Here’s a recent interview:
Could you talk about how your exposure and love for Hindu iconography and culture began.
As a child, in Pandharpur, and later, Indore, I was enchanted by the Ram Lila. My friend, Mankeshwar, and I were always acting it out. The Ramayana is such a rich, powerful story, as Dr Rajagopalachari says, its myth has become a reality. But I really began to study spiritual texts when I was 19. Because of what I had been through, because I lost my mother, because I was sent away, I used to have terrible nightmares when I was about 14 or 15. All of this stopped when I was 19. I had a guru called Mohammad Ishaq— I studied the holy texts with him for two years. I also read and discussed the Gita and Upanishads and Puranas with Mankeshwar, who had become an ascetic by then. After he left for the Himalayas, I carried on studying for years afterwards. All this made me completely calm. I have never had dreams or nightmares ever again. Later, in Hyderabad, in 1968, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia suggested I paint the Ramayana. I was completely broke, but I painted 150 canvases over eight years. I read both the Valmiki and Tulsidas Ramayana (the first is much more sensual) and invited priests from Benaras to clarify and discuss the nuances with me. When I was doing this, some conservative Muslims told me, why don’t you paint on Islamic themes? I said, does Islam have the same tolerance? If you get even the calligraphy wrong, they can tear down a screen. I’ve painted hundreds of Ganeshas in my lifetime — it is such a delightful form. I always paint a Ganesha before I begin on any large work. I also love the iconography of Shiva. The Nataraj — one of the most complex forms in the world — has evolved over thousands of years and, almost like an Einstein equation, it is the result of deep philosophical and mathematical calculations about the nature of the cosmos and physical reality. When my daughter, Raeesa wanted to get married, she did not want any ceremonies, so I drew a card announcing her marriage and sent it to relatives across the world. On the card, I had painted Parvati sitting on Shiva’s thigh, with his hand on her breast — the first marriage in the cosmos. Nudity, in Hindu culture, is a metaphor for purity. Would I insult that which I feel so close to? I come from the Suleimani community, a sub-sect of the Shias, and we have many affinities with Hindus, including the idea of reincarnation. As cultures, it is Judaism and Christianity that are emotionally more distant. But it is impossible to discuss all this with those who oppose me. Talk to them about Khajuraho, they will tell you its sculpture was built to encourage population growth and has outgrown its utility! (laughs) It is people in the villages who understand the sensual, living, evolving nature of Hindu gods. They just put orange paint on a rock, and it comes to stand for Hanuman.
India’s Shias seem fairly syncretic and assimilationist? Wipro’s Azim Premji is another, and we’ve discussed some links with the BJP in the past. Not sure what the Suleimani community is though.