Frida Kahlo & Ruttie Jinnah: Their Contrasting Ways Of Handling Pain Have So Much To Teach Us

While both Frida Kahlo and Ruttie Jinnah faced enormous heartache and suffering, they had very different ways of dealing with their pain.

While both Frida Kahlo and Ruttie Jinnah faced enormous heartache and suffering, they had very different ways of dealing with their pain.

I recently finished reading the biographies of two very enigmatic women, Frida Kahlo and Ruttie Jinnah, born just seven years apart in the 1900s, both married to iconic men over 20 years elder to them (the world famous painter & muralist Diego Rivera & the founder of Pakistan, Muhammed Ali Jinnah respectively).

Both the ladies had very difficult marriages and at one point in time, both decided to separate from their respective husbands. But despite these striking similarities, Frida and Ruttie responded very differently to their life’s suffering and how they handled it had massive implications for them and important lessons for the world too.

Let me begin with Frida Kahlo, the world famous Mexican Painter and a feminist icon, who once famously said, “Don’t build a wall around your suffering or it may devour you from the inside” and boy, she walked the talk! Her words are based on experience of a lifetime (though much abbreviated) of pain and suffering.

Whether it was being crippled by polio at the age of six, and then meeting a near fatal accident at eighteen that left her spine fractured, her pelvis crushed and one foot broken (followed by numerous operations all through her life, including amputation of a part of her right leg); or be it her unfulfilled desire to have a child (she had several miscarriages and therapeutic abortions) and a marriage full of infidelity and a short lived divorce from the man she madly loved – Diego Rivera. Her sufferings were insurmountable; yet, what prevented her from going downhill was her unwillingness to armour up and hide her vulnerabilities.

Rather, she consistently gave vent to her pain by sharing it through her paintings. Interestingly, she taught herself to paint while lying in bed for months while recovering from her near fatal bus accident at the age of 25. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self portraits and it is for these that she is best known across the globe.

Frida Kahlo

(Source: Wikimedia commons)

Her paintings became the voice of her soul through which she communicated about her life’s crests and troughs with the world at large. A lot of her major artworks coincided with the landmark events of her life; no wonder, she endearingly remarked,“They thought I was a surrealist but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”

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Take your broken heart and make it into art

In 1932 Frida painted Henry Ford Hospital, post her second therapeutic abortion in Detroit, where she depicts herself in pain and bleeding on a hospital bed, with six other elements around her, one of which is a male fetus.

She had started creating an impact with her art and soon came to be recognized as an artist in her own right, coming out of the shadow of her iconic husband.

In 1934, her husband had an affair with Frida’s sister Cristina Kahlo – though Frida had all along swallowed her bitterness with Rivera’s multiple affairs over the years, this one left her deeply wounded. In 1935 she painted A Few Small Nips based on a news story of a woman stabbed several times by her husband, who later said in the court, “But I only gave her a few small nips”.

In the words of her biographer Hayden Herrera, “Frida is depicting not her own experience but her suffering projected onto another woman’s calamity.”

“Vulnerability is the birth place of innovation, creativity and change”- Prof Brene Brown

In 1937, two years before her divorce, Frida painted Memory, an excruciatingly accurate rendering of pain in love, “as simple and straightforward as a valentine heart shot through by an arrow” says Herrera.

The Broken Column, another iconic self portrait of Frida painted in 1944 depicts her sense of being broken not only physically but emotionally as well.

Frida’s courage to be vulnerable fed into her creativity and no wonder, her work has a universal appeal till date. People connect with her art since it allows us to acknowledge that we are not alone in our experience of pain and suffering, which is a common thread that connects us all as humans.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be seen and known”- Prof Brene Brown

Frida didn’t allow herself to be drowned in her devouring pain; rather, she used her suffering to fuel her passion for her art and in the process touched many lives and left an indelible mark on her students as well.

In her biography by Herrera, one of her pupils Arturo Garcia Bustos remarks, “What she taught us fundamentally, was love of the people”. Another student of her’s, Fanny Rabel said, “She made us feel and understand a certain kind of beauty in Mexico that we would not have realized by ourselves”.

I have suffered much, sweetheart…

“Try and remember me beloved as the flower you plucked and not the flower you tread upon. I have suffered much, sweetheart, because I have loved much. The measure of my agony has been in accord to the measure of my love,” writes Ruttie Jinnah to her husband Muhammed Ali Jinnah in probably her last letter, when she decided to part ways with him after almost ten years of being married, as her biography by Sheela Reddy records.

In 1918 Ruttie who was the only daughter of one of the richest Parsi baronets from Bombay Sir Dinshaw Petit,  defied all norms at the age of 18 and against the wishes of her family and community went on to marry 42 year old Jinnah and also embraced Islam.

Ruttie Jinnah

(Source: Wikipedia)

In her interview with the Vogue magazine, the author of the book, Mr & Mrs Jinnah, Sheela Reddy says, “For Ruttie, surrounded by callow young admirers, brought up in immersive wealth and privileges and with nothing to do but party, her strong attraction to Jinnah is understandable: Jinnah was handsome, successful, a self-made man with a sense of mission, and with a sensitive side that he only revealed to a few.”

But despite her romantic ideas about her life ahead with Jinnah, their marriage was a disaster from day one. Along with the vast age gap, the two had very different temperaments. To add to her misery, Ruttie was exiled from her community and family for marrying him, losing her inheritance and social moorings.

At this time she needed a husband who could spend time with her and give her emotional support; on the contrary, this was the busiest phase of Jinnah’s political life. He was desperately swimming against the tide trying to save his political career following the advent of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian political scene. He obviously had no time for Ruttie. But more than that, what marred their relationship was that Jinnah was never able to see and understand the real Ruttie.

So both Frida and Ruttie had very difficult lives ahead, but we see a sharp contrast in their personalities. While Frida chose to stare her pain and fears in the eye, poor Ruttie allowed her’s to engulf her slowly yet completely. Unlike Frida who shared  her pain and suffering through her art, Ruttie  remained completely un-self-revelatory. She wrote hundreds of personal letters to her friends but hardly strayed to give away any personal secrets.

Ruttie depended a lot emotionally on her closest friends Sarojini Naidu and her two daughters Padmaja and Leilamani, and exchanged several letters with them over the years, but even with them Ruttie shared nothing about the deep mutual unhappiness she and Jinnah experienced in their marriage from the very beginning and which kept growing over the years.

It was only towards the very end when she separated from him that she opened up about her years of loneliness and pain but by then it was too little and too late. Ruttie’s mind and body  had been consumed by her inner void and demons.

“It’s much easier to say I don’t give a damn, than it is to say I’m hurt” – Prof Brene Brown

Sheela Reddy’s account of Ruttie’s life choices, shows that she was unwilling to acknowledge her gloom even to herself. Instead of sharing her pain and sadness  with Jinnah or her friends, she chose to indulge in reckless shopping sprees, occult, running away from Jinnah to Hyderabad and later to Paris and finally looking for solace in drugs like morphine and sleeping pills.

Although the official version says she died a natural death due to illness, Kanji Dwarkadas, a close friend and confidante of both Ruttie and Jinnah, strongly believed that she had died by suicide on her 29th birthday.

Looking at the life trajectories of Frida and Ruttie, I have come to the conclusion that there is no way to selectively numb our difficult emotions without suffering their larger consequences on our  life and well being.

Rumi agrees when he says“the cure for pain is in the pain.”

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About the Author


Nitika, a history & heritage researcher, is one of the Co-founders of Darwesh (a heritage walks based organization) along with Yuveka Singh and Madhavi Menon. She can be reached at [email protected] read more...

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