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Mapping Muzaffar Ali’s life in paintings

The filmmaker is showing his art in a solo exhibition after two decades. Featuring sketches, collages and paintings—mostly made during the pandemic—the show is a celebration of light, colour and memories

The filmmaker created hundreds of works during the pandemic
The filmmaker created hundreds of works during the pandemic

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Waqt ka ehsaas, rishton ka ehsaas badal gaya (the feeling of time and relationships, it changed),” reflects Muzaffar Ali when we asked about what changed for him during the pandemic. The filmmaker, dressed sharply in black, reflects on every word that he utters, even as he smiles and greets people at the Bikaner House, New Delhi, for the opening of his exhibition, ‘Mystic Journeys in Art’.

Ali is feeling a myriad of emotions at the exhibition, which is being presented by Masha Art. For one, he’s worried that Salvador, his four-year-old pet Saluki, isn’t allowed inside the venue. “He should be, he’s very well behaved,” he adds. A little later, he remarks that the floor is spotlessly clean. One can suddenly imagine him on any of his film sets, paying attention to the tiniest of details. The strains of Abida Parveen’s sufiana voice echo in the viewing area, serving as the perfect backdrop to the hundreds of works of art created during the the pandemic.

There is, however, work from the 1980s as well, and for anyone familiar with his aesthetically decorated home, Kotwara House, much of the artwork is already an intrinsic part of the family’s home. The exhibition, then, is a “mapping” of his life.

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During the pandemic, Ali painted like a soldier through the day. “It was making me feel warmer, richer, not deprived,” he adds. He has never shied away from experimenting. In his five-decade-long career, Ali has held many roles—of a filmmaker, designer, musician, author, and more. Art scholar Uma Nair, who has curated the show, calls him “a man of many chapters”. “He has been creating works of art for several years but nobody knows ‘Muzaffar Ali the painter’. He is quiet and humble about his talent,” says Nair who took one year to put together this exhibition. She made multiple trips to Kotwara House to go through the material very carefully. “I needed to sift through the works and see what best represented him as an artist,” she elaborates.

Portraits form an integral part of the ongoing exhibition
Portraits form an integral part of the ongoing exhibition

While the landscape paintings are an expression of “line and colour, form and fervour”, for Ali these are also “calming commentaries on the life I lead and the emotions that rise and fall, and stir my inner recesses.” When you view his abstract works, you can’t help being struck by the texture of blistered and scarred paper on which they are made. This experiment seems like a reminder of Baroda-based artist Himmat Shah’s collages, wherein he stubbed cigarette butts to creates a dramatic texture and tension on paper. However, Ali’s art has its own distinctive voice, that straddles the modern and contemporary with elan.

Interestingly, Ali, a self-taught painter, has had close associations with artists from collectives such as the Bombay Progressives and Group 1890, among others. In his decade-long stint as deputy publicity manager of Air India between 1970-80, Ali bought a lot of art for the airline and met artists such as S. H. Raza, V. S. Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, J. Swaminathan, Nasreen Mohamedi, among others. “I was fortunate to have lived with their art in my office,” he says.

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At the Bikaner House, Ali’s exhibition has been displayed in different rooms, which he calls maqaams,or spiritual stations. It’s apt, one would think, given the calm that one feels upon viewing these collages, furniture pieces, sketches, and paintings. One starts with a section called ‘Autumn: A Second Spring’, which celebrates his love for leaves as seen on mixed media. The exhibition then proceeds to segregate his sketches, collages, and paintings, which celebrate his love for cars and horses. Ali’s Rumi series is an ode to the Persian sufisaint’s poetry. 

The portraits are compelling, especially those of his wife and business partner, Meera, and of the protagonists from his films, Umrao Jaan and Gaman. One also comes across large canvases such as Awaaz e Ishqand Asp e Himmat. The show comes across as a celebration of light, colour, texture, calligraphy and memories. Ali, who is having a solo show of this kind after two decades, is hopeful that the exhibition “will open important frontiers; allow for a dialogue, an in-depth contact between me, the artist, and those responding to it.”

‘Mystic Journeys in Art: Muzaffar Ali’ is showing till January 21, 2023, at the Bikaner House, New Delhi

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