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Zarina Hashmi: Finding a home in the world

The artist, who died on 25 April, perfected a unique blend of autobiographical content and minimalist form

Partition, memory and loss haunted Zarina's art.
Partition, memory and loss haunted Zarina's art.

When I first came across prints and sculptures by Zarina Hashmi a little over 20 years ago and was told she was an artist of Indian origin based in New York, I pictured a young woman with a wise soul, unconcerned with the trends of the time. Not long after, I learnt she was in her 60s. Being the editor of an art magazine at the time, I felt embarrassed about my ignorance regarding the work of such a manifestly accomplished artist.

Perhaps my mortification was unwarranted, for, despite a long career that included a major Indian award for printmaking, Zarina (to use the single name she preferred as her artistic identity) came fully into her own only in the 1990s. It was then that she perfected the mix of personal history and spare abstraction, the unique autobiographical minimalism which became her signature mode. To get there required time and distance, and a journey from a provincial north Indian town through a series of world capitals that prepared her for the extraordinary feat of memory and visual interpretation she achieved late in life.

She was born in an Aligarh household liberal enough to encourage daughters to study but not so liberal as to permit them to work outside the home. She would become the first woman in her family to earn a living. As a child, she displayed no artistic predisposition, for art at that time meant paintings crowded with figures and objects, in which she had no interest. Her geometrically-inclined mind led her instead to a degree in mathematics.

Having stayed in India through the trauma of Partition, her father, a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, relocated the family to Karachi in the late 1950s. By that time, Zarina was married to a bright officer in the Indian Foreign Service, Saad Hashmi. He was posted to Bangkok soon after their wedding and, at a party in the Thai capital one evening, she caught sight of a Japanese woodblock print. Fascinated by the form, she enrolled in a course in woodcut printing. She would hone and broaden her printmaking skills in Paris, Bonn and Tokyo, becoming proficient enough to assist artists professionally.

The couple returned to Delhi for a few years, where she flew gliders as a hobby, gaining a close view of the rooftops of houses and monuments that inspired the many aerial perspectives she would employ in her art. Her marriage was not a happy one and by the mid-60s she was, in the words of a public Facebook post by her friend Laila Tyabji, “semi-separated from her charismatic, witty, brilliant, loving, but chronically unfaithful husband".

They kept up the charade of the perfect couple through a stint in West Germany in the early 1970s. The former finance minister and Indian Administrative Service officer Yashwant Sinha recalls in his autobiography, Relentless, that the Hashmis “kept a beautiful house" in Bonn, with an impressive collection of cut glass, which a guest inadvertently shattered one evening. “Zarina and Saad, polished diplomats as they were, took it sportingly but the loss of their prized collection must have been heartbreaking," Sinha writes.

According to the photographer Ram Rahman, who met Zarina in New York in the 1970s and became a close friend, the role of the perfect wife grated on her increasingly as the years went by. When Saad Hashmi returned to Delhi from a posting in the US, she stayed back in a rented New York loft. He died soon after, in his early 40s.

She did not explore her marriage through her art, returning instead to memories of childhood, and growing preoccupied with the theme of home. Her work was permeated with the sense of loss associated with possessing memories of one nation, having family in a second, and making a life in a third. Conveying that sense of loss, however, involved carefully mediated articulation rather than unrestrained lament.

Her favoured medium of woodcut is the oldest form of printing on textiles and paper, invented in China nearly 2,000 years ago. In the modernist tradition, woodcuts were used most effectively by German Expressionists of the early 20th century, who marked the wood with gashes and slits to communicate anguish and dread.

Zarina’s work is far subtler than that of the Expressionists, as is the pain contained within it, which can best be expressed by the word dard, a specific kind of ache celebrated in Urdu poetry. However, it shares with the Expressionists the notion of the wood being wounded and creates an emotional impact on viewers through the violence done by the chisel. That violence is hardly noticeable, a little indentation here or a tiny notch there slightly disturbing the geometry of the composition, but it sets off vibrations that extend out of the picture and penetrate the viewer’s body.

For her magisterial series of 36 woodcuts created in 1999, titled Home Is A Foreign Place, Zarina made a list of words associated with childhood memories, such as “threshold", “entrance", “hot breeze", “rain" and “fragrance". She had these transcribed by an Urdu calligrapher in Pakistan while she sought visual correlatives. Stars captures the joy of lying on a cot in the courtyard on a warm summer night, gazing at the sky. Afternoon is a ceiling fan rendered in three thick lines at the top of the page, two criss-crossing and one perpendicular. Border is depicted as a Do Not Cross sign that could also be an aerogramme.

Borders came to preoccupy her almost as much as home did, beginning with the Radcliffe Line that partitioned India and represented the trauma of uprooting. Although never keen to foreground her Muslim identity, the nations and borders she depicted displayed her concern about the rise of both Islamism and Islamophobia. A portfolio of nine woodcuts from 2003, titled These Cities Blotted Into The Wilderness, contained aerial representations of Grozny, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Beirut, Jenin, Baghdad, Kabul, Ahmedabad and New York, all towns whose recent convulsions were connected in some fashion with Muslims and Islam.

For 20 years after settling in New York, Zarina focused dedicatedly on her artistic vision while struggling to make ends meet by teaching and taking up design-related jobs of various sorts. It took her a long time to refine a distinctive voice, and longer still for the art world to accept her fully. Over the past decade, however, her work was acquired by some of the world’s most respected arts institutions and featured in a prestigious retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum. Although her death on 25 April is a terrible loss, we should be glad that unlike her great contemporary and partner in minimalist abstraction, Nasreen Mohamedi, she lived long enough to obtain the adulation she deserved.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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