On the afternoon of 4 August 2019, eminent Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain was driving back to his home in Srinagar’s Rajbagh area. He had just visited a small plot he had purchased recently in Harwan, 23km away, to establish an art residency for Kashmiri artists—a site where they could meet and collaborate with one another as well as visiting artists.
It’s normally a half-hour drive. That day, there was so much traffic it took him about 4 hours. He saw panicked, anxious faces on the streets, people rushing to the nearest petrol pumps and shops to stock up on fuel and essentials amid rumours and speculation of impending war.
The next day, the Union government effectively revoked Article 370 of the Constitution and Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. As a military clampdown began, the 66-year-old artist was largely confined to his home, a state that continued for months. With a communication blackout, he was out of touch with friends for over two months, till his landline phone started ringing again one day.
“I knew something bad was going to happen,” says the soft-spoken Hussain, sitting in the guest room of his newly constructed home, its walls adorned with paintings made by his daughter, an upcoming artist. Although he was cut off from fellow artists and the outside world, Hussain didn’t stop making art. He was already working on a series of paintings he had named Vitasta (the Sanskrit name for the Jhelum river)—a silent witness to events in Kashmir.
In the weeks following 5 August, as phone lines were snapped and the internet was indefinitely shut down, he decided to end this series of paintings with a work that captured the despair of the time. It showed, in silhouette, former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Sheikh Abdullah, who was later incarcerated by Nehru, camouflaged in saffron—engaged in a silent conversation with each other. A small herd of sheep, barely visible, can be seen beneath the two leaders, somewhere in the middle of the canvas. “We have always been treated like a herd of cattle,” Hussain says pithily, looking at the painting.
A mixed-media work he did after the 5 August lockdown shows darkened hands reaching out towards the sun, seeking help. Monkeys and wolves, with crowns on their heads, lord over them—a scathing commentary on the political situation in the region. Artists don’t usually indulge in politics, Hussain says, but artists also live among people and observe what’s happening in society. “My job as an artist,” he adds, “is to reflect it in my work.”
During last year’s lockdown, Hussain also made a series of watercolours for an illustrated book, Walk With Gandhi, paired with haikus by Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock and with a foreword by historian Ramachandra Guha. Portraying a “dazzling kaleidoscope of events, real and imagined, in the life of Gandhi”, the book was released last October to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. Since internet and mobile networks were still down in Kashmir at the time, Hussain did not know about the progress of the book for several months. He saw a copy of it much later.
Steeped in the community
Hussain’s father, a physician, wanted him to become a doctor. But Hussain was far more interested in doodling. He would copy the anatomical sketches in his father’s medical books that caught his attention. As he grew up, he began painting on canvas before he went in for formal training in the arts.
In 1971, Hussain went to Mumbai to study fine arts at the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Arts. After graduating, he worked in the city for six years. In 1977, he returned to the valley to start teaching at the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, University of Kashmir, where he also helped establish a department of applied art, teaching fine arts to hundreds of students and upcoming artists until his retirement in 2011.
Over the past decades, Hussain has worked with different media, making a series of relief works and paintings which have been exhibited in art galleries across India and the world. Grounded in the social milieu of Kashmir, his work in mixed media, watercolour and sculpture evokes the many hues of life in the valley.
The late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, a friend and an ardent admirer of Hussain’s art, once chose one of his paintings, A Peep Out Of The Past, for the cover of one of the many editions of his critically acclaimed poetry collection, The Country Without A Post Office. Shahid later wrote that everyone seemed to agree it was perhaps “the most beautiful looking volume of poems in years”. “Such lonely work, done so bravely, and steeped in the community so beautifully and demandingly!” he added. “In Masood’s work, the political exists only by inhabiting the mystical.”
‘People are very angry’
The political potential of Hussain’s work has been noted frequently by his colleagues too. “Lots of artists went to Kashmir. They painted the landscape, they painted flowers, mountains, rivers,” the eminent painter Manjit Bawa once said about his paintings, “but in his works there are no flower, rivers or colours, yet it portrays the true culture of Kashmir.”
Over the years, Hussain has responded to the worsening human rights situation in Kashmir through his art. In 2016, deeply affected by the blinding of children and youth from pellet shotguns fired by the armed forces following large-scale protests over the killing of militant Burhan Wani, he came up with a series of digital artwork that went viral on social media platforms. One black and white, digitally created image showed a child carrying a schoolbag overflowing with stones. Another showed a girl holding two dolls—both without eyes, blinded by pellets.
“Before the present turmoil, these dolls in the hands of a child would have evoked a different meaning,” Hussain told me back then. “But now they are blind and without eyes, and it shows a sense of suffering passed on to the children who are blinded by pellets.”
Hussain is especially pained by the deteriorating situation in Kashmir since 5 August 2019, in spite of claims that normalcy has returned to the valley. “There is a lot of uncertainty now. People don’t trust the government. They can’t decide, they are not allowed to decide their future,” he says. In the morning, while waiting to get his daily bread from the baker nearby, Hussain says he overhears people talking in angry tones about the current state of Kashmir. “People have a lot of anger simmering inside,” he says. “They might not come out on the streets “but they are nursing all this anger that’s building up inside them.”
He does not see normalcy returning anytime soon. “People are being crushed financially and politically,” he says. “We are heading towards the worst times if this continues….”
Whenever he works on a series, Hussain says, he tries to conclude with a painting that leaves the viewer with a sense of hope. “When the situation will change for good in Kashmir, my artwork will also reflect that change,” he says, adding that he longs for the return of peace and prosperity. “But till then, my paintings will reflect the hopes and sufferings of my people,” says the artist, who is currently working on a short documentary on American poet Allen Ginsberg in collaboration with four poets which will carry his artworks.
Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.