘saqi’ almost crinkling half a (Ghalib) couplet. Sadequain with his quivering fingers dug out from his memory trunk a treasure of drawing on Sufi saint Sarmad. A series of drawing on SAR-BA-CUF, holding one’s own head in palm confronting the faces of existence. Sadequain on his arrival in India went straight to the tombs of Sarmad and Ghalib. His ‘jaam’ in his hands to touch the tombstones of two of his gurus — to listen to such serene silence with Sarmad and Ghalib.”

Sarmad as we know was beheaded on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb for apostasy, which probably became an inspiration for Sadequain’s ‘sar-ba-cuf’ that Husain openly admired. The tragedy of Sarmad — and to an extent of Husain and Sadequain in our times — is akin to the destruction of the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban or the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque by a politically motivated revivalist movement in India. The difference of course is that bigotry of the Taliban flows from the way they see their faith — through a medieval and barbaric lens.

It all gets more worrying when a democratic state like India finds itself helpless before, when not directly colluding with, its own cultural Taliban variants. The state was reminded of its responsibilities by a learned judge but to little avail.

Delhi Court’s Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul observed in 2008 after Husain went into exile: “It is most unfortunate that India’s new ‘puritanism’ is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and ignorant people vandalise art.” The high court found nothing wrong in Husain’s work and said art, both ancient and modern, had always used nudity.

Pakistan’s Fahmida Riaz once chided her Indian audiences thus: ‘Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle, ab tak kahaa’n chhupe thay bhai?’

(You have turned out bigoted like us, where have you been hiding, O brother?” Ustad Asad Ali Khan recited one to me that perhaps more neatly describes Hinduism’s foray into Semitisation and Islam’s surge towards the Taliban mindset.

“Zid to dekho jiski khaatir apna mazhab chhorh kar Mein huwa kaafir to wo kaafir Musalma’n ho gaya”

(Just as I left my religion to be close to my kaafir friend My sweetheart became a Muslim, pity the tragic end.)

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.