Generous strokes of beauty

Whether it is music, films or couture, Muzaffar Ali's activities are all influenced by Sufi philosophy. He talks about why this is so.

Updated - November 13, 2021 09:48 am IST

Published - November 27, 2010 02:34 pm IST

Of all things beautiful: Muzaffar Ali. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Of all things beautiful: Muzaffar Ali. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

And there was this adult pain. Down deep in the soul. Because of which was laughter. Ifeanyi Menkiti

Pain is the puppeteer orchestrating the strings tied to Muzaffar Ali's soul and mind. Or is it the other way around? “There is a deep pain. Inside. The pain of the soul. From which comes poetry, love and all things beautiful”, he says.

Much like the Mevlevi dervishes, a conversation with Muzaffar Ali tends to twirl its way in and around the listeners, liberally sprinkled with reverential invocations of Rumi's sayings. Recently Muzaffar Ali joined Begum Abida Parveen for the first time on stage for an evening of poetry and dohas with “Paigham-e-Mohabbat” (Message of Love). As their voices rose in the magnificent Chowmahalla palace, Hyderabad, one could not help wonder about the ties that bind the mortal with the magical.

Still relevant

While “Umrao Jaan” cemented Ali's place in the history of Indian films, his directorial debut was “Gaman” on the plight of the dispossessed; a story of cultural schism brought on by the demands life on the archetypal Indian family. Rural migration and its effects made for a compelling subject; one that is relevant even today?

“Nearly 32 years later, ‘Gaman' is more relevant today than it ever was. I see Ghulam Hassan in the taxi drivers of Mumbai today,” Ali says. Why aren't such films being made today? Money, he responds, with thinly disguised contempt. “There is no money to be made with such films”.

What about filmmakers who have been pushing boundaries, Vishal Bharadwaj and Anurag Kashyap for example? “Curse words alone don't make a good film. There needs to be a larger story with universally pertinent context,” he points out. Consequently, the appreciation and propagation of intelligent cinema would mean addressing the collective consciousness of its consumers. The audience.

“The role of the omnipotent male lead in big budget movies needs to be challenged, if not done away with completely,” Ali suggests. “We are subject to films where the hero is larger than the film and whatever issue the film tries to tackle, however relevant or mundane, get pushed to the background. A female lead centric film just doesn't exist as a concept.”

Aren't films the rabbit hole we scurry down to escape from reality? “We need a renaissance to pull out of this rat race for the big bucks, which defines the quality of our cinema,” he counters. “Put in place a non-compromising national policy that oversees the quality of films being made; push for higher standards.” Since the words national and policy usually end up in a bureaucratic mish-mash of good intentions and poor execution, it is quite evident that this is more than a mere idea, but with Ali not divulging more, an idea it shall remain for now.

Ask him about Sufism and its place in his life and his response is “A true revolution can only be brought about by poetry. And Urdu is its language.” Conceptualised and initiated by Ali, Jahan-e-Khusrau — the annual international Sufi festival held in New Delhi — is a convergence of music, poetry and Sufism. “The oneness of Sufism can end strife. The strife within us,” he ruminates.

Paigham-e-Mohabbat, an album that tackles the subject of strife, features lyrics by notable Urdu poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Rahi Masoom Raza and Ahmad Faraz. Earlier albums include Raqs-e-Bismil, a tribute to Rumi's couplets when he first worked with now-frequent collaborator, Abida Parveen.

Apart from music and films, Ali is also active in Dwar Pe Rozi (Employment at Doorstep), an organisation he set up 20-odd years ago to provide sustenance for the people of Kotwara, the village he was born and raised in. At present the organisation runs a school, craft centre and a studio, the base of operations for ‘Kotwara', the couture house he runs with wife Meera.

Explaining the connection between contemporary fashion and his village, “The visuals of my village and life there inspire our creations.” But before he expands, we need to visit the past and pin down two events that shaped the man we see today. In Kashmir while shooting “Zooni”, a film he never completed, Ali discovered Amir Khusrau's poetry and subsequently Sufism; and he learnt couture design from Mary Mc Fadden, the film's costume designer.

As he puts it, “Clothes are like long lost friends, they come to me through those who wear them and the aura which they live with...a revelation, a high, a dance meditation. They go beyond comfort to becoming one with the body. They are, in essence, simple, self-effacing, yet radiating. They are futuristic because they will speak to you a decade from now.”

Throw in Meera's sensibilities as an architect and you have a line that adheres to the finer aspects of Kotwara's indigenous weaving techniques, like chikan and zardozi.

Process of creation

Painter, poet, designer, film-maker, artist, music lover, revivalist and social worker... labels Ali wears with refreshing nonchalance. How does he approach the process of creation? And, more importantly, if he is none of the above, what is he? “To help me visualise what I must create, I paint,” he explains. “No matter what I intend doing, I first draw it. I'm a man of the world. Wherever I go, I belong to that place. Delhi, Paris or London... wouldn't matter because I become someone from that place.”

For a man who shares the wisdom of his experiences and paints the canvas of life with generous strokes of lyrical and visual beauty, it is quite ironic that Ali's sense of oneness comes from a “human anguish of helplessness and separation”. “ Seene mein jalan aankhon mein toofan sa kyon hai/Is shahr mein har shaqs pareshaan sa kyon hai/Dil hai to dharakne ka bahaana koi dhoondhe/Pathhar ki tarah behi o bejaan sa kyon hai .” (“Anguished and turbulent…in soul and sight/Is the man of this city/A throbbing heart seeks reasons to beat…./Why is it hard like a stone…lifeless, listless.”)

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