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From brothel to brush

Contoversial Pakistani painter Iqbal Hussain talks about his works

For me, the real work of art was done by Renaissance painters Iqbal Hussain

LIFE LIVED: A worker with her twins. One of Iqbal Hussain's work

Provocative, obnoxious, distasteful and even unnecessary. You might attribute these terms once you see Iqbal Hussain's huge oil paintings of nude women - plump, voluptuous, disfigured and pained. Sometime crying with her head dunk in (wash) basin, holding a mirror reflecting her past, or just waiting. And then, there are other women, fat but beautiful with kids, their clothes going awry, ravishing girls preening through a window, either anxiously or just admiring their beauty in a looking glass. But then, this is the life that one of the most rebellious and controversial painters from Pakistan, Iqbal Hussain, has lived and hence, expressed them on his canvases.

Hussain was born and brought up in the red light area of Pakistan, Hira Mandi in a family of courtesans. And hence, whatever he saw around him, he eked them in his works. "I have no intellectual pretensions," says this 70-year-old painter. "I paint sex workers because I know them from close quarters. After earning through my paintings, I could have easily lived in a posh location but I didn't do that. I still live there with my family," says this father of five daughters, two of whom are studying in the U.S."

Hussain was in Delhi this past week as a part of the Habiart Foundation's effort to bring artists from SAARC countries to India, to exhibit their works here and vice-versa.

Life at risk

Not that it was always easy for Hussain to exhibit his works in his home country. More often than not, his works were thrown out of the galleries, especially during General Zia-ul-Haq's regime.

``Three times my works were thrown out of the Lahore Art Gallery, (the biggest and the oldest gallery in Pakistan). Once because I had painted a girl who was wearing a suit but not a drape and the sleeves of her kurta were transparent. Once an artistically inclined maulana with his goons came to my gallery and saw a wooden figure at its entrance. He warned me, `whatever artistic work you are doing is very good but keep this figure inside. Keep in mind that this is an Islamic country'.

I understood his undertones and kept that inside," recalls Hussain.

But that did not wilt his spirit. He opened a restaurant Kuku's Den (Kuku is his pet name) to display his works. And he keeps sculptures of Shiv-Parvati and Hanuman there too. Though now Hussain has many "liberal minded" admirers of his works in his country, yet he claims his life is at risk.

"I still get threatening calls," he says. General Pervez Musharraf, he says, is sensitive to art, even his daughter is studying art and so far, he hasn't faced much problems.

Hussain, who learnt art from the National College of Art in Pakistan, also taught there for more than two decades. Critical of most first-generation painters in India including M.F. Hussain and Raza, he says, "For me, the real work of art was done by Renaissance painters. Why do we run after Picasso? Only because he is a foreigner? This is only mental ghulami at work. In Pakistan too, teachers get foreign scholarships for a couple of years, go abroad and after coming back, teach their half-learnt skills to their students and thus make them move away from the rich traditional artistic culture that they can represent the country with. It worries me."

Hussain will revisit India next year with his works.


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