Mr. Husain is a Muslim who is fond of painting Hindu goddesses, sometimes portraying them nude. That obsession has earned him the ire of a small but organized cadre of Hindu nationalists. They have attacked galleries that exhibit his work, accused him in court of “promoting enmity” among faiths and, on one occasion, offered an $11 million reward for his head.
In September, the country’s highest court offered him an unexpected reprieve, dismissing one of the cases against him with the blunt reminder that Hindu iconography, including ancient temples, is replete with nudity. Still, the artist, 93 and increasingly frail, is not taking any chances. For two years, he has lived here in self-imposed exile, amid opulently sterile skyscrapers. He intends to remain, at least for now. “They can put me in a jungle,” Mr. Husain said gamely. “Still, I can create.”
Freedom of expression has frequently, and by some accounts, increasingly, come under fire in India, as the country tries to balance the dictates of its secular democracy with the easily inflamed religious and ethnic passions of its multitudes.
The result is a strange anomaly in a nation known for its vibrant, freewheeling political culture. The government is compelled to ensure respect for India’s diversity and at the same time prevent one group from pouncing on another for a perceived offense. Ramachandra Guha, a historian, calls it “perhaps the fundamental challenge of governance in India.”
The rise of an intense brand of identity politics, with India’s many communities mobilizing for political power, has intensified the problem. An accusation that a piece of art or writing is offensive is an easy way to whip up the sentiments of a particular caste, faith or tribe, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Indian political scientist, points out. He calls it “offense mongering.”
There have been isolated episodes of violence, and many more threats, often prompting the government to invoke British-era laws that allow it to ban works of art and literature. India was among the first countries to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses.”
In March, Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi novelist living in exile in the Communist-controlled state of West Bengal, was forced to leave for several months after a Muslim political party objected to her work.
Meanwhile, in the western state of Gujarat, controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a political psychologist, Ashis Nandy, was charged with “promoting enmity between different groups.” His offense was to write an opinion article in The Times of India criticizing the victory of the Hindu nationalists in state elections; the case is pending.
“That politics has gotten out of hand,” Mr. Mehta, the political scientist, argued. “It puts liberal democracy at risk. If we want social stability we need a consensus on what our freedoms are.”
Even threats of violence from offended parties are a powerful deterrent. In Mumbai, formerly Bombay, where Mr. Husain lived for most of his life, a recent exhibition on Indian masters did not include his work. Nor did India’s first modern art fair, held in New Delhi in August. The same week in the same city, a small show featuring reproductions of Mr. Husain’s work was vandalized.
Of Mr. Husain’s exceptionally large body of work — at least 20,000 pieces, he guesses — there are three that have angered his foes. Two are highly stylized pencil drawings of Durga, the mother goddess, and Saraswati, the goddess of the arts, both faceless and nude. The third is a map of India rendered as a female nude, her head in the Himalayas, a breast jutting out into the Arabian Sea. Mr. Husain insists that nudity symbolizes purity. He has repeatedly said that he had not meant to offend any faith. But one of his paintings, showing a donkey — to the artist, a symbol of nonviolence — at Mecca, created a ruckus among his fellow Muslims.