Nudity in art appears to be controversial whether exhibited in a public space in the US, or created by India’s most renowned artist. And so is the artistic treatment of religious icons.

India’s greatest contemporary artist, M. F. Hussain, died June 9th, 2011, at 95, still in self-imposed exile caused by the hundreds of legal cases filed against him in his home country over his paintings, some of which represent Hindu goddesses nude. In 1996, when Husain was 81 years old, controversy arose over those paintings (originally created in the 1970s), which were interpreted by some as being anti-Hindu. Hindu nationalist groups mounted a campaign of intimidation and violence against the artist. Proliferating legal cases and death threats in his home country led to his self-imposed exile from 2006.

In 2008 three Delhi High Court judges considered whether Hussain’s painting, Bharat Mata (Mother India), which depicts a nude woman on her knees creating the shape of a map of India, was sacrilegious. The bench rejected the petition seeking prosecution for offending Hindus, saying it was a work of art and citing India’s tradition of graphic sexual iconography.

Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul’s opinion is worth quoting – it has as much relevance in India as it would have in the US: “Pablo Picasso, a renowned artist said, ‘Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”

Running through case laws pertaining to obscenity from the juridical history of the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK, Justice Kaul said, “Art and authority have never had a difficult relationship until recently… Therefore, looking at a piece of art from the painters’ perspective becomes very important especially in the context of nudes. What needs to be seen is that the work is not sensational for the sake of being so and hence needs to be understood before any objections are raised…”

“Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read… ”

“It seems the complainants are not the types who would go to art galleries or have an interest in contemporary art, because if they did, they would know that there are many other artists who embrace nudity as part of their contemporary art… It is most unfortunate that India’s new ‘puritanism’ is being carried out in the name of cultural purity and a host of ignorant people are vandalising art and pushing us towards a pre-renaissance era.”

Justice Kaul concludes, “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.”