Art of Protest in Kashmir

Written and Curated by Wasim Mushtaq Wani

1. Portrait of a Tragedy,M A Mehboob, 124x112x124x122cm,oil n canavas, 2005

Mehboob’s most powerful and dynamically effective painting during the turmoil is interestingly a self-conscious quote from Picasso’s Guernica, 1937.  There cannot be a better reference to quote from the history of modern art which makes such a significant relevance as Guernica does. Mehboob’s Portrait of a Tragedy, 2005 re-enacts Guernica in a personalized statement and in the provincial setting of Kashmir. In spite of the graphic manipulations and the convulsive textural treatment of Picasso, Mehboob retains the relatively minimal pictorial devices of his previous works. Mehboob’s departure from the original Guernica is evident, for instance in his distinct use of the images of a pigeon or a crescent, which makes such a contrasting and a kinetic presence in the dramatic interplay of counter-movements, and more significantly in the absence of Taveez (talisman), one of his most recurrent motifs in the previous paintings. The absence of a Taveez, a potent visual metaphor of a divine protection, alludes to the human era clouded in uncertainty, despair and desolation that haunted the Valley for two long decades of death and mayhem. The similar concerns dominate in his more recent works, however not so directly annotated with an art-historical quote as the Portrait of a Tragedy.


2. Untitled- Shujah Sultan, Oil and acrylic on canvas,1995
SHUJAH SULTAN (1946 – 2008)

Sultan’s body of work, however miniature in scale, dwells in the cosmic drama of death and creation. The singularity, monumentality and the translucent mirror stance of the egg is supplemented with the meticulously painted wave-patterns, which are suggestive of the ebb and flow of time, create an aura saturated with cosmic happenings. The provincial idyllic backdrop of the Valley, the chinar tress, the mountains and the lakes provide an actual setting to enact the allegorical and the otherworldly. The most potent image in his paintings is the egg, which works as a metaphor for creation, sometimes a glass-transparent egg to see the world through and sometimes conceived as a mirror reflecting the world around. The Iris in its sensuous violet-purple accentuated by yellows and possessed of greens usually seen in the grave yards, acts like an obituary to all those inacceptable and tragic deaths caused by the violence since early 90s.


4. Exodus, Masood H, painted relief, 2004
3. A peep out of the Past, Massod H ,, wood,paper pulp, cloth, acrylic and oil, 94 x 138 cm, 1995

In Masood’s relief works the most recurrent objects are broken windows, doors, ruined lattice-work found in the debris of broken shrines and the dismantled houses of Kashmiri Pundits. By investing the archetypal mystic aura, reminiscent of the glorious past, he negotiates the agony of Kashmiris since the uprising in 1990. The 1995 relief works such as A Peep out of the Past reflects a common stance in which the anguished face and the gestural hands protruding out of an old latticed shrine beseech for salvation. In some relief works the hands bulge out from the window for prayer, the colorful traveezs (amulets) as necklace to guard from evil and witchcraft, the occult feel of the graffiti of Persian and Arabic letters. Besides resurrecting the mystic aura of the past to counteract the milieu haunted by the inhuman cruelties, violation of human rights and above all the human misery some of Masood’s works are response to the migration of Kashmir Pundits. For instance, the work called Exodus, 2004 is apparently set in a different formal structure. The usual window object is replaced with a wooden dome. There is a subtle and diffused stylized image of a bird, possibly a migratory bird drifting out of the triangular frame. The other significantly symbolic objects are a gold ornament, which is traditionally worn by Kashmiri Pundit women as a symbol of fertility. The thread is pasted in a way which suggests movement, alluding to the painful flight that doesn’t seem to return back to the nest.


6. Talisman,1991, Rajinder T, Stone, wood & Iron, 85 x 70 x 55 cm,
5. Spirit Lamp -R Tiku,  stained wood, terracotta, paint and thread, 136 x 14 x 35 cm,

Unlike the purely experimental and formalistic approach of various avant-garde examples from the art history Tiku’s assemblage framework shares a conceptual rigor incorporating the personal and historical. Suggestive of a diasporic condition, which in the course of his stay in Jammu he may have felt more strongly, the gesture of piecing together reflects the existential condition of a person who has been expelled from his nativity and is compelled to reconstruct a new home. Tiku’s body of work dwells in this painful endeavor to rebuild a new consciousness from the debris of the old, the broken and the departed. The subtle poetic metaphors implicit in the recurrent use of motifs such as stitches joining broken pieces or a deep cut in the wood, nails and bolts to fix the disjointed, threads, knots or leather strings to tie things together or sew up the wounds and the ritualistic or symbolic use of specific colors like vermilion, black and green are the seminal aesthetic devices evident in the works such as Spirit Lamp, 1997 and Talisman, 1991.


7. Shabir Mirza, leave the balcony window open, Stone, 49 x 49 x 14cm, 1996

Mirza’s existentialist stance to address the human predicament in the wake of despair and desolation finds a poetic manifestation in a work such as Leave the Balcony Window Open, 1996. His sculptural imagery incorporates new figurative references to meaningful forms such as blood-proof helmets of the security personals or the human faces peeping from the windows. The calculated spacial execution, the texture of the stone, the inward and the outward thrust accentuate the expressionist mode of the work to address the changed landscape of the times. The fear-redden faces peeping outside the window presumably alerted by some unpleasant mishap. The wide open eyes wandering in disparate directions look desperate and paranoid.


8. Aftab Ahmad, Nuclear Holocaust- 1998

A nightmarish view of the Kashmir where the seer and the demon inhabit the landscape. Aftab may be referred to as a non-psychedelic surrealist who dwells in the convulsive and the disconcerting aura stuffed with conflict-redden associations, as is evident in the work titled as Nuclear Holocaust, 1998.


9. Chamn, Bul - Bul + 1, acrylic on canvas, , 43 x 47 in, 2002

In Chaman’s painting Bul Bul + 1, 2002 the triangle acts as a concrete but empty road to infinity, the Bul Bul, Indian nightingale, is an archetypal symbol for a good omen, which however, is looking downwards in despair for the sheer emptiness of the bridge-like triangle. At the same time this bare triangle in a countermovement reciprocates with the fatality of communal triangle; Hindu, Muslim and Sikh stretching their hands out from in an outcry to demystify the politically rendered religious divide and once again revive the peaceful traditions of the past.


10. Fate of a Kashmiri Pandit, Veer Munshi, 1995
VEER MUNSHI (1955) and INDER SALIM (1965)

Among the immediate contemporaries of Chaman, who however never lived in Kashmir throughout their artistic career, are in fact more significant in terms of their aesthetic relevance to the radically redefined and new forms of art-making. Munshi, while continuing the traditional studio practice, foregrounds a new stance that aims at revitalized or redefined painting as a language to address the personal and the political contemporary concerns. In a certain artistic alliance to the conceptual/postmodern painters such as Atul Dodiya he has evolved a vocabulary loaded with politically charged appropriations, negotiating the personal identity, history and dislocation. Munshi’s work such as Fate of a Kashmiri Pandit, 1995 dwell in the haunting stories narrating the historic tragedy that has engulfed Kashmir, Munshi’s homeland that he was forced to vacate, like most of the Hindu Kashmiris, in the early nineties.


11. Inder Salim -Evoking Nazir, the LOFT at lower plalace

Inder Salim, often represented as multi-faceted activist-artist from Kashmir, is largely known for his provocative performances. Incorporating mediums such as documentation, photographs assemblages, painting, performance, video, text he attempts to explore the notions of self, of ‘otherness, ’ the idea of ‘Kashmir’, it’s demography and politics. Drawn by a natural instinct for activism his art is interactive and incorporates radically new mediums like installation and performance art. Among some of his notable performances are Evoking Nazir held at Open Studio at THE LOFT, Mumbai in 2009, which is a 45-minute slide talk supplemented with a performance and a presentation of documented work done over the past few years.


Details of the Art-Works:

  1. M. A. Mehboob, Portrait of a Tragedy,, 124x112x124x122cm, oil n canvas, 2005. Artist’s Collection
  2. Shujah Sultan, Untitled, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1995
  3. Masood Hussain, A peep out of the Past, wood, paper pulp, cloth, acrylic and oil, 94 x 138 cm, 1995
  4. Masood Hussain, Exodus, painted relief, 2004
  5. Rajindar Tiku, Spirit Lamp – stained wood, terracotta, paint and thread, 136 x 14 x 35 cm, Private Collection
  6. Rajinder Tiku, Talisman, 1991, Stone, wood & Iron, 85 x 70 x 55 cm. Private Collection
  7. Shabir Mirza, Leave the balcony window open, Stone, 49 x 49 x 14cm, 1996
  8. Aftab Ahmad, Nuclear Holocaust- 1998
  9. Shafi Chamn, Bul – Bul + 1, acrylic on canvas,, 43 x 47 in, 2002
  10. Veer Munshi, Fate of a Kashmiri Pandit, 1995
  11. Inder Salim -Evoking Nazir, the LOFT at lower palace

Wasim Mushtaq Wani is an Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at the Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. His email is [email protected]

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