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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Artists in India say they're being subjected to the worst campaign of politically inspired censorship in years. They say that - and these are the words they used: a moral police of cultural vigilantes have targeted art, literature and film.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports from New Delhi, the tension refocused India on a man many called the father of modern Indian art.

PHILIP REEVES: Some people compare him with Picasso; he disagrees. Over a morning cup of tea, he says only this…

Mr. M.F. HUSSAIN (Indian Artist): I am an Indian and a painter, that's all.

REEVES: Something's missing here. This man has forgotten to mention that he, M.F. Hussain, is perhaps the biggest figure in the artistic life of one of the world's most populous nations. Others know that. Listen to Rajeev Dhavan, an author and advocate in India's Supreme Court.

Mr. RAJEEV DHAVAN (Advocate, Indian Supreme Court): If you go out on an Indian street, you will see a splurge of color, which is just unparalleled anywhere in the world. You take all those colors and put them all in the mind of Hussain with an element of structure in them and you'll see something that is quite magnificent in his range of art.

REEVES: Listen also to Indian Visual artist and activist Ram Rahman.

Mr. RAM RAHMAN (Visual artist; Activist): For many of us, he has been a symbol of the new India that came up after independence - secular, modern India, you know, a culture, which was shared by all. And he's been remarkable as a contemporary artist because he's one of — well, he's actually the only artist who has mined our mythological traditions.

REEVES: Yet, if you want to meet this man, you won't find him at home. These days Hussain prefers to stay away from India, despite, says Rajeev Dhavan, the wishes of most of his countrymen.

Mr. DHAVAN: India reveres Hussain. It is politically motivated Hindus who have decided to target him in the hope that these terribly cowardly acts that they indulge in will win them support in society and votes when it comes to voting for the right-wing Hindu parties of India.

REEVES: Here's the issue. Some years back, Hussain, who's Muslim, painted some works in which Hindu deities were pictured in the nude. There was a huge outcry from hardline Hindu activists. They attacked a gallery, took out arrest warrants and destroyed some of his works.

Not long ago, they mobilized again. This time, Hussain had done a painting in which a map of India is portrayed as a semi-naked woman, an image assumed to represent sacred Mother India. The hardliners got a court order, seizing Hussain's property, although this was later put on hold by the supreme court.

Hussain's supporters point out that in India, there's nothing unusual about erotic religious imagery. You can find naked figures, for example, carved in ancient temples. Ram Rahman also believe the campaign against Hussain is purely political.

Mr. RAHMAN: And the sad thing is that it's having a terrible impact on our contemporary culture because once you unleash a campaign of hatred as they have done, it gets very hard to pull back from it.

REEVES: This demonstration in New Delhi wasn't suppose to be about M.F. Hussain, but it didn't take long for his name to come up.

Professor PARUL DAVE MUKHERJEE (Art professor): I think that the whole nation has ignored completely what this man has done over the last nine decades for Indian art.

REEVES: In fact, the protest was about the treatment of a student at a prestigious art college in the western state of Gujarat, a stronghold of Hindu nationalism. The student produced an image of the Hindu deity Kali, wielding weapons and giving birth. Hindu activists were quick to pounce.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: So I was sitting there and checking the papers. When I heard commotion, I had rushed out. By the time I came out, I was told that the student had actually been bobbed and arrested by the police and everybody was shell-shocked.

REEVES: Parul Dave Mukherjee, an art professor, says the student's work hadn't even yet gone on public display. It was part of an examination presentation. That didn't deter the authorities keeping the student behind bars for five days before he got bailed.

(Soundbite of debate)

REEVES: The debate over where to locate the boundaries of free speech is playing out on India's TV screens. It goes well beyond paintings of deities. It's also about the rise of raunchy Western style material in India's media. Even the smallest incident can trigger outrage, as Richard Gere found out when he publicly kissed the actress Shilpa Shetty.

Ashwini Mahajan is from the radical Hindu VHP organization. He's among those campaigning against M.F. Hussain.

Mr. ASHWINI MAHAJAN (Member, Hindu VHP Organization): We always try to cover our body, our own body and at least the mother goddess. We would like to have the best of images of our mother goddess, not naked images.

REEVES: Mahajan has a question about Hussain.

Mr. MAHAJAN: Why he makes naked images of mother goddess, a religion on which he doesn't believe.

REEVES: These days, M.F. Hussain's works sell for millions. Sometimes he's in Dubai, sometimes New York. Today, he's in London, quietly awaiting the arrival of the visitor beside the private elevator, which opens onto his Mayfair penthouse. Hussain is immaculately dressed in black cotton and as usual is without shoes.

He doesn't look much like a man in his 92nd year. He has a shock of bright white hair and equally white carefully trimmed beard and lively twinkling eyes. He says he still paints for about five hours a day.

The conversation turns to the campaign against him. Art, he says, is always ahead of its time. Remember the horrified reaction to the impressionist when their work first appeared. And he adds…

MR. HUSSAIN: Mostly people are ignorant, what is the language of painting. You know, they're ignorant. It's so difficult to, you know, make them aware, but time will teach them.

REEVES: Hussain says his intention was never to offend, but he stands firm on his right to paint what he wants.

I guess the question that I'm asking you is that, well, with the religious one…

MR. HUSSAIN: You're joining it, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REEVES: And you're answer, I think, is that I don't regret painting what I painted but I am sorry that sometimes it…

MR. HUSSAIN: I don't use the word regret. There's no such thing. As they say in love, when you love somebody, you never say sorry. Because it's just that love - it's just (unintelligible).

REEVES: Hussain says he intends to return to India later this year to receive an award. Coming home, says the lawyer Rajeev Dhavan, may not be easy.

Mr. DHAVAN: I think there are grave dangers in his return. He is 92 years. He has to get off at the airport. He has to then get into the car. There would be a huge crowd waiting there for him. Whether safety can be provided for him to go from his car to the court cannot be (unintelligible).

REEVES: Rahm Rahman and many others say ultimately, Hussain's return is vital for India's artists.

Mr. RAHMAN: For the artist community here, if Hussain who is now 92 - if dies outside our country, it's a shame that we will never overcome.

REEVES: Rahman and others want the Indian government to provide Hussain with protection on his arrival because of the risk he'll be attacked. Hussain's unenthusiastic about that idea.

Mr. HUSSAIN: A protection? You go along (unintelligible) a bodyguard with the gun? That - I just like to live really normal and peaceful, that's all.

REEVES: Of the controversy tat swirled around him for years, India's foremost artist has this to say.

Mr. HUSSAIN: There is not a single line or even a dot, which is done with hatred. There's no hatred in that. It is pure love.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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