I‘ll start with my parents, who were actually born in India Amritsar. My father came here in the late 50’s. Prior to that he was over in the states. He did a Ph.D. in Philosophy in Washington. His brother was an artist, advised him to come over here and teach art: so that’s what he did. So he came here, like I said in the late 50’s and taught art for a few years. Then he got heavily involved in politics, poetry, and trying to help the community. And just trying to help the immigrants, at the time, to settle in and understand the cultural values of what was going on in Britain at the time.
My mother followed suit. She came here in 1960, and again, she was from Amritsar. I was born in 1962, Sorrento Hospital. I used to tell everyone that I was born in Sorrento, Italy which sounded a lot more glamorous, but unfortunately it was Moseley.
I went to Belgrave School, which is in Balsall Heath, and from there I moved on to High Gate, and from there to Bourneville Art School. They basically thought that they couldn’t teach me, I think that my father had basically taught me the principals of art by the time I was ten or eleven. Over that period of time I got heavily into art, started doing exhibitions, I won several exhibitions, UK and abroad. Being the youngest artist to get merits from here and over in Europe. At the age of ten I had fallen into a coma one morning. Saturday morning, woke up watching Tiswas. Fell into a coma, woke up five and a half months later pretty well a different person than I went to sleep.
The first memory of my father was watching him paint. He had a canvas which measured approximately four feet by six feet, and I was probably about two or three years old maybe at the time. And I’m just amazed that he could conjure up a figure out of coloured liquid and make it look so realistic. I think that remembering him paint was one thing, but I think that was one of my first memories where I realised that he was my father and that he could paint and do amazing things like that.
He was quite wealthy in India, his family was very wealthy, they were all doctors and surgeons. But when he decided to leave and go to the states and move into the arena of art; his brother was also a well known artist from the 40’s and 50’s and he was credited with designing stamps for India. But I think that what happened when the partition in ’47 happened, I think that was a disturbing blow to him. And I think that in hindsight, he wished that it hadn’t happened. He wished that India had stayed the way it was and it would be more progressive for the people. Because they didn’t understand the division of why one minute you had Hindus and Sikhs living side by side and all of a sudden somebody said ‘you’re moving to that country, and you’re moving to that country’ and all of a sudden they were at war killing each other, so I think that was a disturbing blow. I think that became a thread throughout his life, and that made him a bit more aggressive in trying to bring people together. That was probably his greatest drive. From a Freudian point of view, that definitely was his undercurrent – trying to bring people together.
He came straight to Birmingham, to Balsall Heath and he went on to design the central mosque, which, the inception was probably about when I was born. He had actually done the first drawings for it, and behind the mosque, he wanted an institution of learning. A very secular, philosophical school where you would get people from all walks, whether that be atheist, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs. But he had a lot of friction with a lot of the Muslims at the time and within the Islamic institution saying ‘why should we be funding a mosque and institution where Hindus and Christians and atheists of all people should be coming to debate'; and that didn’t bode well.
I will always remember, I was about 14 or 15 at the time, and I was saying to dad, people would come in the middle of the night, two o’clock in the night, somebody would say Qureishi could you help us?’ – ‘sure’ and he’d get his coat on and he would be off. I understand that was partly cultural, but I think that he had something hard wired in him somewhere along the line which was quite bizarre and quite strange. And I did ask him, I said ‘father, why do you do that? What do you gain from it? They’re not paying you, you’re doing it for free. You’ve got a drive all of the time, you’ll be feeding, cooking and working for free for people and institutions’ and all the rest of it.
He was brilliant at bringing up analogies and examples. He was amazing, they were at the tip of his tongue all the time. I remember what he said to me, I had a friend in my formative years, probably about four or five years old, and, like us all we’ve probably picked up a sparrow or something, and there was a sparrow dying and it had broken a wing in my back garden. And myself and my friend at the time, Thomas Kelly, we had got this bird and put him into a box and put felt around him, trying to cushion him and make him better. After several days, we were feeding him, watering him, and it was really exciting. It sounds naïve now, but we were children at the time, about four or five years old and really were excited. We would wake up every morning and would be feeding this bird, watering, trying to give him milk and bread etc. etc. Any way, low and behold, about a week later, one of my friends father, Mr Riah he took them and said ‘you’re always hogging our box, what is it with you and that box?’ and we said ‘we’ve got this little bird’. So we open the lid, and the bird flew off. To which Thomas and myself are really over joyed because we fixed the bird, it was one of those moments.
Anyway, the example that my father gave me, he said ‘do you remember the time when you and Thomas, and the joy that you felt when the little bird flew off? What was that about? Did you get paid for it?’ and basically, he stopped me in my tracks and from there on, I totally understood where he was coming from. He was quite hard with his conviction of delivery, and I thought well, actually, fair enough. And that gave me an insight to who and what he was really about. And that didn’t waiver at all with him. And as a human being, I couldn’t have asked for anything else as somebody being my father with those kinds of values and principles.