The first and the most common refrain in defence of the perverse paintings of Hindu Gods, Goddesses, symbols and icons of the late barefoot painter M.F. Hussain is how sex and nudity were “very much a part of medieval Indian art.” This refrain is followed up with numerous citations of nude sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses in Hindu temples, and in erotic Sanskrit prose and poetry. The much-cited example of Khajuraho is also brandished for good measure.
Then this defence concludes by saying that the contemporary opponents of Hussain’s art are regressive, communal, and right-wing Hindu fascists. Fortunately, over the years, this narrative has been debunked and today stands discredited as it should be.
In this backdrop, it’s useful to trace the rough timeline when Khajuraho attained global renown as an erotic-art (sic), tourist destination. A safe estimate would be around the time that the West became “sexually liberated.” In other words, when Western women vociferously asserted their sexuality and sexual taboos were eliminated.
As has been the case with India since Independence, India followed suit a few years later with the introduction and growth of the feminist discourse, and suddenly rediscovered the abundant sensuality lying in its own backyard: from Kamasutra to Khajuraho. A significant number of scholars from all over the world embarked on a vigorous pursuit of digging into the Hindu past to mine the treasures of eroticism in prose, verse, music, mythology, drama, painting, and folk.
Which brings us to the question: why was sex so ubiquitous in Hindu art? And why do large numbers of Hindus find sexuality as depicted by the likes of M.F. Hussain offensive? Two other questions also come to mind: why have no artists comparable to the unnamed and unknown medieval geniuses emerged out of post-Independence India in significant numbers? And why don’t we have temple- architecture and sculpture even bordering on the scale and eminence of India’s past in our present time?
In his definitive essay, Aims and methods of Indian Art, Ananda Coomaraswamy says:
This is the answer why millions of Indians are offended by M.F. Hussain’s perverse paintings, but regard as sacred the nudity and eroticism depicted in medieval Hindu temples. But popular consensus in contemporary public discourse claims that it is the nudity that offends these puritan Hindu fascists whose minds have been hijacked by the “pathology of Hindutva,” which in turn has hijacked the true Hinduism which celebrated sexual openness. But Monier Williams, quoted by Coomaraswamy, more or less accurately understood how sex is regarded in Indian thought:
Monier Williams echoes what was mentioned earlier: that before India’s cultural consciousness was dominated first by the impact of Islamic rule and later Victorianized, the association of sex with sin was alien to this culture which celebrated all facets of life as sacred. In the same essay, Ananda Coomaraswamy contrasts this with the attitudes in Europe.
As experience testifies, life is a unified whole broken into parts only by the mind. Indian thought assigns only a secondary significance to Mind. A common refrain of Indian philosophy is the stress it lays on tempering and transcending mental impulses, which are random and cyclical. This could perhaps be one reason why the abstract and impersonal philosophy of the Vedanta—and not psychology—has left lasting roots in India. Ananda Coomaraswamy then evaluates Western art in his own time.
Indeed, this imagination animates all great works of Hindu art as the magnificent sculptures and temple art at Konark, Khajuraho and other sites show. But Coomaraswamy’s insights will emanate from a mind that has understood both the essence and the impulse that animates such art by living the tradition that has facilitated its creation. This then is the reason why Hindus are offended by M.F. Hussain’s paintings because he misuses the selfsame openness afforded by the Hindu tradition in the name of upholding it.
One can illustrate this with an extraordinary scene from the 1997 Telugu film, Annamayya based on the life of the fifteenth century saint-poet-musician, Annamacharya. In this scene, Annamacharya is shown to be an ardent sensualist in his early youth. And so, to temper his overt sensuality, the God Vishnu descends to the earth in human form and takes him to a temple whereupon, Annamacharya points to him an array of erotic sculptures on its walls, and asks Vishnu what he feels about them. To which, Vishnu replies: “in those sculptures I behold the unseen parents of the entire inert and sentient Cosmos engaged in the Yagna of creation.”
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