S. Kalidas unveils the artist whose passion for poetry becomes also an expression of art. Her works are on show at Gallery Espace, New Delhi, till February 15.

Kya bood-o-baash poochho ho poorab ke saakino; hamko ghareeb jaan ke hans hans pukaar ke

Dilli jo ek shahar tha aalam mein intakhaab; rahte the muntakhib hi jahan rozgaar ke

Usko falak ne loot ke veeran kar diya; ham rahnewale hein usi ujare dayar ke

(Why ask where I come from, O dwellers of the East,

Knowing my homelessness you laugh as you taunt.

Delhi that was once a select city in the world,

Where only the chosen lived of every trade;

Then the heavens looted it and left it desolate,

I am a citizen, of that ruined place.)

- Meer Taqi Meer

The celebrated pioneer of Urdu poetry, Meer Taqi Meer (1723 - 1810), is believed to have recited these lines when taunted by the upstarts of Lucknow and asked about his antecedents. Meer had migrated from a Mughal Delhi in decline — it had been plundered twice in his lifetime, first by Nadir Shah Afshar in 1739 and then nine years later by Ahmed Shah Durrani — to what was then an upwardly mobile province of Awadh ruled by Nawab Asaf ud Daula.

When Zarina Hashmi returns from a post-9/11 New York to an aspiring and ambitious 21st century New Delhi with these once-well-known lines, there is an element of irony that is hard to miss. Zarina could be addressing this inheritance of loss to both; New Delhi and New York. Swamped by recent migrants, post-Partition New Delhi has long abandoned its best ever cultural construct, i.e. the Urdu language and its poetry. New York, in the wake of terrorism and the resultant Islamophobia, is struggling to keep its best ideal, i.e. the promise of freedom of speech and worship in a constitutional democracy.

In her movingly written Conversation with my Self, she says: “I chose Urdu not for the beauty of the calligraphy or the exoticism of its aesthetics. I was placing my work in a historical moment, capturing a time when one wrote and read in Urdu. Urdu was born in Delhi; Amir Khusrau called it Hindawi, the language of Hindustan. Now we are witnessing the slow death of this language in the same city.”

So is Zarina's art political? It could well be in so far as any work of art or thought provokes a spirit of inquiry into the state of the present. And when she looks around her she finds there is enough to question “the very notion of safety, security and refuge”.[2] But Zarina proclaims no manifesto. Hers is a voice that raises oblique queries but refrains from making any final pronouncements. She takes her tactic from the medieval Sufis who spurred inquiry into mathematics, astronomy, mysticism, metaphysics, music and poetry and in doing so subverted the religious and political establishments of the day in favour of inclusion of the popular and the marginal. If ilm (knowledge), ishq (love) and haal (ecstasy) were their spectacular modes of protest and enlightenment, Zarina combines all three in her meditative art.

By superimposing these lines of Meer in handwritten nasta'liq script as a visual device within her highly refined art practice, Zarina also in a sense de-schools the quotation from its more literal readings. This de-contextualisation expands the scope of application, as it were. Not many viewers of her art would be able to read the lines; fewer still would know the context. Yet even at the purely retinal level, the image — of the skeletal road map of Delhi with the lines in nasta'liq squarely suspended on it — makes for its own reading. It appears to be a spider's web of memory that has trapped a fluttering moth of remorse. It becomes a more universal signifier where the visual form spells its own narrative of calm disquiet.

Mirza Ghalib

Meer is not the only poet from Delhi that Zarina invokes in her work. She also refers to the greatest of them all, Mirza Ghalib (1797- 1869). In a personal email to me she quotes a line from Ghalib “sambhalne de mujhe ae na-umeedi kya qayaamat hai/ke daamaan-e-kheyal-e-yaar chhoota jaaye hai mujh se — let me steady myself, O hopelessness! What a disaster this is! That even the vestment of the thought of my beloved is slipping away from me.” Like Meer, Ghalib too had witnessed the devastation of Delhi, this time during the ghadar (mutiny) of 1857 when the British deposed the last Mughal Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar. With the Partition of India in 1947, both Delhi and Zarina witnessed the painful breaking up of not only families but also of a whole culture and a way of life yet all over again. So she understands the civilisational costs of conflict deeply and personally.

It is useful to recall here that Zarina begins conceiving a work “not with an image but a word” in her mind. Much of art and poetry, and certainly all politics, centres on the valorisation of the place called ‘home' and the metaphor of ‘shelter'. She has cryptically remarked in an interview: “Home is the centre of my universe; I make a home wherever I am. My home is my hiding place - a house with four walls, sometimes four wheels.”[3]

Zarina chose to live and work in New York in the mid-1970s after years of transits between the capitals of the world. There were personal reasons behind the choice. Her diplomat husband Saad Hashmi had died suddenly while still young and her father Sh. Abdur Rashid, a professor of History at Aligarh University, had migrated to Karachi in 1959 where her sister still lives. New York offered the opportunity to work as an artist and keep in touch with her family in Pakistan. She had no home to call her own and used to look out for ‘Spaces to Rent'. Later, that transformed into a work titled Spaces to Hide. Within a few years this engagement with the poetics of home/ shelter resulted in a seminal series of works with cast paper pulp and wood block print on handmade paper titled variously as Spaces to Hide, Corner, Homecoming, Home is a Foreign Place et al.

While working out these concepts intellectually and artistically she was also devising new techniques and methods of making, casting, sizing and printing of paper to give form and materiality to her imagination.[3] Although Zarina has worked as a sculptor with other materials like bronze, steel and wood, she is primarily a printmaker and her favourite medium remains paper. Paper, as she asserts, is like skin: “It can be stained, pierced and moulded and it still has the capability of breathing and aging. It has a fragility and resilience that lasts through time.”

In India, many of these works were shown at Gallery Espace in 2007 in an exhibition evocatively titled kagaz ke ghar or Paper Houses. Apart from the play on words (recalling the phrase “a house of cards” in English; and Guru Dutt's classic “Kagaz ke Phool” in Hindi/Urdu cinema), in that exhibition Zarina had used a line from Ghalib in Urdu: “be dar-o-deewar sa ik ghar banaaya chaahiye” meaning “make a house without doors or walls”. In the context of Zarina's Single, Self-made, Muslim, Woman of Indian Origin status the next line of the couplet is worth recalling too. Ghalib wrote: bedar-o-deewar sa ik ghar banaaya chaahiye/koi hamsaaya na ho aur paasbaan koi na ho (Make (me) a house without doors or walls /no need for a companion, no sentry required). In her radiant realm of a wall-less self-celebrated solitude, Zarina realises full autonomy as an artist and a woman.

In many works over the last decade or more, Zarina keeps returning to the notion of the ‘self' in transience through time and place. She seems to have so internalised the ‘act of journeying' that it manifests in her work in multiple ways. So from the “line drawn across her heart” that divides India and Paksitan, to the places she visited with her sister (as in “Travels with Rani”), to cities she had lived in or travelled through or had seen in conflict (as in “Cities, Countries and Borders”) — all make for an opus of works on paper that weave a vulnerable thread of personal history within the harsher grid of geopolitical time-space. “I continued to work with not just maps that had personal significance but also maps of regions plagued by ethnic conflicts,” she writes. In the stillness of her studio, the experience of a place and a time seems to crystallise through a process of reduction and renunciation that could be informed by both Sufi thought and Zen practice.

Zen influence

Zarina had studied wood block printing and travelled widely in Japan in 1974 and the influence of the profound monochromatic minimalist Zen aesthetic resonates in her work. In fact, she is the rare odd artist of Indian origin who manages to intuitively conceive an aesthetic that is shorn of clutter, chaos and ornamentation. This is a trait that distinguishes her from most art emanating from the Indian subcontinent. Her display of an amazing leap of imagination or a dazzling flash of technique is invariably tempered by an equally great sense of restraint. There is austerity and starkness in her articulation, but there is also an intense clarity of tone and warmth of timbre. Her visual haikus encapsulate whole narratives of experience, of memory, or just an abstract emotion or even a fleeting feeling … and with such intelligence and economy of expression.

Zarina's passion for geometry is palpable. Geometry, says Zarina, is “sacred practice”. Indeed, virtually all her major work is based on basic geometric forms: the square, the circle and the triangle. As a much travelled and well exposed artist she cannot be oblivious to the trajectory of geometric abstraction that European art history traces from the constructivists to Kazimir Malevich to Josef Albers and beyond. Yet Zarina's art manages to remain resolutely rooted in the Indo-Persian tradition through abstracted images and forms of step wells, niches and arches; through Urdu poetry and through personal history. This tradition has developed concepts for division of space - both private and public - invariably in relation to nature and the concept of paradise (bahisht). So, there is a God-made/ man-made; worldly/other-worldly; nature/culture dialectic happening there which puts Zarina's practice of the Sacred Geometry in an orbit of its own.

More recently, Zarina has delved into the concept of noor, or divine light, in Sufism. Like a faquir or darvesh in throes of ecstasy, she lets go of her habitual reserve and splashes and splurges extravagantly with pure gold. Having lived in India and Thailand, she associates gold with the divine and the auspicious. Using 22 carat gold leaf she gilds strings of wooden beads shaped to resemble a giant tasbih (rosary/prayer beads), or she makes large hanging paper screens that are cut or sliced in geometric grids, or woven like a mat, or she casts paper pulp into tablets that have been notched or pierced ... The effect is pure magic.

Completing the binary, Zarina explores the idea of darkness with a mesmerising diptych titled “Dark Night of the Soul” made with black obsidian and Sumi ink on laminated BFK paper. Then there are other large paper screens in this show like Shadow House and A Few Steps in the Land of Confucius. These have not been gilded but have been rubbed with graphite or cut or spliced very finely like a jaali or a chilman and let to hang a little away from the wall. Here light creates its own play with translucence of paper and its shadows. For how can one fully experience light without knowing the glimmer of twilight or the depth of the shadow?

The most iconic work in this exhibition is titled “Blinding Light”. This is a large vertical screen fully gilded with gold leaf, divided in a grid and cut with thin slits. Zarina says: “I have used gold leaf off and on in my practice. I used it sparingly. I thought a screen of this size in gold might be garish; I put it off until it became necessary (my emphasis) to express... The title, “Blinding Light”, was inspired by the legend of Moses asking God to reveal himself. God warned him that he would not be able to stand the light of his presence but Moses insisted. When God revealed himself Moses fainted and the surrounding hills and bushes burned…” Invested with a lifetime of experience, painstakingly honed skill and the final recognition of Faith, this revelation is one of burning purity.

Welcome Home, Zarina.

[1] Translation S. Kalidas with Sohail Hashmi.

[2] Mary-Ann Lutzer-Millford Cities, Countries and Borders: Recent Works by Zarina Hashmi, Gallery Espace, 2004.

[3] See Robert Kimbrill and Geeti Sen in Kaghaz Ke Ghar, Gallery Espace 2007.