When one thinks of Muzaffar Ali, the first images that come to mind are from the world of his film Umrao Jaan: havelis, grandeur and passion. But his creativity is not limited to the medium of film; he left his imprint on various aspects of culture, such as music, art, craft and textiles.
The Other Side, the filmmaker-artist’s first exhibition in 15 years, was supposed to be one of the major art events in Hyderabad this year, but it has now moved online, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and nation-wide lockdown in India. In the process, his art has reached more people, and across different geographies.
A collection of 43 artworks, in both watercolors and oils, it is a continuation of Ali’s long affair with landscapes. Even when they’re viewed virtually, they transport you into the midst of nature.
Each artwork has a single mission: to position itself at the axis of the beauty and wonder of the outdoors.
Some feature leaves, others are adorned with horses, but what all the artworks have in common is a placement within a similar context and circumstance. Ali has always been inspired by landscapes; he has done a whole series of paintings on the convergence of landscapes one sees while driving.
“I find them both meditative and spiritual. Wherever I go, I seek them out,” he explains. Ideas come to the artist when he goes on walks, takes in scenes, when he sees leaves on trees; there is a stack of leaves on his desk at all times.
Ruby Jagrut, the show’s curator, writes in her keynote that these paintings ‘depict a strong influence of his past’. When asked to elaborate, she notes that with the passage of time, Ali’s works and style have changed. “With age, his paintings have moved towards serenity and calmness, while his older works were more demanding and attention-seeking. We see the change he has gone through. Art is usually a manifestation of the artist's experiences that could be political, spiritual or personal. It reflects in his works,” she says.
Colour is an important factor at play here. Browns, whites and blacks form the trinity of colours which bring to life the filmmaker-artist’s vision. Ali explains that this choice of colour palette comes from the twin disciplines of oil and watercolours: “The blending of colours is very organic in the latter, as it uses water as a binding agent. I’ve used different shades of brown as it blends very well. The viscosity of oil and its richness makes it an interesting medium to explore,” he says.
The larger oil works in this collection are enlivened by bursts of Urdu calligraphy, which Jagrut says ‘abandons its regular shapes and takes some artistic flights’. She adds, “It no more remains a text in the way we know it for the shapes of the letters, but the meanings probably get morphed into newer dimensions. It not only adds to the aesthetic, but also becomes his unique style.”
Jagrut is of the opinion that these paintings showcase Ali’s current frame of mind. She says, “With time, his paintings moved from being just the object in centre to more subtle expressions. You see more of white on white now; more calm, more peace, more ease.”
The title of the exhibition – The Other Side – is rooted in the idea of showcasing different aspects of one’s personality.
“People tend to forget that even artists have different sides to them. I’m into various things: music, painting, design and weaving – all of these are different facets of me. Each of them inspires the creativity in me,” Ali explains.
Jagrut says that in viewing these artworks, we are peeping through the myth of Muzaffar Ali and embarking on a journey to the other side.
“It shows us how he has been a seeker of beauty and grace all his life. The side which speaks more about the person than persona. Paintings are more intimate than other art forms, as they give us the opportunity to see what’s not obvious,” she says.
In this venture that comes more than half a decade after his last exhibition, Ali’s process has given way to newer forms and compositions. Does his work then represent a quest? “Everyone is on a quest,” he says with a laugh, “My work gives me a lot of spiritual satisfaction, which is very important as it comes with a balance of aesthetics and humanism.”
Ali, who was supposed to be in Hyderabad for the show’s launch, was about to set off on his travels when the lockdown was announced. Is a virtual experience the way to go, even for art exhibitions? “It’s important for people to feel the art. The scale, the texture, lighting and people’s imagination are very important, to have a dialogue between art and art lovers,” he says.
He adds after a pause, “But perhaps this is a new way of viewing art. Everyone is trying to reinvent, to see how to make things work, and this is a precursor to that.”
For the moment though, the artist is at his Gurgaon residence, organising his sketch books, playing with his dogs, walking his horse, and of course, painting.
Glimpses from The Other Side:
View this exhibition online here.