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Monday, May 23, 2022

Creative freedom of artists is in danger in India

Vandana Kalra writes: Incident at MS University in Vadodara shows how limits on artistic liberty have grown

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: May 10, 2022 8:59:11 am
Last week, members of right-wing groups barged into Maharaja Sayajirao University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara, Gujarat.

On June 9, 2011, when artist M F Husain passed away in London, he was miles away from his home, the land that he so fondly spoke about in all his conversations. Friends recall how much he had wanted to return home in the years before he passed away but the threat of violence that had driven him to a self-imposed exile in 2006, at the age of 90, also prevented him from returning.

Arguably, the most recognised modern Indian artist, the maverick faced the wrath of the right wing, which alleged that his depictions of Hindu deities had outraged the community’s religious sentiments. His home and exhibitions had been ransacked and he had received multiple death threats, apart from the numerous court cases registered against him.

The art community had stood by the nonagenarian but the state, perhaps, failed him. Since then, however, the limitations on artistic freedom of expression seem only to have grown.

Last week, when members of right-wing groups barged into Maharaja Sayajirao University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in Vadodara, Gujarat, they were on a specific hunt. They were looking for artworks they had apparently viewed on social media and found “distasteful and hurtful to religious sentiments”. One series reportedly featured cut-outs of gods and goddesses with newspaper reports of crimes against women, while another was a collage with the Ashoka pillar positioned in an “obscene manner”.

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Resisting the break-in, the faculty and staff of the department argued that the exhibition was still to be opened for the public to view and the display was being finalised. Speaking to the media, the dean, Jayaram Poduval, denied that the frames were part of the evaluation submissions and said that there could be a conspiracy against the faculty. It was also emphasised that the 2007 resolution would have been followed, according to which all works would have been checked and approved before the opening of the annual exhibition. The “resolution” itself was passed after a case was registered against then M S University post-graduate student Srilamanthula Chandramohan for his alleged objectionable artworks.

In the recent instance, some of the defenders argued that the punishment was being meted out before a crime was committed but others raised a larger and more pertinent question: Should it at all be punishable to depict gods and goddesses? Isn’t all art open to interpretation and an artist entitled to conceptualise and create at free will?

Often, when this debate comes up, India is cited as the land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho, associated with libidinous narratives in ancient India, and sceptics pronounce that it is unlikely that contemporary artists will have the same freedom as their ancestors. There can be no great art without experimentation but we are now restricting free thought and creativity when individuals are still learning the ropes. Art students are now being targeted within the confines of the university campus and even before letting them make an attempt, we are telling them they have failed. In 2019, Chennai’s Loyola College withdrew paintings that right-wing groups termed as “anti-Hindu” and “anti-India” and admitted to a lapse, regretting the “insurmountable hurt” caused.

The scare of a backlash is real. Inside closed doors, artists now admit to being over-cautious and fearful. In public spaces, meanwhile, they are wary of viewers who might deem their work offensive.

Artist Balbir Krishan, a double amputee, recalls being caught off-guard when in 2012, his exhibition celebrating homosexuality in Delhi was vandalised and he was beaten up. The art community, again, came together to support him but regrettably, that rarely has a definitive impact.

Public outrage does lead to conversations on the subject and an assertion of the need to protect artistic liberties, but the vandals often succeed in fulfilling their immediate endeavour of bringing down the work and the artist is left alone in the end.

Should artists then concede and accept overt censorship as fate? Though for a young artist it is difficult to match Husain’s might and courage, the veteran could be an inspiration. He defended his work for almost a decade before he left India.

For the sake of art and what it brings to society, it is integral to respect the fine line between freedom of expression and reasonable restrictions. Each artwork shares the vision of its creator and its purpose is beyond ornamental. Artists aspire to encourage conversations and seek to find unorthodox ways to question and provoke. Not everyone needs to be in agreement and differing opinions should be embraced, not condemned.

An artwork that appears to be problematic, might still be necessary.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2022 under the title ‘The caged artist’. Write to the author at

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