by Nancy AdajaniaMay 02, 2020
When I first encountered the works of the illustrious Zarina Hashmi, and I confess in all honesty, I was bewildered with its simplicity more than anything else. How could something that seemed so modest and unpretentious be a work that was so admired and valued, I wondered. A self-inquiry was launched, intently, with the hope to find something ‘complex’, a secret process may be? But there was none. In my defence, my own art practice is primarily based in ceramics, which revolves around materiality and is very process driven. Tedious clay preparation and firing, glaze formulae and techniques are integral to what I have learnt. My understanding and appreciation for the ‘arts’ broadened only after I earned my masters about a decade ago, when I received the Fulbright Scholarship. Coming back to Zarina’s works, when I moved past the investigation of media and process, I observed the sheer power of depth and emotion in what she made. And this realisation felt as though I had discovered something immensely valuable.
A black rectangular form, boldly taking centre space of a sheet of paper, made with woodcut print process, titled Door, or, a roughly drawn architectural layout of a dwelling unit with bold black lines, titled Home, (both part of a larger series: 'Home is a Foreign Place'), whispered of nostalgia and memory. A rendition of the Radcliffe Line (that became the boundary demarcating India with Pakistan titled Dividing Line spoke of pain and longing. Zarina was born in pre-independent India and witnessed the partition when she was merely 10-years-old. Daughter of a professor, she studied mathematics, and being married to a diplomat, she got to travel internationally. A self-taught artist, her works were always monochromatic and minimal. Austere and unfussy marks, mostly using handmade print-making processes, which itself is often considered to be a stepchild in the high-art genres. The only ‘colour’ was that of gold-leaf that she often used on her paper and sculptural works. For her gold inspired the emotion of the divine light (noor). Zarina’s works are never obscure, and her references are easily made available to the viewer. It was evident that it is not just the ‘confidence’, but a ‘resolve’ that was her foundation. Although for Zarina it was voluntary, it was a migration nevertheless. She used the language of art to express deepest nostalgia for her ‘home’ in India, a yearning, a craving, a longing. Her practice is loosely called ‘abstract’, whereas the fact is that it always had references to architecture, maps, and text. Urdu language remained a common occurrence in many of her works. Over the years her concerns moved beyond her personal journey to the global polarity, crisis of refugees, and the general heightened communal emotions.
I have run into poor imitations of Zarina. Younger artists have latched on to the idea of minimalism through lines and jaali patterns, extensive use of black and white, and lavishly covered surfaces with gold-leaf – only creating ‘poor-man’s Zarina’, but one that completely lacks a soul and any kind of conviction. Use of ‘the map of Delhi’ or needles to pierce paper is no rocket science, but to express the honesty of nostalgia and pain, one needs to have gone through it to produce anything even remotely compelling. How can one mimic an autobiographical practice remains a matter of great wonder and amusement for me.
I never had the fortune to meet Zarina personally. I now speak to five contemporaries - all women with origins in South Asia, and each uniquely inspired from the practice of Zarina, with a sense of admiration and respect for who she was.
New York-based Indian artist Tara Sabharwal first met Zarina in 1975 at the residence of Nasreen Mohamedi in Vadodara (India). “I was a first-year student in Fine Arts, and being unwell, Nasreen had taken me under her wing and invited me to stay with her for a few days. She would talk to me about her ‘friend’, of how they were opposites with so much in common,” reminisces Sabharwal, only to truly understand what Mohamedi meant when Zarina arrived. She was confident, gregarious, and cosmopolitan, but she was also dedicated, self-questioning, and gentle. Those few days in Nasreen’s apartment left a lifelong bond and friendship between Zarina and Sabharwal.
Sabharwal says that Zarina has been a stronger influence in her work than she is herself aware of. “From her I learnt to trust my deepest instincts, to be myself and find my own unique path, whatever the cost of this maybe,” she adds. The ideology to explore and experiment fearlessly, to take chances and go with the flow, to not get precious or caught up with praise and criticism are all her understating from the interactions with Zarina. “I remember calling her several times to think through a new direction in work or even artist statement, which would invariably end up in hours of patient listening and guidance. When I worked on etching and woodcuts, she was always there to problem-solve,” she says, and discussions on books, politics, poetry, movies, music, life, everything has been an influence.
In contrast, Manisha Parekh from Delhi met Zarina in 1997, when Parekh was already a practicing artist. “There was an exhibition of small prints perhaps titled, Mini Print at the British Council. It was a large group show with several artists from all over. I was drawn to a small print, very precise and delicately made with minimal marks. That was Zarina Hashmi’s work. I had no idea about this artist but her work had left an impression on me. Later, on one of her annual trips to Delhi, I was introduced to Zarina by Geeta (Kapoor) and Vivan (Sundaram). She had a very warm and friendly presence. I could not help telling her that I was a big fan of her work and would like to spend time with her. The next day I was at India International Centre where she was staying. We started by driving around Delhi helping her with some chores,” recollects Parekh. Zarina re-lived her nostalgia during her visits to Delhi. Parekh and she would visit the Bengali Market near Connaught Place, explore textile and crafts at the state emporia and Dilli Haat. Parekh admits that she did not know much about Zarina’s practice then. “I was learning more and more as we spent time together. She was exhibiting in India often enough and would let me be around as she installed her shows. It was an insight into how she was placing her works in conversation with space. She would talk to me about making work, about materials and the techniques of print-making and book-binding,” she adds. Zarina had taught all her life and had an amazing way to communicate ideas on art, poetry, language, and music – all of which formed a source for inspiration for Parekh. “She became my ideal as an artist, and as an independent woman,” says Parekh. She feels Zarina’s works had deep connection with words and image. “Often, I would be reading the title and float with the image to feel the meaning of the phrase. Perhaps that was my way of understanding her abstracting an idea”.
Paper was the primary material Zarina worked with, but she was open to all kinds of other materials. “Maybe this was an area I found some common grounds with her practice. Her commitment to form and line was across all the mediums she was working on, measured and rigorous. The simplicity was also in the way she lived”. Zarina was making the amazing works from her studio-cum-home in her loft in New York. It is said to be a compact space with a work station extending to the kitchen platform. Parekh recalls, “…there were racks full of books and archival boxes systematically storing her works. There was a bed and a cozy warm sitting area where she organised many gatherings with friends from the art community. She lived there for over 40 years and produced this staggering body of work from that space”. Her work-equipment would range from wood-cut tools to book-binding tools, needles, thread, cutters, scissors, burnishing tools, and cutting boards. For Parekh too, the parallels can be made in the way her work-space and domestic-space gets mingled and the fascination for the tools to work with.
For Pakistani artist Roohi Ahmed, a 1993 solo show at Gallery Chawkandi in Karachi was the introduction to Zarina’s practice. “I remember I had just started teaching at an art college then. I still distinctly recall a work that I loved…it was a house on wheels. I was attracted to her minimal, no nonsense and direct approach about things, although things she was very sentimental about,” recalls Ahmed. Many years later she met Zarina in Karachi, “In 2006-07 when Zarina was visiting her sister, I requested a common acquittance to arrange for a short meeting with her. Funnily, she agreed to see me for 30 minutes but we ended up chatting for almost three hours. I showed images of my works. I felt that some of our works followed similar strains”.
They discovered many commons. Just like Zarina’s parents, Ahmed’s mother hails from Aligarh (India). The love for Urdu language, letters, ideas of displacement, and even her attachment to her father were probably reasons why they both could relate to each other’s’ works. While there are parallels, Ahmed’s inspiration from Zarina is not a deliberate one. “I loved her personality and her perspective of life, how she puts forward complex things in a simple yet loaded manner,” she explains. There are evident parallels that can be drawn in her concerns, “…investigating borders and boundaries (physical and non-physical) in a degenerating political, social and religious environment, often drawing upon cartographical and sewing references”. Ahmed recalls a conversation when Zarina shared how figuration was eliminated form her works when she studied in Paris, and how the impact increases manifolds with the absence of figure as the viewer is forced to look and reflect deeper into the artwork.
Manisha Gera Baswani, who lives and works in Delhi, saw Zarina’s work at the same time she met Zarina herself, at Gallery Espace in New Delhi. “I do not remember the year but I cannot forget the elevated feeling of being surrounded by an almost divine energy when I saw myself standing in front of her. Over the years when we met, we often spoke in Punjabi…Zarina would joke with me and never let the huge age difference come between us,” says Baswani. For her, both Zarina’s practice and her persona have been an inspiration. “It is not often that the artist and their work, both move us... Zarina for me is one such artist. She always stood for what she believed in, both in her art practice and the way she led her life,” she adds. Commenting on her interpretation of Zarina’s work, Baswani believes that in contemporary times the expression of human emotion in a work of art has taken a backseat, and often, understanding of an artwork requires reading the accompanying text. This was far from the case with Zarina’s works. “Her works hit the viewer right into the heart like a sharp arrow. In fact, many of her works have text, sometimes long letters written in Urdu, a language most of us cannot read. And yet, they touch the very soul with their sheer power and honesty,” mentions Baswani.
Baswani’s parents migrated from what is now Pakistan, leaving their home during the largest forced migration that the world has witnessed. A generation later, Baswani says that her art practice (as a painter and photographer) is shaped by this intertwined identity. Baswani says, “Although my parents gave a carefree and beautiful childhood, I am now more aware of the pain they have carried after leaving behind, both love and land. Having grown up on bedtime stories and inexhaustible personal anecdotes of partition, these shaped my practice”. Zarina’s influence is something Baswani believes is not direct in her own work. She says “I have been a colourist most of my artistic life, both in my palette and wardrobe. I see a distinct shift to monochromic shades. And this is especially true when I am exploring pain and healing in my practice”. Baswani’s new series using paper and pin began when she was working on her partition project titled Postcards from home. It is noteworthy that simultaneously she was taking acupuncture treatment for a long-standing painful ailment. “I carried these needles home and they walked into my work by themselves, pinned to the paper as signposts of pain inflicted healing,” she adds.
Hamra Abbas never met Zarina. She says, “In 2011, I received Zarina’s artist book (101 Urdu Proverbs) through a mutual friend, addressed to my newborn son in Boston. And the print, Directions to My House, which was part of the book, resonated deeply with my experience of giving birth away from home”. Late in 2013, Abbas had the opportunity to visit the survey exhibition Zarina: Paper Like Skin, at Guggenheim. “I was particularly drawn to the economy of word, shape, and object through which Zarina could speak volumes and touch people through a shared experience of love, home, longing, location, radiance, sight, and smell,” says Abbas. She says that she never looked out to consciously source inspiration from Zarina’s works, yet often liked to admire her imagery and illustrations. Her work is largely based on experimentation with colour, form, and material while engaging with devotional iconography and architecture from South Asia. She says, “Living away from home in different cities for almost 15 years – Berlin, Islamabad, New York, Boston - gave me a nomadic perspective to things, and much of my practice has been a response to those diverse landscapes, encounters, and experiences. The return to Lahore after a long hiatus provoked me to rediscover the familiar or the ordinary through a new kind of seeing, which has greatly influenced my current work,” and that in many ways finds resonance with Zarina’s own journey. “The condition of impermanence was, all along, a leading factor in my practice. When I look at Zarina’s prints Homes I made, it is a continuous reminder of ‘not being home’, and paper, which was her primary material, a signifier of this nomadic space,” adds Abbas.
In conclusion, I share a series of works that I created. Titled Home Boxes, with motif of a house, the 11 pieces narrated the story of intertwined lives and layered emotions. This was first shown in 2018 at Gallery Espace, the very gallery that represents Zarina in Asia, and I was pointed out parallels with her works…which felt like a sub-conscious influence, yet a fresh and personal perspective.
(Acknowledgements: While I was exploring to author a tribute, focussing at the life and works of Zarina Hashmi, the idea developed to investigate her influence on the next-generation of practitioners in my discussions with my colleague, Amit Gupta. I am thankful to Manisha Gera Baswani for ideating on potential artists that were inspired by Zarina, and to Manisha Parekh for a long Sunday morning conversation to share personal anecdotes that were immensely helpful for me to get to know Zarina.)