Artist Kishori Kaul from Jammu and Kashmir broke all social barriers to pursue her passion for the paintbrush
During the 1940s, when choosing painting for a career was considered sheer waste of time —more so in a place like Jammu and Kashmir where neither the art scene had any serious presence nor was it given enough dignity to be even pondered over as a subject, a frail girl, still in her pre-teens, decided to change the norm. She was Kishori Kaul.
Now at 73, Ms. Kaul continues to wield the paintbrush. A retrospective of her oil on canvas Kashmir/Kasheer mounted by Art Heritage was on view recently.
A glimpse into Ms. Kaul’s residence at 13, Babur Lane, New Delhi is an indicator of her incessant fidelity to art. A miniature painting depicting child marriage of her own grandparents made by her grandfather, followed by another miniature painting of Radha and Krishna by her father, who was a known miniature artist, adorn the wall. More walls are lined with portraits, for instance, made for theatre stalwart Ebrahim Alkazi’s play Tipu Sultan and nature paintings recapturing picturesque old Kashmir.
A wide look around proves the recognition she received for her devotion to art — Dr. Zakir Husain walking alongside her towards Shridharani Gallery immersed in a discussion, Indira Gandhi holding a huge painting presented by her, an engrossing talk with Rajiv Gandhi while he scrutinises her paintings, and so on.
Ms. Kaul’s bright creations, especially scenic beauties and blooms, are in stark contrast to the tough early life she has lived in the Valley. During her early school days she showed an interest towards fine arts and theatre. But during middle school, she suffered a severe bout of typhoid that left her depressed and bed-ridden for half a year. It was at this time that her father brought her colours and asked her to paint. She recalls, “This was my first serious step towards taking to art as a career.”
Soon after recovery, Ms. Kaul enrolled for the Maryland Scholarship which helped her to join M.S. Baroda University — the hub for serious art. “While I was packing my bags, people asked my father, ‘How could you send your daughter alone?’”
The artistic atmosphere and the company of people like M.F. Husain, N.S. Bendre, Somnath Barve and P.N. Kachroo opened “a new vista” for her. “The day I was coming back after completion of the course, I heard my father had expired. My world had shattered. My mother sent me to Jhelum to my aunt’s home where I set up a studio and found my solace in painting. From there, I started sending paintings to Delhi, Calcutta (then) and Bombay (Mumbai) for shows by getting them framed and packed all by myself. Slowly, art admirers began to recognise me.”
At her first solo show at Shridharani Gallery in the late 1960s, someone asked her to invite the then President Dr. Zakir Husain to inaugurate the exhibition. An innocent Ms. Kaul went straight to Rashtrapati Bhavan, invitation in hand. She recalls, “As I was waiting to see the President, a vigilance officer asked me, ‘Have you taken an appointment from him? He doesn’t meet anyone without one’. Before I could answer, the President passed by. I said loudly, “No, I have come to invite the President for my solo exhibition.’ He heard it and called me inside. I requested him to honour my show. He asked me about myself and the kind of work I did, but didn’t promise anything.”
“On the day of the show, I was waiting for him — not sure how seriously he had taken me that day — when I suddenly saw a traffic jam and several horses gathering around. The President had actually come! There was a commotion. Media ran to cover him. Dr. Husain kept on asking me lot of questions on how I did a particular work. I was amazed to see how keenly he took interest in art,” she says.
The show made headlines in newspapers and Ms. Kaul turned famous overnight.
In the same show, she met her husband — noted scientist and journalist Inder Varma who had come to interview her. They married soon but Mr. Verma died 11 years later. Once again left alone, Ms. Kaul, however, didn’t stop painting.