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Amitava Kumar on painting to remember the Delhi riots

An exclusive interview with the writer about his new painting to mark the 23 February violence in Delhi and the making of his upcoming book of paintings

Detail from the painting by Amitava Kumar. The full work is reproduced in the story.
Detail from the painting by Amitava Kumar. The full work is reproduced in the story. (Amitava Kumar)

Author, journalist and writing professor Amitava Kumar has a new feather in his cap—of an artist. Over the last few months, followers of his Instagram account have witnessed some of his paintings, mostly drawn from life, with pen, ink and the occasional touch of colours. Some of these are occasional pieces, such as the one above, commemorating the first anniversary of the Delhi Riots, and made exclusively for Lounge.

We spoke to Kumar, who teaches at Vassar College and lives in New York, about his foray into the world of colours from that of words, and a new book on his paintings in the making, scheduled to publish in 2022. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about the painting commemorating the Delhi riots of last year.

On February 23 last year, riots erupted in Delhi. The homes and shops owned by Muslims in northeast Delhi went up in flames after a ruling party politician, irked by the anti-CAA protesters in Shaheen Bagh, whipped fanatical fury among his followers. (Donald) Trump landed in Delhi the next day. (I live in upstate New York and woke up to read the NBC report with the headline: "Deadly violence sweeps Indian capital of New Delhi during Trump visit.") Neither Trump, nor his host, Prime Minister Modi, said anything to condemn or even acknowledge the violence. Later, the police filed cases against several individuals but Kapil Mishra, the politician who had incited the riots, wasn’t named anywhere.

The first anniversary of those terrible days is now approaching. There is a story that I wrote down in my notebook from one of the news-reports I had read: "A Muslim resident of Shiv Vihar kept pet pigeons. The mob burned down his home and then killed the pigeons by wringing their necks." Were they Muslim pigeons? There is another brief, heartbreaking detail that I recorded in my notebook: "A man returned to a street corner to sift with his hands through a pile of black and gray ash searching for his brother’s bones. He had seen his brother on fire as he tried to flee the mob. He found charred bits that he was going to bury in a cemetery when peace returned."

I believe we should remember what was done by our fellow human beings. We ought to fight for justice on behalf of those so grievously wronged. What is the central conceit of art? That someone reading you or looking at your work will be moved, that your work will leave someone altered or changed. I cannot say I have bought into that worldview completely. But I do want to remember, and my words or art to keep alive a memory.

Many lovers of Urdu poetry remember Bashir Badr’s lines: ‘Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banana mein / Tum taras nahin khaate bastiyan jalaane mein.’ (People go broke in building a home / And you remain unmoved as you burn down whole neighborhoods.) The poet was speaking from experience. His own home in Meerut was gutted and reduced to rubble in the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1987. I have recently completed a new painting (below) remembering those lines of Bashir Badr. I am saying that I remember, I remember.

A new painting by Amitava Kumar, inspired by an Urdu poem by Bashir Badr, to remember the Delhi riots.
A new painting by Amitava Kumar, inspired by an Urdu poem by Bashir Badr, to remember the Delhi riots. (Amitava Kumar)

When did you start painting and how did that happen? Are you formally trained in it?

I always wanted to paint. I became a writer because I couldn't paint. I started painting in earnest a couple of years ago when Michael Ondaatje showed me John Berger's Bento's Sketchbook.

How do you find the subjects of your drawings?

Travel is a great resource. It presents you new sights. But I also try to regularly paint what I see outside my window—a creek, trees, ducks.

What does painting do for you that writing doesn'tand cannot?

It pleases the eye. Prose is for the ear.

In 2013, you said your mantra is: "Write everyday and walk everyday." Has that changed to include painting?

Yes. At least a drawing a day. I think we can all keep journals, and we can make writing and drawing a casual daily practice.

Tell us about the upcoming book on your paintings. How is it going to be structured?

I have tried to do paintings almost as a form of journalism. So there is a long section that presents postcards from the pandemic. There are sections in which there are reports from my travels, others that are about writing and teaching. I also want blank pages in the book where the reader can write and draw.

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