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Reviving poetry through graphic art

A Delhi-based visual artist is revitalizing Hindi and Urdu poetry through compelling graphic portraits

Poster with the works of Punjabi and Hindi poet Pash.
Poster with the works of Punjabi and Hindi poet Pash.

Delhi-based visual artist Shiraz Husain is trying to make Urdu and Hindi poetry and literature more accessible by presenting them in more contemporary, “cool" formats.

In 2015, he started the Khwaab Tanha Collective (KTC), designing and selling merchandise that features poetry written by the stalwarts of Urdu and Hindi literature, like Saadat Hasan Manto, Kedarnath Singh, Pash, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ismat Chughtai, Amrita Pritam and Gulzar. The merchandise ranges from tote bags and T-shirts to diaries and mugs; these can be seen on his social media pages, including Facebook and Instagram.

“I started KTC because the Urdu and Hindi poetry available in their visual forms online were dated. Revolution ke liye khali Che Guevara ki T-shirt nahi chahta tha (I did not want just a Che Guevara T-shirt signifying revolution)," says Husain, who has also designed book covers for publishing houses like Oxford University Press and Rajkamal Prakashan.

Graphic artist Shiraz Husain Photo: Sara Samundar

Husain’s artistic style is refreshing. He paints portraits of poets using a broad palette of watercolours, accompanied by carefully selected verses written by poets.

Kamila Junik-Łuniewska, assistant professor at the Institute of the Middle and Far East, Jagiellonian University, in Kraków, Poland, has been teaching Hindi and Urdu for a decade. She came across Husain’s work at Jashn-e-Rekhta, a festival that celebrates the Urdu language, in Delhi in December. “The text is written in two languages—Urdu and Hindi, and the two scripts (Nastalīq and Devanagari, respectively) take the poem from the textual into the visual. They become a part of the image, inseparable from all other ornaments. But not only do these posters transfer poetry—oral or written—into another pictorial dimension, they also transfer it into the 21st century," she says. In this way, Husain’s work becomes a part of pop culture, reflecting modern-day design that appeals to the younger generation while being deeply rooted in an old tradition.

A poster on Jaun Eliya, for instance, reads: Zindagī ek fan hai lamhoñ ko apne andāz se gañvāne ka (life is the art of whiling away moments). “I try and use verses with easy Hindi and Urdu words, for people to be able to understand them easily," he says.

Husain also attempts to popularize famous verses written by lesser-known poets through his products. The designs are made by hand and then digitized; production work is completed on the computer to reduce cost.

Husain, who grew up in a literary family in New Delhi, finished his master’s in fine arts from Jamia Millia Islamia and worked there as an assistant professor for five years.

Poster with the works of Punjabi and Hindi poet Amrita Pritam. Photo: Shiraz Husain

He draws inspiration from Polish and Japanese posters as well as Indian kitsch. The content of his work varies, but he ensures that the current political situation is reflected in his artwork as well. Two days after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s win in the Tripura election this month, when a group of people tore down a statue of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin, Husain created a poster on the incident. Pencil strokes show a statue falling amidst an angry crowd. The text is from Manto’s Joota.

Delhi-based researcher and anthropologist Sarover Zaidi says Husain’s work uses visuals, poetry and colour to present words that “contribute creatively to the field of promoting poetry, in tri-lingual formats", incorporating Hindi, Urdu and English. London-based Sanaa Qureshi, who is of Pakistani origin and works in the community sport sector, says she has started reading more in Urdu after coming across Husain’s work on Facebook. “I can speak Urdu but my reading is slow and sketchy. Seeing the work of Urdu writers celebrated in a non-Orientalist, non-fetishistic manner, felt revelatory, and honestly encouraged me to return to Urdu text and improve my readings," she says on email.

The visually distinctive work under KTC doesn’t just celebrate Indian poets, it also makes them instantly recognizable. National award-winning lyricist and stand-up comedian Varun Grover, who shares a love of literature with Husain, says on email, “Through KTC, Husain has started treating Urdu poets as rock stars for the first time. His artwork is cutting-edge and his selection of poetry to feature along with the artwork is accessible, so the combination works like a gateway drug for new and mostly young fans of poetry. His work still has the gravitas Urdu deserves, but at the same time it is cool."

Husain now plans to work with underprivileged children. “The posters we make with these children will be sold at a slightly higher price; 70% of the proceeds will go to them," he says. KTC T-shirts can be bought at People Tree store in New Delhi, or purchased by emailing him.

Email to place orders. Prices range from Rs100 for four postcards to Rs1,000 for an A3-size canvas poster.

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