Spotlight | Art

Kashmiri artist Veer Munshi on political themes, homeland and identity

‘Zuljinah’ by Veer Munshi.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Set against a hazy background, Mahatma Gandhi is stooping over what appears to be a battleground — riddled with all sorts of scrap — wielding a welding machine. Strewn across the floor are undefined, rusty metal parts; dismembered pieces of what appear to be cars and trains. In another frame that’s part of the same collection — the Shrapnel series — a man is seen mid-scream against a similar backdrop. The year was 2010, and artist Veer Munshi had returned to Kashmir, his homeland, after years of being away. As fate would have it, he was caught in a stone-pelting incident. His immediate reaction was: “A lot of scrap was on the ground,” and this sight inspired him to create a series of drawings. He incorporated Gandhi into this, drawing on the idea that the latter had seen “a ray of hope” in Kashmir during Partition.

It was in the early 90s that the personal became the political for Munshi; he was among those caught in the Pandit exodus from the Valley. Needless to say, the idea of exile and lost identity remains ingrained in his body of work to date. But he is insistent on making a human rights statement rather than a political one. “I started out in my work with a reaction towards migration,” says Munshi, fiddling with the projector as he prepares for a talk at Chennai’s Forum Art Gallery. He was in the city last month, as part of a residency programme organised by artist S.G. Vasudev.

‘Moods of the Valley’ by Veer Munshi.

‘Moods of the Valley’ by Veer Munshi.  

Munshi remembers copying the poster of the film Bobby in school. This was his first engagement with art, which then became a passion. But it was not until the 90s that he felt the need to express views and emotional responses through his work. ‘Terrorist on a Floating Land’ (1991) was my first work. This was my first engagement with politics. I remember feeling very relieved once I finished the piece. The emotion was very different,” says Munshi. The painting shows a striking image of a naked man with a white cloth tied around his face, carrying a rifle, standing on an island against a sea of red — the skies, the lake and mountains alike. He is alone, on a turf that seems cordoned off by the water that surrounds it. An array of paintings, interestingly placed against similar hues and a darker gradient of palette, followed this work. At the time, familiar faces and landscapes seemed to dominate the language that Munshi chose, in an effort to express the immediate turmoil.

Familiar faces

“Though it was therapeutic to react to political issues through my work, I too needed a break. At that point, the mind settled and I wanted to go back to what I learned in Baroda,” says Munshi, who studied at MSU Baroda. One such work is the Zodiac series from 2006, where Munshi featured personalities who he had met, admired or read about over the course of his study, against backgrounds that spoke of their artistic styles. Portraits of Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin, Picasso and even unknown faces make up this series. The break took him back to the medium of painting.

Veer Munshi

Veer Munshi   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

On one of his visits to Kashmir, after nearly 10 years, he happened to see the space in Srinagar where his home had stood before it was burned down. This inspired Munshi to start a photography project where he documented abandoned houses across the Valley. These photographs possess an otherworldly charm, with flakes of white snow posing a stark contrast to the brown, rugged, texture-heavy walls from another time. He kept going back, every season, to cover the houses in all their aspects. Munshi recalls, “In the winters, we would move up and in the summers, we would descend. I wanted to capture the houses in all aspects.” Each photograph is like a portrait of the house.

Munshi kept going back, and when he did, he started reacting to the environment and the people. At one point, he realised he should be engaging with the community as well, beyond just art. Numerous collaborations followed, especially with artists born in conflict or affected by it. One example of such a collaboration is ‘A Place of Repose’, the combined work of 14 artists, curated by Munshi, which was part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale this year, part of the travelling Srinagar Biennale pavilion.

‘A Place of Repose’ by Veer Munshi.

‘A Place of Repose’ by Veer Munshi.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Death confined

The work, Munshi says, comprised a large structure borrowing elements from vernacular architecture — a darga, with intricate traditional wood carving, which the audience could walk in and out of. Small coffins were placed inside the structure, in which papier-mâché bones can be seen. It’s almost as though the darga confines death as a tangible entity. As one entered the structure, one was frisked by two performance artists from the Valley. They transferred their lived reality, momentarily, to the viewers.

As someone who has engaged with the politics of the Valley almost throughout his career, how does Munshi respond to the recent abrogation of Article 370? “I am neither a politician nor a political analyst. I am still absorbing it. I was there when the shutdown happened. I have seen the fear and anger of the people, which reminded me of the 90s.Whether it was right or wrong can’t be said in a few works. But it is not my place to say whether it was right or wrong. My reaction to it will only come through my work. For me, the experience is what becomes important. How do you view this? How do you present it ? All this matters.”

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 1:44:33 PM |

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