Tuesday, December 12, 2006

My God Is Better Than Yours*

The toppling of Bamiyan Buddhas and the destruction of Babari mosque (accompanied by the world's contemptuous indifference), the late Pope John Paul's wish to see the whole world as Christian one day and the evangelical American president's claim that his God guided him to invade Iraq, not to mention the recent controversy about Prophet Mohammed cartoons and M. F. Husain's nudes, and religious schools working overtime worldwide to promote their own brand and communities attacking art for not accommodating their beliefs and declaring fatwa or violent ban on its exposure: all these acts are ways of saying: MY GOD IS BETTER THAN YOURS, AND WORSE, YOURS IS NOT WORTHY OF TOLERATION.

Ours is a time of religious and cultural arrogance. Wars are waged and cultural heritages are destroyed under pretense of making the world a safer and more civilized place. Instead, the world is becoming more dangerous and barbaric in the process. Freedom of expression is denied and opponents are killed or sent away to secret prisons for the interests of one community over others. And this practice is not limited to tyrannies; it is also at the core of the freest of societies. Destruction of Diego Rivera's mural of Lenin at the Rockefeller Center in New York, ban on Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" in India by Rajiv Gandhi, Rudolph Giuliani's threat to cut off funding to Brooklyn Museum for showing Chris Ofili's "Virgin Mary" that the Catholics found offensive, Theo van Gogh's murder in Amsterdam for his film on Islamic culture, resignation of New York Press's editorial team for not allowing reprinting of Mohammed cartoons, Drawing Center's ouster from the World Trade Center memorial for inclusion of others' (namely the Muslim's) opinion about 9/11 attacks, the fact that a Palestinian filmmaker's "The Valley of Vultures" (about the occupation-caused atrocities in Iraq) will never be shown in the United States and England, Christian opposition of “ The Da Vinci Code" and Sikh opposition of "Bole So Nihal", controversy over M. F. Husain's nude images, Indonesia's recent demand to stop local Playboy publication to avoid Islamic anger are but a few examples of the free world's hypocritical double standards about freedom of expression. Even those like Rockefellers who are into the arts become vehicle of restrictions on artistic freedom. In early 1990s, the American collector Chester Herwitz sponsored artist Vinod Dave to do a series of paintings on religions, but wanted the artist to refrain from portraying Christianity for Herwitz’s dislike of it. And Vinod once painted a portrait of Bhupen Khakkhar after ardhanarishwar (half-man-half-woman) form suggesting Bhupen's sexual orientation and he wanted to include it in his 1993 show in Mumbai, but the host Gallery Chemould excluded the painting from the show because of its subject. These actions are not of the fanatics and they only reflect personal dislikes of certain aspects. Still, they temporarily rendered the artist’s freedom of expression mute anyway.When art is attacked, it is a time for choice between freedom of expression and intimidation. Fear is the only argument for neutrality.

One can believe in anything, but can not impose it on others. In the age of globalization, propagandist religion is fast covering the planet as busily as propagandist politics of capitalism and far more sinisterly. Religions, ironically, are pointing guns at people in order to make a point. The resounding message from all the cacophony: WHAT WE BELIEVE IN IS BETTER THAN WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN.

Most religions are designed to promote conversion and have its supremacy over other religions. The Christians have been converting others from the day one and they warn us that theirs is the only true religion and their God is the only true God and if we believe differently, we will not be saved from hell. However, it permits artistic representation of God in human form (as it believes God created man in his own image). The mullahs brand all non-Muslims as Kaffirs or infidels and they have history of engaging in iconoclasm and forced conversion since its start. Islam advocates divinity in its abstract essence which is truly beautiful, but it does not permit divine representation in the arts for that very reason. Krishna asks us in Bhagavad-Gita to surrender only to Him. Hinduism is among the rare religions that do not mandate conversion. I want to direct attention of misguided Hindu hardliners to the very aspects of their own religion that they are ignoring when they attack or destroy art that they find offensive or sentiment-hurting. The Hindu divinity does not threaten with hell for non-obedience or lure of heaven for punishing unbelievers. Hinduism is tolerant, it does not seek converts and it is among the few religions that refuses to claim it is the one and only true religion. Arts in Hinduism are as much the vehicles of nirvana as they are a way of life and society. Depiction of divinity is encouraged in a variety of ways with equal ease: in human form-whether in a lavish wardrobe or in total nudity, in abstraction, in natural elements, even as formless (nirakar), attribute-less (nirguna) and nothingness (shunya). It allows changes, tolerates foreign influences, reshapes itself in the process, permits non-belief and still grants a chance of nirvana even to atheists. In Advaita Vedanta, it embraces all religions, respects contrary opinion and believes that God is within each soul. It considers eroticism as just another way to divinity and, therefore, it is not against nudity.

The Indian art is no stranger to the permissive nature of Hinduism where ancient scriptures enthusiastically praise the sensuality of a goddess's rosy-vermilion erect breasts with as much devotion as seeking sacred union with Godhood. Where did this hardliners’ abhorrence for nudity come from? That is not what we bequeathed; some of the most popular highlights of the Hindu legacy are Kama-Sutra and erotic sculptures of Konarak and Khajuraho. Nudity was publicly displayed in temples where great Indian monarchs sponsored social gatherings for awareness of dharma via beauty of human form in all its bare beauty. So the self-proclaimed moral police organizations that are after Husain need to educate themselves about the very basics of their own Hindu traditions. They are better off leaving art alone in which they have no authority. They seem to crudely mimic the Taliban iconoclasts. They don’t look good in their borrowed robes, they don't fit! The Taliban believes that universe started in the sixth century with emergence of Islam (like the Christian belief of beginning of the universe with the advent of Jesus Christ) and, therefore, they want to erase all traces of civilization prior to that! Hinduism does not make such an outlandish claim. Defending our culture is to stick to its fundamental mantra of tolerance and acceptance, and not by following the barbaric alien models. We will never say that our God is better than others'. That is not among our religious teachings. God of others is same as ours only with a different name, we are taught.

I suspect if these hardliners were present during the early days of India's independence, they would have destroyed our priceless Konarak and Khajuraho heritage! In fact, such a plan was thought of by the "moral guardians" of that time. Fortunately, they asked for Mahatma Gandhi's opinion about destroying "obscene carnal statuary" of these temples before actually doing so. And Gandhi was wise enough to discuss this with the Indian art guru Nandalal Bose and that saved our extraordinary heritage.

Our culture has ability not only to transform itself by absorbing foreign elements, but it also has strength to transform others comfortably to its own mould. Look at the Moguls who, despite being Muslims, patronized some of the greatest arts of all times. Muslim artists of India who paint divinity paint only from the Hindu pantheon. It is very much theirs regardless of their faith. Muslim musicians and singers have endlessly sung songs praising Hindu deities. Poets like Kabir and Rahim have guided both Hindus and Muslims and there are shrines all over India which both communities call their own with equal faith and ease. Some of the best Hindu prayers and Indian patriotic songs are sung by Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Mohammed Rafi, A.R. Rahman and other great Muslim artisans. That is the beauty our culture. Indian civilization because of its receptiveness and amalgamating nature has endured for millenniums as a living culture. It has endured because it has liberally allowed people of other cultures, other faiths and other nationalities to experiment with itself. It has remained the cultural melting pot of all time in the truest sense. The Egyptian, the Mesopotamian, the Greek, the Roman and all rose and fell because of the non-amalgamating nature of their civilizations. Only ours has remained a living civilization since its beginning. Now misguided hardliners groups are set to change that for worse and make our culture non-tolerant/non-receptive and join the league of those long fallen civilizations.

The problem with M.F. Husain is not his paintings of nudes. They intend to celebrate Hindu spiritual sensuality. What hardliners detest is his religion and his fame. If he was not a famous Muslim, no one would have bothered. It is all politics, not religion that enters into their brutal castigation of his art. I know Husain as a fine human being. He would be the last one to disrespect Indian culture, it is as much his as it is anyone's. He could never wish to hurt sentiments (see for yourself the kind of verbal abuse he is tolerating by comment posters on his personal website:
http://www.mfhussain.com ).

No one can justify the reasons Husain's opponents give for their attack on his works, except one that is puzzling. They argue why he does not paint the Islamic divinity? They know very well that no Muslim artist will ever paint the Islamic divinity even clothed, but for that very matter they want Husain to paint it in nude. This is their argument against Husain's claim that nudity is a symbol of maturity and innocence. They will not be convinced of his claim until Husain does what they want and prove his point. No one can comment on this matter except Husain himself. And why not all other Muslim artists who paint Hindu divinity also come together and respond along with Husain and do something to shut the opponents' mouth for good?


*(Title courtesy of Vinod Dave; this was the title of Vinod Dave's show in Mumbai last November for a related theme. Not many were able to grasp its essence except Akbar Padamsee and few others, not even the self-proclaimed cultural theorists: an indication of superficiality of our art scene despite its economic growth. Gulammohammed Sheikh has rightly said in a recent interview, "Art criticism is a casualty. With most art historians commissioned by galleries to do catalogues, there is little space for analyses and critiques except in niche journals. We deserve more, we need diverse opinions, independent voices to raise debates".)

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