Muzaffar Ali would often pick up fallen leaves during his walks around his farmhouse in Gurgaon. A few of those have made their way into many of his Untitled paintings that weave together his online exhibition ‘The Other Side’ on Kalakriti Art Gallery’s website. Ali has returned to exhibiting after a gap of 15 years. The filmmaker acknowledges how there is nobody who doesn’t have a memory associated with a leaf and reminds how everybody has been collecting flowers and leaves in their books for ages now. The renowned filmmaker and textile designer, who has given us cinematic gems such as Umrao Jaan, says that symbolically, in Sufi terminology, the dry leaf is the meeting with the beloved and a metaphor for going back to one’s source. Using it against a background of the faded worn paper, thus, made a lot of emotional sense to him.
These leaves elicit fond memories of Kashmir in Ali, 75, where he had stayed for three years from 1987 to 1990 during the course of the preparation and shooting of his unreleased film Zooni, which is based on the famous Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon with actors Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna in lead roles. The film couldn’t see the light of the day due to uncertainty in shooting schedules, actors not turning up and curfew in the city. Ali completed 40 per cent of the film at the time. But he did see the four seasons repeat themselves there — the leaves coming into being, blooming in spring, entering summer, then going into autumn and then finally “the fall”. “When I was there, I was experiencing the place. Whether I was accomplishing anything or not, it was taking space in my heart and mind. Camera mei jaye ya na jaye, I was taking in the visuals,” says Ali. Born into the royal family of Kotwara, he places his vast collection of leaves in shades of dark brown, light brown and black into collages in over 40 paintings. He says, “There’s a symphony emerging from these leaves. Once we pick them up and see something beautiful in it, it then becomes a story. I can put one leaf with another and then it becomes a kind of poem.”
The landscapes with mountains in some of the frames are a result of these very musings of Kashmir — the valley, change of seasons, and even the experience of the skies and the mountains. In the pieces named Secrets of the Divine and Keeper of Secrets 2, Ali has painted horses as his lead protagonists –- a very important component of his imagery. When in Kashmir for Zooni, he wanted horses to connect the multiple film scenes shot at different locations. “I had one horse who became very close and friendly to me during this time. A horse for me and many other people have been a creature that does something to the inside of a person. Even here where I stay, I have a horse with whom I have a dialogue every now and then,” he says.
Many landscapes such as Moving Landscape and Converging Landscape, some replete with tall and towering trees and no human figures, evoke a feeling of the idyllic village landscape, bringing us reminders of the harsh realities that his directorial debut Gaman in 1978 addressed. Here, Farooq Sheikh was seen stepping into the role of a migrant named Ghulam, who leaves behind his wife and ill mother in the village and moves to Bombay in the hope of a better livelihood. As he ends up as a taxi driver and frustrations take over, the film captured the pain and frustrations of the migrant workers, a pressing issue that gained prominence since the nation announced a lockdown due to Covid-19 in March. Ali says, “Gaman was like a forewarning and dealt with all those things that we’re creating an imbalance in the society. Why do people have to leave their homes and come into a metropolis to etch out their living? When people leave their village, they lose a lot of their cultural moorings and the emotional connection with their family, nature and landscapes. So the landscape becomes a kind of loneliness. Now that loneliness is there even in a kind of collective movement through the landscape. Today it is a very harsh reality for people who were displaced in the cities. Today, they don’t know where to go, how they will reach there, how they will be treated and what they will do once they are there. The bigger question is why do people get so helpless that they have to leave? Today we are not looking at crafts, agriculture and rural jobs seriously. That was the question I posed in Gaman – seene mei jalan, aankhon mei toofan sa kyu hai, iiss sheher mei har shaqs pareshan sa kyu hai?”
According to the show’s curator Ruby Jagrut, the aim of the show is fairly simple. “A lot of people don’t know that Muzaffar has been a passionate painter (since the age of six),” she says. The exhibition, which had to be pushed online by the Hyderabad-based art gallery due to the lockdown, is, therefore, an attempt at understanding his other side as a painter. As a curator, Jagrut took a video interview with Ali, in which he spoke about Kabir, Rumi, Sufi saints and the culture he has been born and brought up in, all of which rightly find their own place in the show.
The exhibition is on view at www.kalakritiartgallery.com till July 31