Google doodle reminds us of the landmarks in art history. Today, Google tells us, is M.F.Husain’s 100th birthday. Does it matter anymore to us? He was a Qatari citizen towards the end of his life and was in no mood of returning to India, where he happened to spent the major part of his lifetime. A real international citizen, Husain lived his life the way he wanted. He died in London. Had he been living, he would have been a hundred year old legend. If his memory was intact today he would have woven the history of Indian art in a magical realist fashion. He had his falls and risings. The major fall was his adulation for Indira Gandhi during the Emergency days. Then it was not just Husain. Khushwant Singh too had praised it and he too was not the only one. Husain could redeem himself by shifting his focus from Indira Gandhi to Madhuri Dixit and then to Vidya Balan. Before he could eye other dames in the Indian silver screen, the Hindu fundamentalists had done the job. Husain was on the run since then. Don’t mistake Husain’s or Rushdie’s or Taslima’s running from fatwas and their sudden found identity as asylum seekers with that of the millions of refugees running away from war torn Syria and other East African countries to the western world. There is also qualitative difference in asylum seeking. Your dead bodies will not be washed ashore if you are already a celebrity. You get body guards, palaces and Ferraris.
I am not planning to go delve much on Husain. On the contrary, I want to connect the Husain case with the recent Fatwa issued against the legendary music composer, A.R.Rahman and the Iranian film director Majid Majidi by a Mumbai based Sunni organization called Raza Academy (not to be confused with our own Raza of the art scene). The ‘crime’ that these two creative geniuses have done is this: Majid Majid directed one of the most ambitious films on Prophet Mohammed. Named ‘Mohammed: Messenger of God’ this film has our own A.R.Rahman as the music composer. Senitments Hurtitis suddenly come to play. Prophet Mohammed denied worshipping idols. And he asked his followers not to capture the image of god in any physical medium. God is an abstract concept. What a beautiful idea it was. God, the most abstract idea in the world and one could seek God in anything. Hinduism tries it in a bit more concrete way. It says, god resides in everything; in stones, thorns and even in rust. If you break it Lord Narsimha will come out. The power of atoms; once split they can destroy the world and at the same time save it. Two different religions see gods in two different ways. But there is something called human curiosity. When people are curious, they would ask, why so many gods (33 crore in total). Why can’t we have something in one and the same, in an abstract form? So there is another school of thinking which even sees God as one and the same with the human beings and another school that denies the very existence of god. Both go hand in hand. The same curiosity could be applicable in the case of Prophet Mohammed. If Mohammed was a living being, why can’t he have a physical form? Why can’t a creative magnet imagine the life and times of Prophet Mohammed? Why shouldn’t there be some music around His life? But sentiments hurt, especially when it is religious.
(Google Doodle for Husain's 100th Birthday today)
Sentiments hurt and religious sentiments hurt absolutely. Suddenly, A.R.Rahman became a Muslim. Is he a Muslim? According to Rahman, he is a Sufi. Sufis are not Muslims per se. Even if Sufis could be considered an offshoot of Islamic thinking, why can’t Rahman give music to a movie that deals with the life and times of Prophet Mohammed? Why should there be a Fatwa at all? But religious fundamentals do not need a strong reason to issue a Fatwa. The same thing also happened when the most garish movie ever made in the Indian film history, Messenger of God- MSG by the Dera Saccha Sauda leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim. This break away Sikh group speaks of Sikhism in a different parlance. The mainstreamers do not like it. They fought wars on the ground and later they fought it in theatres. Gurmeet Ram Rahim deserves no Fatwa, he just needs a very caring advice from some brilliant film makers. He needs help. He could be happy for his movie only because it would be archived as an example how not to make movies. But Majid Majidi’s movie on Prophet Mohammed is a costume drama or a Bollywood flick, where Mohammed rights a wrong world with his horses and swords. But the Fatwa came at its heels, far from Iran, from here, from our own Mumbai where once the people from Iran came fleeing and settled like sugar in milk. Who cares about histories?
What interests me, perhaps is not Fatwa. But the immediate response of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that looks after the worldly activities of human soul when it gets entangled in other religious faiths. Their job is to bring the hapless souls that have strayed to other religions back to the Hindu fold. It is called Ghar Vapsi. Rahman is one such strayed soul. He is first a converted Hindu, then a world renowned musician, that’s the way the VHP thinks about him. The moment the Raza Academy issued a Fatwa against Rahman, the VHP came out in the open saying that Rahman should come back to Hinduism (not really but to Hindutva). Once he is back to Hinduism, then no Islamic forces could touch him. Rest assured as the rest will be handled by the VHP goons. For the beginners, I should just say a few lines about Rahman’s religious background. He was born to Hindu parents. His father, R.K.Shekhar was one of the best Music Arrangers in the south Indian film industry and also had composed independent music for a few films. Shekhar lived films and neglected the family to certain extent. A gifted keyboard player and a child prodigy, Dilip Kumar (A.R.Rahman later) grew up in the complete absence of his father. When he was ten years old his father passed away. The family had no income and Dilip Kumar had to pitch as the bread winner for the family. He stopped his schooling and took up the job of a keyboardist with the music troupe of Ilayaraja, another legendary composer.
(Iranian film maker Majid Majidi)
In 1987, the family of Dilip Kumar converted to Sufism. A Hindu astrologer gave him the name ‘Alla Rakha Rahman’. In an interview with Nasrin Munni Kabir, Rahman said that he never liked his name Dilip Kumar. He wanted to change it. The change in religion itself was a reason to have a new name and he settled for A.R.Rahman. Now, it is well known that Rahman takes up regular visits to the Ajmeer Dargah in Uttar Pradesh, which considered to be a famous Sufi Shrine along with Nizamuddin aulia’s dargah. The name Rahman and his music were never a problem for the music lovers in India or elsewhere. In this context we should remember the Shehnai Mastero, Ustad Bismillah Khan, who lived and played Benaras the seat of Hinduism and played in the temple festivals without any religious conflict. Rahman was not a problem for the Hindu fundamentalists in India. It is so funny how Rahman’s music became a problem for the Sunni believers. Rahman responded to his Fatwa in a very serious way. He said that he was given the gift of music by the Allah himself. Once he is dead and there at the Allah’s presence, what he would answer if He asks why he did not make use of his talent for a film about the Prophet. Rahman was responding to the Fatwa which read that he would be answerable before God once he is dead and taken before Him.
Rahman stands at a curious threshold of Indian film music not only because of his captivating music but because of his enigmatic persona which is as curious as his Sufi belief. He never embraced Islam or Sufism for marrying again. He is well settled with his wife, kids and mother. In India, people convert to Islam only to marry twice or thrice as it is allowed in Islam. Dharmendra converted to Islam technically to get married to Hemamalini while keeping his first marriage going. Rahman was a different case. He came to the national attention along with the whole crew of the film, Roja in mid 1990s. Though the Kamal Hasan starrer Nayakan had brought Mani Ratnam’s name to the Bollywood and to the north India in general, it was Roja that consolidated his name. Along with Mani Ratnam, the careers of Arvind Swami, Madhu (heroine) and the music director, A.R.Rahman were also established. While Arvind Swamy, the hero of the movie remained largely a south Indian actor, Mani preferred to do movies first in Tamil and later in Hindi, Madhu could bag some roles in Hindi films, it was Rahman who became the biggest achiever in the film with his ravishing music.
Roja’s music done by Rahman was not just captivating for the melody of it. It had a lot to do with the mainstream nationalism that was the debating theme of the movie. Set in Kashmir, this film speaks of a hero who would die for his country rather than yielding to the pressures of the dissenters and terrorists. Rahman’s music was the perfect blend that brought the ethos of nationalism with love, scenic beauty with sacrifice. The large ensemble of violins exploding to the peak when Swamy falls on a burning Indian flag literally placed Rahman as the musician of the nation, irrespective of his religion. Closely followed was an assignment to redo a version of Vande Mataram, the militant national anthem, which spuriously vies with the much more accommodative Jan Gana Mana for attention and acclamation. Considering the origins of the songs from Bengal, with two different mindsets to nationalism, one could see how Vande Mataram became very palatable to the taste buds of the right wing fundamentalists. Rahman became quickly accepted to the larger Hindu fold. His Sufism was taken as a mid-way. In Jodha Akbar, a Hritik Roshan-Aishwaray Rai starrer movie that brought the idea of religious integration through the marriage of a Rajput woman and the Mughal Monarch, Akbar, Rahman composed the songs and even sang one of the best kawalis every produced in Indian music industry with the lyrics going Kwaja mere Khwaja. Rahman was an integrating figure.
Now Rahman is suddenly pushed to the Muslim identity. If he is a Muslim, then only he could be afraid of the fatwa. As he is given a Fatwa by an Islamic group, he should be a Muslim. There goes our common place logic. So there is no other way for him to remain as a Muslim or Sufi. If he remains there he would attacked. To escape the attack he should come back to the same Hindu fold from which he had walked off out of ‘ignorance’ at some point of time. It was a mistake as far as the VHP is concerned and they are ready to forgive Rahman. It sounds exactly like a film plot much consumed in India. A hero is weak till he realizes his origins. That is always Brahminical Hindu origins. The moment he comes to know about it by a crisis or by the intervention of a God (if you need religious approval) or by the revelation of a scientist or a social worker or a historian (that gives a larger and logical appeal to the public), he becomes strong and invincible. Nobody could match up to him then. Rahman is exhorted to realize and recognize his origins as a Hindu. They are calling him back to the fold so that his soul and body could be saved?
The question is, doesn’t it show the other side of the same terrorism that the Sunni Academy wants to perpetuate by issuing a Fatwa. It almost sounds like that if Rahman remains what he is today, the Sunnis will torture him and as he is a Muslim and refuses to come back to the original fold, then the VHP also would torture him on that very refusal. Then their sentiments get hurt and the displaced target would be A.R.Rahman himself. If the VHP activists are really real and they are nationalistic as they claim to be, don’t you think that it is their responsibility to act against the Fatwa itself than targeting the victim on the same basis of religion? It is here I think of M.F.Husain. If Husain had taken up his boyhood days of growing up in Pandarpur in Maharashtra and involving in all the religious festivals and the number of time he has painted Ganesh for the consideration of the right wing fundamentalists and had expressed his willingness to convert to Hinduism, wouldn’t he have been saved from the disgrace of becoming a refugee by the fag end of his life? Why the VHP did not suggest this to him? Why they were witch hunting him?
We are living in a very difficult time. Yesterday I came to know about the VHP asking the superstar Rajni Kant to avoid doing a biopic on Tipu Sultan. Rajni Kant has not replied for or against the request. But I am sure that Rajni cannot offend the Hindu outfits in the country. He has stopped atrocities in screen and to certain extent he had withstood the political pressures within Tamil Nadu. But for the first time he is facing a very ugly issue; a request to reconsider a role, not from his fans but from a religious group. The other day, we came to know that the central government has withdrawn the postal stamps depicting the portraits of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Dhabolkars, Pansares and Kalburgis are getting killed every day for speaking up. Where are we coming from, where are we going and what are we?