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Is Husain the biggest danger to the art summit?
Rediff News - 9/18/2009            

It's a question worth asking. Who should artist-in-exile M F Husain be more afraid of: the vandals who flay his art off the canvas, deeming it an insult to 'Indian culture', or savvy commercial enterprises reluctant to include his works in India's first annual international art fair of its kind, on the ground that they present a security threat to works worth crores of rupees exhibited at the event.

For the second consecutive year, as the India Art Summit readies itself for the Delhi event this month, there are doubts whether it will finally include Husain's works. Or, will the fair's organisers, Hanmer MS&L, be content to have him present 'in spirit' like last year, eschewing his works with the plea that business is business, especially in lean times.

It is a supreme irony. Maqbool Fida Husain, whose place in art history is unquestionable, who was largely instrumental in making a market for Indian contemporary art in the global art scenario, unlike many whom the market will make in that barren, no man's land of 'safe' form and content, seemingly poses the biggest danger to the art summit today.

The law of the land, it seems, matters not at all. Nor do last year's landmark judgments of the Delhi high court or Supreme Court that unequivocally quashed some obscenity cases slapped on Husain's work in the past 15 years.

Demonstrating an understanding of the conceptual underpinnings of art, the judgments commented on the need to understand a contemporary art work from the painter's perspective and on artistic principles before notching up any objections, placing these acts squarely within the rubric of Constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and principle of pluralism.

Delhi high court Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul's May 2008 ruling put it succinctly: 'Pluralism is the soul of democracy. There should be freedom for the thought we hate. Freedom of speech has no meaning if there is no freedom after speech. The reality of democracy is to be measured by the extent of freedom and accommodation it extends.'

To this add Justice Kaul's reminder through Picasso's quote -- 'Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art' -- or observation -- 'It seems that the complainants are not the types who would go to art galleries or have an interest in contemporary art.'

Isn't public space a domain where the law of the land is applicable beyond doubt, where infringements of Constitutional freedoms can and are contested? The statement underlines the extent to which the idea of public space has been devalued in recent times, making way for a monetised perception of space which operates like a gated community doing its utmost to keep out potential trouble and 'politics', as if that is possible.

Indeed, after clarifying that the fair was primarily meant to promote younger contemporary artists, Gautam was quoted in the report as saying, 'I wanted every frame to match the walls and told the galleries not to bring in works that would court controversy.'

What kind of a brief is that? Does the India Art Summit have a list of themes, styles or individual artists deemed controversial; further, controversial for whom and for what reason? Ultimately, the defensive reaction of the organisers has had the same exclusionary impact as the offensive response of Hindutva proponents to Husain's art. And that is scary.

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