It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Habib Painter was humming a tune while painting a billboard when a music lover asked him to stop painting and continue singing. That would make for an engaging premise for a biopic on his life.
Habib Painter was born in 1915, and began working as a billboard painter in Aligarh. A patron helped him form a qawaali troupe to perform in cities. Painter travelled to Delhi where he was introduced at qawaali recitals.
Painter’s spiritual interest in Sufism marked most of his singing repertoire. He sang the poems of the 14th-century Sufi poet Amir Khusro and considered himself a disciple of the saint Hazrat Nizamuddin.
His rendition of the Khusro poem “Bahut Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki” (The road to the river bank is treacherous), which is dedicated to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, is notable for Painter interspersing the poem’s central theme of a woman trying to fetch water with his own philosophical dialogues about life’s quest for meaning. His nasal voice and high pitch hew to the tradition of folk singers who take to the streets to sing hymns in praise of the Almighty. Painter was most comfortable singing as if he was performing at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi. When he took to the stage at private concerts, his performance turned into a similar frenzy.
However, Painter did not restrict himself to singing only about Sufi saints. In the qawaali “Yahaan Se Chala Gaya Bhagwan” (God has left from here), he critiques god’s disappearance from the world, if somewhat putting it on par with German philosopher Friedrich Neitzsche’s “God is Dead” statement made in 1882. In Painter’s plangent plea, his innate nature to use qawaali for a purpose other than entertainment presents itself with pressing urgency through his querulous voice.
During the Chinese invasion of 1962, when Indian artists were performing to inspire Indian troops, Painter’s qawaalis were a hit with the soldiers. The music reached the ears of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who honoured the singer with the title of “Bulbul-E-Hind”.
Painter did not sing for cinema, but he was well received in the film industry where he was invited to private musical soirees. He died on February 22, 1987, after singing for nearly 50 years with his troupe members, who never retired. His son, Anees Painter, carried the talented qawaal’s legacy forward.