From Umrao Jaan To Bridal Couture: Muzaffar Ali's Memoir Examines His Prolific Artistic Contributions

The artistic legacy of Muzaffar Ali has left a mark in fashion and films.
The artistic legacy of Muzaffar Ali has left a mark in fashion and films.L:, R: Hindustan Times

The underpinnings of faith have always clung to Muzaffar Ali's body of work like a fever dream. In December 1992, when the dust of the rubble from Babri Masjid’s demolition was still settling, the aesthete in him could only find a fitting riposte in music. Akin to a wandering dervish, he gathered a kafila of over a hundred people to peregrinate on foot from Waris Ali Shah's Mazaar in Lucknow to the Angola temple built by his forefathers, serenading the growing intolerance in the country with bhajans and qawwalis.

From the very outset, a transcendental spiritualism trickled into his films like Gaman (1978) and Umrao Jaan (1981), gushing mellifluously through his ballet drama Dariya Prem Ka (2018) directed for the 13th edition of the Sufi Music Festival, to eventually percolate within his paintings and zardozi couture. Creativity, according to the auteur, is how you respond to the external stimuli of life and how they shape you.

“It was very important for me to sit back and look at how things went into my life and how they came out of me,” he said at the International Business Literature Festival last year in Delhi, deconstructing how his autobiography Zikr: In the Light and Shade Of Time came into existence from the spartan notes he jotted on his smartphone.

Published in November 2022 by Penguin Random House India, Muzaffar Ali wrote his book in less than six months under the spectral influence of his father Raja Sajid Husain, the erstwhile ruler of Kotwara. In the span of his first few chapters, he conjures up a vignette of the man who sired him — how the rakish aristocrat studied in Scotland, drove sports cars and then suddenly after 1957 gave up mill-made clothes to embrace khadi. This odyssey of his India’s freedom struggle had a lasting impact on his family, who emerged from the ‘trappings of luxury’ to relinquish their taluqdari (feudalism) and reinvent themselves.

“He could have easily sent me abroad to study but he sent me to Aligarh, a very important landmark for me that injected an egalitarian way of looking at the world,” muses the artist, whence speaking about his days at college. As a romantic young man, he would steal time throughout his academic career to immerse himself in the intoxicating poetry of Rumi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Rahi Masoom Raza, luminaries who were to watch over him stumbling through life like guiding stars.

Switching over from science, he found himself in Kolkata earning close to Rs. 300 a month and spending half of it on his hostel rent, while he apprenticed at an advertising agency headed by the filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Heading down to Mumbai, Muzaffar worked with Air India where he was able to witness the machinations of art in the realm of business.

“What we were selling was not just an aeroplane seat but an entire culture,” he harks back at what he learnt under the patronage of Bobby Kooka (commercial director) during his 11 year stint with the airline in the communications department. The burgeoning exodus of people from the villages that had begun well before the 70s into metropolitan cities like Mumbai mesmerised the young Muzaffar with how willingly the itinerant labourers cleaved to the ordered chaos of their new surroundings. The old mother and wife back in the village, out of sight, were tucked away into the recesses of memory as an obsession with eking out a meagre living overshadowed them completely.

This shaped the inner workings of his characters in Gaman (1978), his debut film starring Farooq Shaikh and Smita Patil in leading roles, a requiem for the dying souls of daily wage migrants.

A film is a question we ask of ourselves. About the beauty of being what we are. Of belonging. Of the fragrance within.
Muzaffar Ali (in an interview for Architectural Digest India)
Shooting in Kotwara for his first film, 'Gaman'.
Shooting in Kotwara for his first film, 'Gaman'.The India Magazine

And in this manner, Muzaffar began his precarious relationship with Hindi cinema or ‘Bollywood’ as it is contentiously called until today. “It is a place only for successful people,” he laments. “Others die in penury and loneliness.” The four more features that followed, most popular being Umrao Jaan (1978) and Anjuman (1986), were all syncretic products of his preoccupation with personal dignity, which he felt was under threat from the cultural erasure of changing times. The most significant revelation in the autobiography digs out the reason for why his last film, Zooni still remains unreleased. Dwelling upon the lore surrounding 16th century Kashmiri poetess Habba Khatoon, the exploration of culture in the valley was superseded by the exodus of Hindu Pandits in the 1990s.

Among the other international crew collaborating on Zooni, it was Mary McFadden, the American designer who suggested that his sprawling family estate at Kotwara could easily be the site for a revivalist studio. This was the inception for the House of Kotwara, founded in 1990 to emerge as a renowned haven for 'slow fashion', elaborate lehenga ensembles and chimerical chikankari embellishment.

The auteur with his daughter, Sama Ali
The auteur with his daughter, Sama AliShubham Lodha (Verve)

Without skipping a beat, the polymath weaves faith through the lattice of art and design, insisting “there is no fashion without faith”. When shooting for Zooni in Kashmir, he established an everlasting connection with Sufism, sensing a deep-seated tranquility under the simmering conflict in the Kashmir valley, like “fresh grass waiting to sprout from under the snow”.

In 2001, he wielded his profound admiration for Sufi poetry and music as a soldering tool to strengthen cultural unity across the two countries severed by Partition, organising the first Jahan-E-Khusrao. This festival has consistently featured an illustrious lineup of cross-cultural performers including Abida Parveen from Pakistan, the Rumi Group of Iran, Sultana Choudhuri from Bangladesh among others whose voices and instruments have resonated under the haloed dome of Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.

A painting from 'The Other Side', an online exhibition.
A painting from 'The Other Side', an online

Not many people are aware of the paintings by Muzaffar Ali but nevertheless, they exist miraculously like everything else this man seems able to master, bedaubed with dry leaves and horses among other elusive symbols languishing in the magnificence of nature.

Today the ingenious septuagenarian sustains a fulfilling life in his stately farmhouse at Gwal Pahari near Gurgaon, with 15 dogs and a horse, and his walls adorned with his own paintings. His daughter Sama and third wife Meera Ali (a gifted architect) run the House of Kotwara with the assurance of headstrong businesswomen. 

The last chapters of the book on his life trail off with a paean upon his undying gratitude to the Sufi saints who inspired the Rumi Foundation and informed his intrinsic worldview. With white hair flowing down to his shoulders, the Padma Shri recipient believes Sufi poetry is the apotheosis of love and surrender, ideals he has tried to live by ever since he can remember.

You can purchase your copy of Zikr: In the Light and Shade Of Time here.