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Origin Story Making Art Under Military Siege
We stayed inside for days painting papier-mâché objects. Outside, Kashmir had come to a standstill.
Over twenty-five years ago, when I was sixteen, Kashmir was under a military siege and shutdown that choked life for more than two months. These were the heady, bloody, early days of the uprising against Indian rule. A revolution had erupted, and that hallowed dream, azadi— independence—was expected to be just around the corner. People were willing to make the hardest sacrifices. People were willing to die; people were willing to kill. Dungeons and torture chambers came into existence overnight. Gunfights, roadside massacres, and piles of unclaimed slippers in the alleys were so frequent that you began to think of them as a way of life. Target killings appeared as ruthlessly edited box items on the inside pages. Cricket grounds and public parks turned into martyrs’ graveyards in the time that lapsed between a gunshot and the funeral bath. Men were “disappeared.” Women raped. People smoked or broke sweat over those geraniums in the garden.
At first it felt, to me, like an indefinitely long holiday, one without homework or assignments to complete, a life of languor and idleness. I was a politically alert teen, and knew of boys who were going across in droves to Pakistan for arms training, but perhaps because I was bookish and also loved to play cricket, I didn’t have the courage to imagine myself among them as they trekked through the perilous mountains at night. The elders in my family began to agonize about such things as food, cooking gas, kerosene, work, money—and out of this anxiety was born a simple idea.
Our family’s old craft, Naqashi, art on papier-mâché objects, was practiced by my grandfather and his father before him. My uncle and father decided it was to be revived—to pass the time; to earn some cash; and, I suspect, to keep us boys away from the dark pomegranate grove across the road.
Grandfather, an artist of some repute, was still alive. So were his famous tin trunk and his car-sized, all-wood workshop on top of the porch. My uncle, who was and probably still is one of the finer Naqashi artists of his generation, and my father, who wasn’t too bad either, took it upon themselves to “employ” me and my siblings in the art of painting obscure patterns on lamp shades, pencil boxes, coaster sets, vases, mini screens, Christmas balls, and Easter eggs. Our decorative pieces would eventually be sent to Indian or Western markets by significantly richer middlemen. Grandfather, even as he took great pride in his art, had made sure his children received at least a college education so they could seek secure jobs rather than live a life subject to the vagaries of the tourist season, or the fairness of the dealer who commissioned papier- mâché art.
My father spread his wares on the hall on the top floor, while my uncle worked in my grandfather’s workshop. My younger brother, sister, cousins, and I helped with the preparatory stages: mixing and warming paint, sticking onion skin over microscopic cracks, or painting a base coat on the lids of jewel boxes. Papa painted Mughal court scenes, often depicting a miniature Akbar—who looked nothing like the great Mughal—receiving obeisance from courtiers or visitors. An ornate arch presided over all the scenes. Elephants, gazelles, and nightingales peeked from the margins. Abba, my uncle, embarked upon somewhat more complex designs suited to octagonal lamp shades or curvaceous flower vases. For years I had seen his unfinished portrait of Omar Khayyam, the Persian mathematician, astronomer, and poet, hanging desolate by a window in the top-floor hall of the house. In it, Khayyam the poet is reclined against a tree as his muse pours wine from a crane-shaped flask.
One day my uncle asked if I wanted to paint some Easter eggs he had been commissioned to do by a friendly exporter of handicrafts who lived nearby.
I had never properly painted before, but I said yes. How could I say I wasn’t capable of painting some silly eggs?
photo by Sibtain Ali
It turned out to be the longest curfew in the history of curfews in Kashmir. There was no regular income for months. Army trucks staged flag marches now and then to enforce the curfew. Summer, usually a bright and vibrant affair in the Valley nestled in the high Himalayas, turned melancholy. Clusters of abandoned houses began to dot city and country; Kashmiri Pandits had left for the hot plains of India. Shops, schools, offices, and hospitals were closed. On the streets only dogs, soldiers, spooks, and rodents roamed. Children sneaked into orchards to steal apples and into graveyards to stumble upon concealed AK-47s. Food supplies had begun to dwindle.
We minion apprentices stayed indoors. We scrubbed and painted all day, cups of sweet tea at fixed intervals. Smells of warm paint, glue, and turpentine clung to my clothes. My youngest uncle, who was never one for obscure crafts, patience, meticulous attention, decided to opt out. I think he chose to read instead.
When I saw the polished wooden eggs my uncle wanted me to paint, with rings of Saturn left by the carpenter’s lathe on them, my first thought was whether, with a little bit of effort, they could be turned into birra —cricket balls. Soon, however, I was smoothing them further with sandstone paper.
We stayed in for days. Outside, the world had come to a standstill. There was an air of waiting, even stasis, to everything. It felt as though there was a moratorium on living and on dignity. News of killings reached us by word of mouth, or in the form of freshly made coffins and the green chadars that covered them. In those days, gossip consisted of such vignettes as, “There’s been a spike in demand for shroud fabric.”
Explosions in the near or far distance caused us little disruption, only the time it took to diagnose the sound as a bomb, mine, hand- or rocket-propelled grenade.
At first, despite attempts at restraint, I could only create unintended post-modernist splodges on the eggs. But as soon as I abandoned lofty artistic aspirations and began to stick to the basics—to do as prescribed —passable patterns began to emerge. All I was expected to do was make them in the image of each other. Mimetic art, I called it later in college, as I read Plato and Aristotle.
By the end of it all, I had painted a hundred or so Easter eggs, all red, with either Santa Claus or a Mughal court scene painted over the circumference. The effects were made somehow more authentic by the final polish of varnish. Each egg had to be wrapped up in silky brown paper. I loved the crumple and rustle of this last stage.
photo by Sibtain Ali
More than decades have passed since I painted those eggs. The hesitant and wholly unoriginal dabs have, somehow, informed a novel of mine— The Book of Gold Leaves— one of whose central themes is art in times of great conflict. An academic friend who read the book in manuscript form commented that some parts were ekphrastic. I had no such intent, but I do still remember the Easter eggs I painted.
I remember going to the dealer’s plush house. Perhaps because my uncle was a well-regarded bureaucrat and was only moonlighting as an artisan in those days, we were seated in the main drawing room. I was even properly introduced. My uncle spread his wares, and mine, in front of the exporter and, if I remember correctly, I spied a glint of pride, of artistic satisfaction, in his eye.
My uncle’s half-finished Omar Khayyam portrait, the one I had always noticed hanging in the top-floor hall of the house, became a trigger of sorts for the love story in my novel between a papier-mâché artist and a poetic girl. The artist is making a replica of the painting when he imagines the muse—a woman with impossibly long hair—to bear a striking resemblance to a girl he saw in a window the previous night. In the Khayyam portrait, I’d perhaps seen a glimpse of what my uncle might have achieved if, instead of painting artifacts for Western tourists in his spare time, or when curfewed in, he had pursued his artistic dreams.