Iqbal Hussain and His Women

Posted on March 18, 2009
Filed Under >Pervaiz Munir Alvi, Art & Literature, People
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Pervaiz Munir Alvi

Iqbal Hussain (1950- ) is often termed as the ‘controversial artist of Pakistan’. Although he is equally masterful in painting landscape and still life, yet he is best known for his portraits–mostly portraits of women that is.

He paints his landscape in romantic hues of dusty pink and soft blue and because of that has been called “Turner/Monet of the Punjab Landscape School”. But in contrast to his style of landscape he chooses to paint his women in bright colors under full light with purposeful brush strokes. He is an impressionist and a realist at the same time. It appears as if intentionally, in his impressionism style landscapes he takes his viewers to a retreat of romantic dreams, but in his portraits in a clear opposition, he forces his viewers to see life in its stark realities.

So what is controversial about the art of Iqbal Hussain? Nothing really if you ask any art critic. An artist and his art could be escapist and realist at the same time. What makes him ‘controversial’, and that is mostly within Pakistan, are not his contrasting artistic styles but his conscious choice of female models and the way he presents them. Iqbal Hussain as a realist does not exaggerate or minimize the physical characters of his subjects like say Picasso would.

He paints his women the way they are in their real life. He just happens to show the side of life we wish not to acknowledge existing in our midst.

His fault is that he brings out in the open the ‘controversies’ that already exist within our societal norms and values; an act for which ‘respectable’ society has termed him as a ‘controversial’ artist. He is controversial because his women do not depict our perceived image of our self. We would like to think that his class of women does not exist in our Pakistan.

Because of his choice of female models, Iqbal Hussain like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is called a “painter of prostitutes and dancing girls”.

Most of his models are the ‘professionals’ from Shahi Mahalla of Lahore whom he is either related to or he knows them personally. The famous red light district of Lahore is his Montmartre and Pigalle. His home is his Moulin Rouge.

But unlike Henri his girls are not shown in dancing forms, lifting their skirts, and exposing their legs and petticoats. Iqbal’s women are not nude or semi-naked or involved in some illicit acts as their profession might suggest. They are not even dancing suggestively or posing provocatively as they do during their work hours.

They are mostly some unknown and unremarkable women of modest looks and appearance. They are just there as they are in their real life; fully clothed stout women, sitting, squatting and with their blank eyes and resigned looks staring at the artist or simply at the empty air in front of them.

Ah, but they are the prostitutes from that ‘bazaar’ and that’s what is ‘controversial’ about Iqbal and his portraits. Iqbal’s women, unlike most respectable Pakistani women do not have their heads and bosoms covered with dopattas and chadors of ‘modesty’. They are bare footed and without the shoes of ‘respectability’. But what troubles us most in Iqbal’s women is the fact that they silently poke our conscience and raise questions about the otherwise obvious hypocrisy of our society.

They raise the questions that ‘respectable’ Pakistani society rather not to ask of it self. And that is what makes Iqbal Hussain so ‘controversial’!

Contemporary Painting in Pakistan, 1992.
By Professor Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, Ph.D.
Ferozsons, Lahore, Pakistan

18 Comments on “Iqbal Hussain and His Women”

  1. Anwar says:
    March 18th, 2009 11:54 pm

    Thanks PMA – I found this article to be very interesting and even more interesting is the fact that I did not find anything controversial in IH’s art – to be honest all models seem to be normal ladies who resemble my current and former khalajans and apajans… some bajis also…
    In a typical household doupatta used to hang on a chair or on some oblique shoulders but bosoms would get quick coverage only if an elder walked in – quite normal actually.
    Perhaps people wanted from this talented artist some anorexic models but t0 their disappointed fantasies IH offers them chubby ones – that may be problem for a few.

  2. yaseen ch says:
    March 19th, 2009 1:10 am

    yes,no thing controversial .
    but i think women may find something controversial because of their mindset. I think there is great similarity in women thinking all over the world as compared to men.

  3. Muhammad Rizwan says:
    March 19th, 2009 1:17 am

    In fact I can not even judge these ladies are the prostitutes one merely by looking at these pictures. I didn

  4. Tazeen says:
    March 19th, 2009 5:08 am

    Loved the second portrait.

    I have interviewed Iqbal Hussien as part of an ethnographic study I did and found him to be a very humble and to the point person.

  5. aTii says:
    March 19th, 2009 9:09 am

    Well written article, No doubt our society is hypocrate, but so are most societies. You cannot marvel at his depth of simple expressions with not so straight lines, paintings that somewhat leave a lump in your throat. As if you may want to extend your hand and take those subjects out of that misery. Its the sheer agony of consistent humiliation and helplessness yet willingly acceptance the inevitable is what’s on the faces of some of his subjects. Some are disgusted, some seem painfully cruel and yet others are just mere plain emotionless almost dead in their faces. Its not a topic that we dont know about, many writers, authors have vividly described the everyday life of a prositute in India & Pakistan.
    Its not the matter of acceptance, we all know it. I feel at times, its also a matter of simple aesthetics. Are you going to put a picture of a pros from mahla in your living room, most likely not. Then again, his art is not meant to be some ornament on some rich man’s wall. I have yet to see some of his landscape impressions.. Thanks for posting this article.

  6. Hina says:
    March 19th, 2009 11:13 am

    Thank you, thank you for this article which brought back a memory from book I read a few years ago, was deeply touched by it, had full intention of researching some of the Non-fiction characters that were mentioned—but then like all good intentions, never got it realized.

    I first heard about artist Iqbal Hussain when I read the book “The dancing girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan’s Ancient Pleasure District”
    by Louise Brown . This is a not of book by some western lady who happens to take a stroll down Heera Mandee one day with a translator on the side.She actually lived and slept side by a side with a family of – ( I loath to use the word prostitute, to quote one of the working gal from the book “We Were Artists . . . Not Gandi Kanjri” )

    To go back to the topic at hand, I am going to quote what Louise Brown wrote about Iqbal Hussein:

    “I have a room in the home of Shahi Mohalla’s most famous resident, Iqbal Hussain, a professor of fine art who paints portraits of the women of Heera Mandi. When I came to Lahore previously it was Iqbal who taught me most about prostitution in Pakistan and about life in the mohalla. He is an authority on the subject because he lives and breathes it: it’s in his blood. He is the son of a courtesan and has spent over half a century in Heera Mandi, growing up in this house that lies in the shadow of the mosque and in the longer shadow of social stigma. His friendship gives me some protection now that I’ve returned to stay in the mohalla and witness its life first-hand”

  7. Hina says:
    March 19th, 2009 11:58 am

    Quoting one of the respondent here” Are you going to put a picture of a pros from mahla in your living room, most likely not.”

    Actually I would very much like the opportunity to hang one of Hussain’s pictures in my living area-and no I am not talking about his landscapes.

    I will like to hang his art not as some personal expression of social critique/injustice Or nailing it one the wall thinking it’s a cutesy free-spirit kind of thing to do, imagining the guests’ wide eyed disbelief when I tell them what kind of women the artist is using for his models.

    I will hang it because the art is brilliant in its simplicity-the artist is drawing what he sees without any hidden claims or pretensions. I love the fact that most of the women are barefooted in his pictures.To me it is the epitome of obliviousness- the utter lack of consciousness on the parts of the model.They all seem to be saying “this is me and this is my life’ no apologies and dare I say no regrets?

    On a lighter note: Somebody said this art is controversial in homeland because it shows women without covering their heads or chest-they obviously never laid eyes on the humongous posters that adorne the front side of Cinema buildings showing women with their exaggerate Assets.

    Finally, can anyone direct me as to how to acquire Iqbal Hussein’s art, not sure I be able to afford the originals put reproductions will be great too.


  8. Riaz Haq says:
    March 19th, 2009 12:37 pm

    This post reminds me of “The Dancing Girls of Lahore” by Louise Brown in which she talks about Maha and her five children in Heera Mandi. The real picture Brown paints is not as pretty as some of the images in this post.

    It’s amazing that the Heera Mandi culture continues to survive in the midst of a wave of Talibanization in Pakistan and a hostile Lahore High Court. In fact, the sex workers of Lahore went on strike late last year. The strike, which was supported by the theaters where they perform, was sparked by the decision of Lahore High Court to ban the Mujra, the graceful and elaborate dance first developed in the Mughal courts 400 years ago, on the grounds that it is too sexually explicit.

  9. Adnan Ahmad says:
    March 19th, 2009 12:50 pm

    Many years ago, by chance I listened to Wustullah

  10. Shirjeel says:
    March 19th, 2009 1:22 pm

    We have lost a great artist. While the article was mostly about his paintings of various women, I have seen his other work depicting Lahore old monuments which is great too.

    Hina mentioned about his house in Hira Mandi next to a mosque. If I am not wrong, then that place is now home to Lahore famous restaurant ‘Cuckoo’s nest”. A visit to that place for a dinner should be on one’s agenda when visiting Lahore. Food is marvellous, nice view of the brightly lit Badshahi mosque and one would also get a chance to see some of Iqbal’s work displayed there.

  11. Farrukh says:
    March 19th, 2009 2:53 pm

    Shirjeel, we have not “lost” anyone.

    Iqbal is alive and doing very well. He actually does very well financially also and his paintings have a great audience and sale in Pakistan as well as abroad.

  12. wasiq says:
    March 19th, 2009 5:01 pm

    Thanks for your post — Pakistan has a really vibrant art scene — particularly in painting and its great that this subject is beginning to get featured on ATP. Visually, I am not a huge fan of Iqbal Hussain’s work, but appreciate what he’s trying to achieve and have found some pieces do work, but end up flat after one has spent enough time gazing. Anyhow, I hope this subject matter continues to flourish on ATP.

  13. readinglord says:
    March 19th, 2009 7:22 pm

    What a topic: Proses! I had a chance to pass a few days in Shahi Mohallah in the neighborhood of a ‘randi’. What surprised me when a senior randi would cry out in the morning lashing at the young ones to get up as the ‘saaoos’ (gentlemen customers) have already come. I always wondered how saoos could become customers of kanjars and how Shahi Mohallah could flourish in the shadows of the Shahi Masjid?

    But, as Ghalib said:

    “Bhoun paas qiblah-e-haajat chahieye
    Masjid ke zere saaya kharrafat chahiey ”

    I wonder when every thing, even cricket, has been commercialized why not sex be done so especially in the sex-starved society of Pakland or are we animals who need nothing more than ‘Roti, kaprha aur makan’?

  14. ASAD says:
    March 20th, 2009 12:48 am

    Glad to see this. Iqbal is an important artist. I hope ATP will write more about art.

  15. November 15th, 2009 6:41 am

    well mr.Iqbal hussain is a brave and bold artist from pakistan….

  16. Azuba027 says:
    March 6th, 2010 11:19 pm

    There is a great documentary written by Iqbal Hussein on Pakistan’s prostitution scene. It’s called: Kahani Tawaif Ki Zubani- Hira Mandi. I couldn’t find the date of release but it definintely seems like it was filmed in early 90s.

    His art work is truly feminist. He paints a bold reality of the vulnerable, suppressed, sexualized women in Pakistan. It also deconstructs societal expectations of female bodies in art.

  17. HIFZA says:
    July 27th, 2010 5:36 am

    Sir.iqbal iz really 1 of best of pak

  18. HIFZA says:
    July 27th, 2010 5:39 am

    Sir.iqbal iz 1 of the best pak artist

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