Classically speaking, art is a concept supposed to be forbidden to those who are not sufficiently prepared. Art and chastity don’t exactly blend, maybe because art is primarily about alternate thinking and about constructing something not previously existent.
It can be said that art is about finding and appreciating beauty in the least unexpected of places or at least the quest for the same. In every possible way, art is what idealism and chastity is not.
With the change of the spirit of times, everyone had access to art. Quite rightfully so but with that emerged opinions on art and artists. Quite a “democratic” move, but art and artists have been challenged in the most non-democratic way, thereafter.
Art and religion have always had an uneasy relationship. Similar is the relationship of art and literature with law. Whether it’s the hardliner approach towards artists by the fundamentalists, curtailing the “freedom of expression”, or encroaching upon an artist’s creativity, the world has seen it all.
Painter, Maqbool Fida Hussein was slammed for painting nude images of Hindu Goddesses. Nudity in art is not a crime but he was accused of hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. Newspaper headlines ran and the lines of “MF Hussein: Painter or butcher?” and the Picasso of India put himself on a self-imposed exile. He is an Indian who had to leave India. Period. His crime? He painted a Hindu Goddess sans vexamentum and that he did not mean it as an insult is evident from his self-imposed exile. Justice Kaul, who passed the judgment on the case against the painter, held that MF Hussein is entitled to his freedom of expression and that nudity in art is not a crime. The painter died in grief, away from the country he so fondly called his own.
Famed author Salman Rushdie has seen it all, too; Courtesy- The Satanic Verses. His novel was called anti-religious and a “fatwa” issued against him. He was held guilty of blasphemy against the prophet of Islam (PBUH).
The Satanic verses controversy resulted in the abolition of the crime of blasphemy in English law. After the heated and violent reaction of the extremists to the publication of The Satanic Verses and Rushdie being accused of blasphemy or unbelief, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie in the year of 1989. Numerous killings, attempted killings, and bombings was the result.
Here it is pertinent to talk about the French satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo. It is a magazine featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. Hebdo is no stranger to controversy and is said, rather criticized to have taken pride in satirizing even the most serious of issues, which at times have led to tragic results. The “absurdist” satire is probably not for the common masses to digest or judge.
It is said that the most potent argument for censorship of art is that a form of art might prove to be touching the wrong chords with the sentiments of a community. However, the argument against censorship of art looms like an omnipotent shadow, the government and its policy makers might not be able to tell the “good” art from the “bad”. Intentions would be difficult to justify against a piece of art.
Once upon a time, Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” was called immoral, vulgar and devoid of any artistic value. This so called “non-art” is now credited as having changed modern art forever. Interesting, how our artistic tastes and sensibilities change, with the spirit of the times.
Also, “Angels and Demons” have faced the fury of the masses (read Catholics), though it was later revoked on grounds of not “assisting “ in “drawing” more attention to the film, thus making it more “popular”.
Coming back to Maqbool Fida Hussein, things were not smooth with his film “Meenaxi: A Tale of three Cities” either. The song “Noor-Un-Ala” from the movie allegedly had its lyrics directly taken from the Quran. The All-India Ulema Council complained that the Qawwali song in the movie was blasphemous and the movie was pulled off from cinemas a day after the objections were raised to the song. The council was supported by Muslim organizations like the Milli Council, All-India Muslim Council, Raza Academy, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind and Jamat-e-Islami. It was stated that the words were a phrase referring to the divine beauty and they were praising the female protagonist played by Bollywood actress, Tabu. M F Hussein’s son also confirmed that there was no intention to hurt Islamic sentiments. However, due to the numerous protests, the artist himself pulled his movie from the theaters.
Artistic freedom and social responsibility are not on great terms with each other and artistic pieces have been vandalized in more ways than one. From here ensues a higher social responsibility which is why artistic freedom cannot be unrestricted.
In the case of Otto Preminger Institute v. Austria, the Austrian Courts made interesting observations about artistic freedoms,it was observed that:
“..Artistic freedom cannot be unlimited. The limitations on artistic freedom are to be found, firstly, in other basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution (such as the freedom of religion and conscience), secondly, in the need for an ordered form of human coexistence based on tolerance, and finally in flagrant and extreme violations of other interests protected by law…..”
With a plethora of cases on the acceptance and legality of art in India, artists defamed, works of art destroyed, the common Indian is left to decide whether the Indian elite has lost touch with Indian religious sentiments or is the concept of the freedom of expression a mere fallacy in India.
Written byAnwita Mukherjee
Anwita Mukherjee is a lawyer by education and has just finished her LLM from Jindal Global Law School. She has worked as a lawyer for a couple of corporate houses and is presently trying to metamorphose into a successful legal journalist.