M.F. Husain’s Brush with the Ramlila: In His Own Words

Written by M.F. Husain | Published on: October 11, 2016
With the dominant public mood of the country, carefully cultivated by the ideological strain of the regime in power, in Delhi, clearly inclined to straightjacket not just Hinduism but ghettoise society, urban and rural spaces, both metamorphically and actually, into strictly assigned boundaries of ‘faith’ and ‘culture’, award winning actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, acclaimed for his talent in a series of films in Hindi cinema was ‘not allowed’ to participate in the age-old traditional folk practice of performing in the Ramlila in a village in Buldanha.

The Ramlila, performed in folk form across the length and breadth of the country has sought to be appropriated by a supremacist ideology and it’s off shoots as ‘its own’ and popular and multi-faith participation in this drama –that continues for the nine days of Dussehra—seen as a ‘threat’ to this mono-chromatic appropriation. [The Rashtryiya Swayamsevak Sangh-RSS and its offshoots including have for three decades now sought his cultural ‘domination’ and ‘purificaton’ and this time it was the Shiv Sena who was at the root of the current move to ‘disallow’ one of India’s much sought after celluloid stars from performing in this drama, in his home village.]

Malini Nair in The Times of India, last Sunday wrote on how, whether it's the Meo jogis of Rajasthan, the patuas of Bengal or Malabar's retelling of the Ramayana, Muslims across India have made Ramayana their own. In fact in the uniquely Indian and syncretic way of absorption of each other’s faith rituals, Muslims often begin their participation in the ritual after performing wazoo, the act of purification before namaaz (offering prayers).

M.F. Hussain, India’s celebrated artist on the world stage who was exiled from his home country when a supine government bowed to the very forces that rule India today, in his powerful autobiography, writes of his initiation into the world of public culture and art, in Indore, in Madhya Pradesh, with the participation in the Ramlila.

The account in his own words, accompanied by powerful sketches was made available to Sabrangindia by photographer Ram Rahman.

M.F. Husain's Story In His Own Words

It’s the month of October. Fields of wheat are ready for harvest. Its beginning to feel good now soaking in the sunshine. At dusk, grandfather would wrap a blue coloured muffler around his grandson and the young boy goes running to watch the local Ramlila. There is no theatre troupe performing here so no tickets need be bought.


Its underneath a tamarind tree inside the compound of a primary school, with a few borrowed lanterns; a few saris from the washerwoman form the “backdrop”. The show begins the moment the rolling pin bangs the thali. Donning the shorts of the school’s drill master, dust rubbed all over his face, paanwaala Shankar’s brother plays Hanuman. Yes, who better than the amiable fat man from the flour mill to assume the role of Ravanaji. But who is this, posturing as a female, soot pasted over the face? The little boy does not recognise who this Kaikeyi is offstage. Qasim Miyan is a band master from the Indore cantonment. Here at the Ramlila he rolls the drums and plays the flute.

Later, part of the crowd heading home, the boy fantasises himself in the role of the many characters he has just witnessed at the Ramlila. He takes his time in reaching home so that on his imaginary stage he may briefly reenact the role of each of the actors in the Ramlila.


Today, while returning home after witnessing the Ramlila on a glittering stage in Delhi, it’s a flashback to the past. He fondly remembers Shankar paanwala’s brother, the sweet fatty from the flour mill and Qasim Miyan band master.
To the boy from Indore, it was Dr Ram Manohar Lohia who showed the path that led to Valmiki and Tulsidas. We are nearing the end of the 50s decade. Badrivishal, son of the affluent Hyderabadi, Pannalal Pitti, is lounging amidst bolsters in the upper story of the sprawling family home -- Moti Bhavan --, adjacent to the Raj Bhavan. It’s time for lunch and enters Dr Lohia. Socialist party workers, clad in khadi and sporting badges on their jackets, stand respectfully around the sitting area. The boy from Indore grabs a pen from Badrivishal’s pen-stand, captures the scene for posterity. His pen sketches Dr Lohia’s unruly hair, moves down to his half-closed mischievous eyes, then nose and stops at his lips. Seeing the boy and his sketch, Lohiaji breaks into a smile. He hugs the boy very tight. It’s an embrace that will last for many a year.
One evening, the Indore boy takes him to Karim Hotel in Delhi as Lohiaji loves Mughlai food, sheermaals etc. Lohiaji remembers a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru which the boy had sketched at the PM’s residence. Gently stirring the korma in his bowl with a spoon, he looks up at the boy and says, “What made you think of drawing a portrait of Nehru? One portrait of his which I did like was the one published in the Illustrated Weekly because in it he seemed to be drowning, already neck deep in water”.
“Lohiaji”, the boy replied smiling, “That is the interesting complexity of modern art. Here the viewer has the right to interpret it the way he likes while a still photograph offers no such latitude. From that point of view, modern art is not elitist but democratic. Here you may depict a royal personality, use tense lines proclaiming individuality and a splash of colours suggesting self-esteem.”

Lohiaji patted the boy on his back as if in compliment and changing the subject he asked: “You are surrounded by this world of portraits adorning the drawing rooms of Birla and Tata; why don’t you come out of it for a bit? Paint the Ramayana. It’s an engrossing eons-old tale of this country. India’s villages are resonant with song and music. Take your paintings to these villages. Behind the closed walls of what are called galleries in cities, people with hands in their pant pockets just stand before your paintings. They are not like people from the villages who, immersed in your colours, will break into song and dance”.
These words of Lohiaji pierced my heart like an arrow, pricked me for years. Soon after his demise, in his memory, with pen and brush, I splashed the walls of Moti Bhavan with nearly 150 scenes from the Ramayana. It took me 10 years. I asked not for a paisa for my labour. It was only for honouring his words to me. 
(Translated from Hussain's original in Hindi, Excerpted from his autobiography M.F. Husain's Story In His Own Words).

This 27 minute film made by the Film’s Division by director, Santi P. Chowdhury in 1976, A Painter of Our Time-Hussain, has, the iconic painter’s rendering of the Lohia  Ramlila mela towards the end


Maqbool Fida Husain (September 17,1915 –June 9, 2011)] commonly known as MF Husain, was a modern Indian painter of international acclaim, and a founding member of The Progressive Artists Group of Bombay (PAG).

Husain was associated with Indian modernism in the 1940s. His early association with the Progressive Artist's Group, or "PAG of Bombay" used modern technique, and was inspired by the "new" India after The Partition of 1947. His narrative paintings, executed in a modified Cubist style, can be caustic and funny as well as serious and sombre. His themes—sometimes treated in series—include topics as diverse as Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the British raj, and motifs of Indian urban and rural life. Early in his painting career, and until his death, he enjoyed depicting the lively and free spirit of horses in many of his works. Often referred to as the "Picasso of India", M.F. Husain is the most celebrated and internationally recognized Indian artist of the 20th century. Husain is primarily known for his paintings, but is also known for his drawings and his work as a printmaker, photographer, and filmmaker.

He was targeted and attacked by vicious and violent groups, wedded politically to a ‘Hindu nation’ with a narrow interpretation of ‘culture’ and ‘faith’ who directed a campaign against Hussain’s rendition of epic figures in modern and non traditional ways.