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being a muse

The spark of a genius

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Salvador Dali kisses Gala, wife and muse

Dante's Divine Comedy ranks among the most enduring works of world literature. But if it weren't for Beatrice Portinari, whom Dante met at the tender age of nine, the world might have missed out on his great literary works. Most of Dante's early poems were inspired by and dedicated to Beatrice though he never married her. In the third and final part of Divine Comedy - Paradiso, Beatrice is re-united with Dante and guides him to heaven and eventually to God.

Artists have perhaps been the most inspired by a muse. The central event in the life of Salvador Dali, the great surrealist painter, was meeting a Russian immigrant, Gala, who was 10 years older than him. Gala became Dali's muse, model and manager before marrying him in 1932. If Dali stayed with Gala till his death, another iconic artist, Pablo Picasso, had a string of muses. Fernande Olivier was Picasso's first muse and figured in his early Cubist works. Dora Maar was with Picasso when he created his most famous work, 'Guernica', and her features appear in the painting. The most enigmatic of his muses was Sylvette David who met the middle-aged Picasso as a teenager and posed for several paintings, but was never romantically involved with the great man.

Closer home, the two most prominent examples of artists being inspired by women are Raja Ravi Varma and M F Husain, who died earlier this year. Varma was so inspired by the devdasi Sugandha that he saw the divine in her, painting her as Draupadi, Sita, Shakuntala and the apsaras. The relationship has been made into a film by Ketan Mehta. Husain's muses were of a different nature altogether in that they figured not only in his paintings but in his forays into filmmaking. He was so inspired by actress Madhuri Dixit that he cast her in his film Gaja Gamini.

There have been a few unique women who have played muse to several geniuses. Elisabeth Brentano, or Bettina as she was known, must rank on top of this list. She was muse to both the German philosopher Goethe and composer Beethoven. She is even said to have impressed Karl Marx and inspired Schumann and Brahms to dedicate songs to her. But then again some believe Bettina was a social climber and a fraud. But that's sometimes part of being a muse.

Of course it's not just artists and writers who have had their muses. Much before Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai made waves, Phylis Mendes was fashion designer Pierre Cardin's muse in Paris in the 1970s. Cardin called Phylis 'a jolie', which became Anjali, a name which stuck. She modelled for him for a little over 12 years. Among film directors there are several combinations that have worked magic on the silver screen - Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman, Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz and our very own Raj Kapoor and Nargis.

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