Towering over his artwork, filmmaker and artist Muzaffar Ali contemplates where to hang the last piece that will complete the ensemble of his exhibition. He pushes back his silver-white locks of hair, scratches his chin, and commands, “Hang it there, and make sure you clean it up before you do,” then settles down to tell us how it all began — way back in 1968, when he had his first exhibition.
“I was a young and raw artist, but I discovered that I had an allergic reaction to oil paints. So, I began making collages in 1972 and haven’t ever stopped,” says the 78-year-old, whose repertoire of works, curated by Uma Nair, is on display at Bikaner House in New Delhi.
Known for his award-winning films such as Gaman (1978), Umrao Jaan (1981), and Anjuman (1986), Ali says his paintings and films feed off each other. “I take longer to make films — naturally that is more consuming — but I sketch and doodle almost every day. I am deeply affected by the philosophy of Rumi and in many ways this exhibition is dedicated to him.”
Recurring motifs and memories
Looking at the works on display — paintings, collages, sketches as well as design objects such as tables, chairs, screens, a door, a chess board — one gets the sense that the leaf is a recurring motif. Undertaken with a “ritualistic focus”, in Ali’s “arcadia of memories”, the leaves are transformed into engravings that become talismanic objects connected to his life, art and poetry.
According to the curator, Ali’s understanding of art goes beyond what one sees and his love for the earth is infinite. “Muzaffar is a polymath of varied proportions. This exhibition looks beyond the film director and places him in an abstract realm,” she says.
Another series that Ali has undertaken is a tribute to the car, bringing one up to speed on the vehicle that “defined the 1900s”. He also paints the horse, highlighting not just the animal’s “aggression and power”, but also its “agility and graceful strength that makes it distinct and definitive”.
A special section is dedicated to portraits of the women who have been important to him, both in his work and personal life. “I do not make too many portraits, but when I do they are of special women who have affected my life. I would say that the real people in my life always have an impact on how I essay women in cinema,” says Ali, well-known for his poetic approach to femininity.
What is most characteristic of his portraits are the eyes of the women that capture the pain and passion of life.
‘Muzaffar Ali: Mystic Journeys in Art’ is on at Bikaner House, New Delhi, till January 21, 2023.
The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a visual artist by night.