Unravelling Vulgarity: All you Wanted to Know about M.F. Hussain's Alleged Art

An essay critiquing M.F. Hussain's vulgar depiction of Hindu Deities in his paintings and art
Unravelling Vulgarity: All you Wanted to Know about M.F. Hussain's Alleged Art

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:

By many students, the sex symbolism of some Indian religious art is misconceived: but to those who comprehend the true spirit of Indian thought, this symbolism drawn from the deepest emotional experiences is proof of the power and truth alike of the religion and the art. India draws no distinction between sacred and profane love. All love is a divine mystery; it is the recognition of Unity. Indeed, the whole distinction of sacred and profane is for India meaningless...

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:

...in India, the relationship between the sexes is regarded as a sacred mystery, and is never held to be suggestive of improper or indecent ideas.

Ananda Coomaraswamy
Ananda CoomaraswamyWikipedia

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.

...the possibility of such symbolism lies...in the acceptance of all life as [sacred], no part as profane. In such an idealisation of life itself lies the strength of Hinduism, and in its absence the weakness of modern Christianity. The latter is puritanical; it has no concern with art or agriculture, craft or sex or science. The natural result is that these are secularised, and that men concerned with these vital sides of life must either preserve their life and . religion apart in separate water-tight compartments, or let religion go. The Church cannot complain of the indifference of men to religion when she herself has cut off from religion, and delimited as ‘profane’, the physical and mental activities and delights of life itself.

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.

Passing through the great galleries of modern art, nothing is more impressive than the fact that none of it is religious. I do not merely mean that there are no Madonnas and no crucifixes; but that there is no evidence of any union of artistic with the religious sense... Such art appears therefore, let us not say childish, for children are wiser, but empty, because of its lack of a true metaphysic. Of this the cries of realism and ‘art for art’s sake’ are evidence enough. A too confident appeal to the so-called facts of nature is to the Indian mind conclusive evidence of superficiality of thought. For the artist above all must be true, for the first essential of true art is not imitation, but imagination.

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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