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THE SHASHI THAROOR COLUMN

Our stories

In the Mahabharata series, M.F. Husain recalls through stark images the kind of stories Indian society tells about itself.

Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

M.F. Husain: Driving home the continued relevance of the Mahabharata.

IT is not always that I find myself truly regretting an event I have had to miss because of pressing official commitments elsewhere, but recently my "regrets" at turning down an invitation were not just genuine, they were heartfelt. The event in question was the inauguration of an exhibition in the small Massachusetts town of Peabody — an exhibition of M.F. Husain's Mahabharata paintings. The irony of this celebration in America, at a time when Husain has been hounded from his own country by the threats of Hindutva chauvinists, did not escape me. So I was all the more sorry to miss this opportunity to pay him tribute, and show him solidarity.

Rich diversity

That M.F. Husain, pre-eminent modern Indian artist, and one of the country's best-known Muslims, should have derived inspiration from an ancient Hindu epic is not in itself surprising. Husain has always felt free to find his images and symbols in the cultural heterogeneity of his native land, and the Mahabharata, unlike its sacred twin, the Ramayana, is essentially a secular epic. It also occupies a unique place in the Indian national consciousness, one that lends itself remarkably well to artistic reinvention. The epic allowed Husain to take characters and images that are laden with epic resonance, and to alter and shape them to paint a contemporary canvas.

As a novelist who did something similar in my own The Great Indian Novel, I would argue that the Mahabharata is an ideal vehicle for a creative artist's efforts to affirm and enhance an Indian cultural identity, not as a closed or self-limiting construct, but as a reflection of the pluralism, diversity and openness of India's kaleidoscopic culture. The first of Husain's paintings in this series were created in 1971, a time of great turbulence in India, with the looming crisis over refugees from Bangladesh that would lead, by year's end, to war with Pakistan. What Husain did in 1971 (and again in later paintings) was to recall, through images starkly familiar to Mahabharata-conscious Indians, the kinds of stories Indian society tells about itself. There are images of battle and conflict, neighing horses and howling elephants caught up in the confusion of Kurukshetra, bloodshed and terror in every brushstroke; but there is also the timeless image of Ganapathi the scribe, merging in Husain's imagination with the sage Ved Vyasa, the epic's author, setting down the transcendent wisdom of the epic that would speak across the ages to the Indians of Husain's time.

In much of Husain's work, Hindu myths and epic narratives both contribute to and reflect the national consciousness that his own creativity has done so much to influence. In reiterating the epic, the artist and his audience both reaffirm the shaping of their own cultural identity. This is an important statement for Husain to make as a Muslim and an Indian: he is staking his claim to a heritage that some chauvinist Hindus have sought to deny to those not of their own persuasion. In recent years these zealots have sought to challenge Husain's right to use Hindu imagery, attacking exhibitions in which he has depicted nude goddesses, denouncing him for sacrilege in his borrowings from the epics. The vast majority of India's art-lovers and intellectuals have rallied to his defence — and with the Mahabharata they have rightly asserted that Husain has no case to answer. For, there is nothing restrictive or self-limiting about the Indian identity the Mahabharata asserts: it is large, eclectic and flexible, containing multitudes.

Right time

This is why I have been particularly happy to add my name to the petition circulated by many of our country's leading artists and writers, asking the President to confer upon Husain the highest award of the land, the Bharat Ratna. A number of creative artists have already been so honoured: Satyajit Ray, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan, Lata Mangeshkar. Husain unarguably belongs in this illustrious company. The petition argues that Husain's "life and work are beginning to serve as an allegory for the changing modalities of the secular in modern India — and the challenges that the narrative of the nation holds for many of us. This is the opportune and crucial time to honour him for his dedication and courage to the cultural renaissance of his beloved country."

Continued relevance

Looking at the Mahabharata-inspired work in this exhibition, it seems to me that Husain is simultaneously honouring and appropriating the epic. If there is a message to the work that features in this exhibition, it would be that of the continued relevance of the stories, issues and images he has derived from the Mahabharata. That, in turn, is a twofold message: first, of the need to re-examine the received wisdom of the epic in today's India, to question the certitudes, to acknowledge the weight of the past and face its place in the present; and second, to do so through a reassertion of the epic's dharma, defined not as religion but as the whole complex of values and standards — some derived from myth and tradition, some derived from our history — by which India and Indians must live. In offering his vision of the Mahabharata to India and the world, Husain has paid a fundamental tribute to his own civilisation, one which he has, through his reinvention of the past and his reimagining of the present, immeasurably enriched. He deserves the Bharat Ratna. www.shashitharoor.com

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