Only nautch girls for this Pakistani painter’s canvas (With Images)

April 6th, 2011 - 2:35 pm ICT by IANS  

Lahore, April 6 (IANS) Why isn’t any girl smiling in his paintings? Controversial Pakistani artist Iqbal Hussain has been asked this question many times - he is the man who paints women in the red-light area of Lahore.

“A lot of people ask me this question. But isn’t their life sad? Also, when I make a portrait, they have to sit in a certain position for more than an hour. It’s such a difficult thing to do, so how do you expect them to be happy and cheerful?” Hussain told this visiting IANS correspondent in an interview.

The 60-year-old grew up in the dark lanes of Heera Mandi and women in his family were courtesans. But he has no qualms about being the son of a courtesan, as he has always believed “the more you try to hide facts, the more one day, the truth will be out like a volcano”.

Why did he decide to paint these women?

“I am not a playboy magazine painter that I will paint good-looking women. I am not following any fashion. I am painting my people, I have grown up with them, so I know how they feel. In fact, I am their best friend because they have no one to share their problems with. While talking to me 99 percent burst into tears because they don’t have an easy life,” he said.

The man, who avoids the media glare, rues that the red-light area has almost disappeared.

“The girls whom I paint are sad because the area and their profession are almost dead. People don’t come here any more. There was a time when this area was full of classical dancers and there was a feel of culture, but not any more,” he said.

His love for brush strokes on canvas not only kept him alive but also led him to Lahore’s National College of Arts (NCA).

Even today he is connected to his roots. He lives on the ground floor of the same five-floor house where his mother used to stay and runs a restaurant called Cooco’s Den in the rest of the area.

His eatery is more of a cultural landmark for tourists and a must-visit place for good food and to get a view of the Badshahi Mosque from the roof-top seating area.

Why this unique name for his restaurant?

“That’s my nickname,” he said smilingly.

A collector of antique artefacts, his house is no less than a museum - the beige walls are covered with his paintings, statues of Buddha, lord Hanuman and other Indian gods and goddessess. Antique wooden doors and wooden swings with intricate carvings adorn the space in his painting room.

On a normal day, after his morning chores, he visits the dancing girls and paints them. In the noon they come over to his place for sittings.

“They don’t know anything about painting, but they do care about how they look in it. They always complaint about why I make them look so fat, but then that is how they look. So we do have arguments, but at the end of the day, they are like my family, my friends; so they like these paintings,” said Hussain, who has been painting since the early 1980s.

“Sometimes, they are even particular about a mole and insist that I capture it in the portrait,” he added.

For Hussian, life was no piece of cake, but he has managed and is happily married with five kids - four daughters and a son.

Hussian says his wife, Silwat, has been a great support.

“We got married in 1976 and there are times when I invite these dancing girls to my house - we drink together, dance and I paint them. My wife has never tried to keep a check on me,” said Hussain who worked as a lecturer at NCA for 27 years and then opened his restaurant in 1996.

Hussain’s life is constantly under treat for painting these women, but that hasn’t bogged him down.

Threats notwithstanding, his popularity has transcended border. Jordanian Princess Wijdan Ali invited him to showcase his paintings at the Jordanian Gallery of Fine Arts and in 1995 his 34 paintings were selected for UNESCO headquarters prize in Paris.

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at

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