Samanbal—an Artist’s Dream of his Land and People
Renowned Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain shares his Kashmir story and how it came to become the leitmotif of his art.
I first met Masood Hussain at a wedding in Srinagar – briefly. I found his work which I had been following on Facebook and Instagram, mostly water colours of life in Kashmir, captivating. He mentioned about the residency for artists he had been trying to set up. So on my next Kashmir trip, I decided to meet him again and visit the residency.
We met at his house in Jawahar Nagar which was built from scratch after the old house was completely destroyed in the 2014 floods. He narrated how filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra and actor Amir Khan helped organize a fund raiser for him in Mumbai where, in a night, he sold several of his paintings, raising a considerable amount.
From there we drove to his residency, Samanbal, at Harwan. It’s a pretty scenic uphill drive from Nishat. The road to Samanbal lies along Dal Lake, Mughal gardens, Dachigam National Park, and Harwan.
After visiting the project site, we drove up on the Astan Marg. It’s a wonderful drive, in absolute contrast to the busy traffic roads of Srinagar, leading to upper reaches with amazing views of Srinagar city.
In Kashmiri, samanbal means a meeting place. Slowly but surely his vision for the Samanbal Art Residency is taking shape with him overseeing its making. Masood has been Samanbal’s mason, carpenter, architect, and engineer. He has been to different places in the Valley to gather material for the art residency. He visits the old city of Srinagar to find and purchase windows and doors, old bricks and discarded broken tiles from old houses. I saw a chandelier, above the staircase, made from broken glass.
There are various routes leading to Samnabal. The outside is a simple retaining wall with a gate on the side. The caretaker, a young man from the local village, opened the gate for us. The entire terraced site of about 4 kanals opens up to a panoramic view of the city, with the residency sitting on the highest terrace, abutting the road.
Samnabal reveals itself slowly and, then, suddenly it’s a burst of colours, textures, materials and details. The entry leads to the foyer cum reception area with two rooms on both sides and a small kitchen. Upstairs, again, there are two rooms and a studio space. The terraced site is to be landscaped for outdoor discussions.
Over the years, artists from Kashmir have faced difficulty in exhibiting their works both within and outside the Valley and there is very little interaction between them and also with artists from other places. Many artists from outside have been visiting the Valley but there’s not been any exchange of ideas. It was for this reason that Masood felt the need for a place where artists of the Valley could sit and discuss art and interact with each other. He is hopeful that Samanbal’will the very place where artists will converge.
Kashmir Art Scenario
Masood, a renowned artist, studied commercial art at Sir JJ College of Arts. In the 1970s, the Art College had come up in Jawahar Nagar. After completing a year, he moved to Sir JJ School of Applied Arts, Bombay.
He worked in Mumbai (the Bombay) for an ad agency and would have perhaps continued to do so, had his father, a well-known radiologist, not passed away. This unfortunate incident brought Masood back to the Valley, where he has stayed on since.
Kashmiri journalist Naseer Ganai in his article for the Outlook has given a detailed history of the art of the Valley. Kashmir has had a rich history of art from the Buddhist period as seen from the collections at the SPS Museum in Srinagar. There are collections from the 2nd century with bronze sculptures, clay images, woodwork, metalwork, musical instruments, and miniature paintings.
In the 1940s, it was the eminent painters, like Percy Brown (also an art historian) and Syed Hyder Raza who gave art a new direction in Kashmir. Percy Brown settled in Kashmir in 1943 in a houseboat named Catherine near the old Srinagar Club. He died in 1955. He is buried inside Sheikh Bagh Cemetery in Amira Kadal.
Later, Ghulam Rasool Santosh, Nisar Aziz, Bansi Parimo, Mohan Raina and others established an association called Kashmir Progressive Artists Group. Abanindranath Tagore (the principal artist and creator of the Indian Society of Oriental Art) frequently travelled to the Valley and would usually stay at historian Anand Koul Bamzai’s house in Zaina Kadal.
In the 1960s, Kashmir would host artists from different states for two weeks and during the cultural carnival, the artists would donate two paintings to the cultural academy. These works include the art of MF Hussain, FN Souza, Santosh, Bansi Parimo and others and are a part of the J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages.
The early 60s saw the emergence of another generation of artists, besides the painters, who significantly contributed to the revival of the art of sculpture, as many artists were trained at Baroda. One such artist was Hassan Gayoor, born in 1939 in Dalgate Srinagar. He studies Fine Arts (sculpture) at M.S. University, Baroda. He pioneered Kashmir Artist’s Guild in 1971 and the contemporary sculpture movement in Kashmir and his work was displayed in various galleries across the country, like Lalit Kala Academy, Triveni Kala Sangam, Jehangir Art Gallery and many more. He is the winner of several awards.
Of the 1970s, Masood says: “Those were relatively peaceful years and artists were fighting for an art gallery. The art was also peaceful. Senior artists would come from outside and would try to promote Kashmiri art. The art camps in the Valley used to be a big attraction for top artists in the country. In those days, artists painted mostly landscapes, houseboats, Dal Lake, and colours of Kashmir. The story was of beauty, culture, peace around them and whatever they saw.”
He says artists would meet at some coffee house in Srinagar interacting with writers, poets, TV artists, and intellectuals of the society and talk about art, culture, and literature. Most discussions revolved around the need to have an art gallery in Kashmir and a space for art.
Times of Change
The period of insurgency in the Valley from 1989-1990 pretty much changed the art scenario. While Kashmir Pandit artists painted about their migration and life outside the Valley, Masood and others painted about the everyday struggle of people in the Valley.
The post-1990 turmoil had a deep impact on artists. The beauty of Kashmir went into the background and the day-to-day events became part of the art. This holds true for all artists, poets, and music composers – and, of course, journalists. Noted poet Agha Shahid Ali chose Masood’s painting for his book, The Country Without A Post Office.
No artist can remain oblivious to his or her surroundings and this is evident in Masood Hussain’s work too. He became a chronicler of an unfortunate period of history. Masood says: “In 1990, I lost hundreds of paintings in the studio I had opened in Hazuri Bagh, in a fire incident. There was nothing left except for a burnt transformer. Since then, what I have painted, I have painted from what I see around me and nothing else.”
Masood longingly explains his early years spent in Habba Kadal, in the old city of Srinagar where he lived in a large joint family headed by his grandmother. His father and three other brothers stayed in the three storied, traditionally built, ancestral home. The house façade was of hand-made maharaji bricks (smaller than the regular bricks we see today) and many lattice windows. It was a mixed neighbourhood with both Pandit and Muslim families, their roofs almost touching each other, across narrow lanes. “Together we flew kites, played cricket and studied, celebrated Shivratri and Nauroze, the traditional Iranian festival of spring celebrated by Shia Muslims,” recalls Masood.
He goes on wistfully: “My grandmother had never been to school and was taught by a teacher at home. She was well-versed in Kashmiri, Urdu, Arabic and Persian. She also kept a treasured collection of old books, mostly in Persian, in an old wooden cupboard. Every evening, Muslim and Pandit children of the neighbourhood would gather around her. She would read out stories to us in Persian, simultaneously translating them into Kashmiri. It is from her that we first heard the adventures of Hatim Tai and Alibaba and the 40 thieves.”
Masood relates one incident, of 1958, when they were woken up by the sound of thundering hooves in the courtyard. “The peasants working on our land had come to give us our share of the rice harvest, packed in jute bags, from our ancestral village of Sumbal Naugam in north Kashmir,” reminisces Masood. “Our share was one-third of the harvest from the land that was left with us; most of it was given up under the new land reforms of Sheikh Abdullah’s government.”
His mother was reminded of the trauma of October 1947 when the qabailies (tribesmen) from the North West Frontier Province across the border launched a series of attacks across Kashmir, coming up to the outskirts of Srinagar, killing and looting along the way.
The women of the family were sent off to their village along with their jewellery and other valuables. Little did they know that the villagers would guide the invaders to their home and join the looting spree. With great difficulty, with the help of one of his uncles, the women managed to escape by boat. They were dressed in tattered clothes of the farm workers and had smeared themselves with mud to avoid being noticed.
As the years went by, their ancestral house was sold off and each family went its own way. Masood went to Mumbai to study art (1971-1977) and upon his return took up a teaching position at the local fine arts college in Srinagar. Then in the late 80s and 90s the political landscape of Kashmir changed drastically. Masood explains: “The Pandits exodus from the Valley took place, and the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim was trapped in an unimaginably claustrophobic existence, caught in the crossfire of hardened stances and cycles of violence. The human cost of conflict was irreparable.”
As an artist, Masood became a witness to these changing times, chronicling the daily events of a society traumatised by conflict. Each of his works in the 1990s in the series Agony in the Gardens of Paradise refers to such incidents. “Thus, one of the main motifs of Exodus was the jewellery so typical of married Pandit women. In Lonely Sharika, I captured the desolation of a once vibrant temple on Hari Parbat through the sole presence of a soldier’s helmet with agarbatti stuck in it,” he recalls.
The daily ordeals of the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim also found expression in several works, as he recounts: “Stampede derives its inspiration from the CRPF firing on the funeral procession of the late Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq in January 1990. Missing Identity echoes the daily terror of identification parades that Kashmiris were faced with. A broken blue cup in Bullet for the Host alludes to an incident where a stray bullet caused the death of a man in the act of pouring kehwa for a guest. A head split open with metal parts boring into it in Aftermath of Equilibrium was a comment on the rising incidence of psychiatric problems among Kashmiris living in strife-torn times. How Many More is representative of the martyrs’ graveyard in Srinagar.”
Works like Epitaph, Stained Window and Missing Link articulate the pain of loss of the life of co-existence. Masood made papier mache frames inspired by Kashmir’s vernacular architecture, for the artworks. This was his way of mourning the passing of a Kashmiri way of life that had framed lives for so long.
Look Behind the Canvas
In 2010, a well-known Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Barmahani who was working on a documentary on the impact of enforced disappearances on the lives of women in Kashmir, met Masood and wanted him to chronicle three lives across generations — Mugli, also known as Mughal Masi whose son went missing in 1990 and who went on to become a towering inspiration for mothers in Kashmir (she passed away a year after waiting for 20 years for her son to return); Rafiqa, a middle-aged ‘half-widow’ who had no idea if her husband, missing since 1997, was alive or not; and a young girl wondering what her future would be. The film, Look behind the Canvas, entered the 10th Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in 2014.
The shooting of the film started in 2010. Around that time, a series of protests, led by stone-pelting teenagers, shook the Valley. Confrontations between crowds and security forces resulted in the deaths of 112 teenagers, among them an 11-year-old boy. Frequent curfews made it difficult for them to move around.
Masood relates the shooting of the film: “One of my first shoots for the film involved going to Mugli’s house, close to my old neighbourhood in Babapora. Mohsen had been fortunate to capture her on film in his earlier shoots. On our way from Jawahar Nagar, I asked the taxi driver to briefly stop at the Baba Demb ghat near Babapora which had been one of our regular childhood haunts with its large steps of devri stone leading down to the water body. We would watch the Dal dwellers sell their fresh produce of vegetable and fruits, from their shikharas. Our rides, on the shikara to the Dal, were our favourite outing. The ghat used to be lined with picturesque facades of houses belonging to both the Muslims and the Pandits”
But to his dismay, what Masood saw was a sad and hurtful sight. “The beautiful waterway of my childhood was gone; in its place was a road. Most of the original inhabitants having left the Valley long ago, the deserted Pandit houses near the ghat were a ghostly presence. When I reached the house in which I was born, my first visit in 42 years, the truth hit me forcefully –the home was merely a structure.”
Four years ago, Masood worked on a series of 200 water colors of places called the Transparent Strokes and uploaded their images on Facebook. “When I uploaded the images of the sketches I had an unspoken thought in my mind – to create a virtual space where Kashmiris, Muslims and Hindus, could recognise familiar landmarks and through them revive the memories of connectedness that was once a way of life in the Valley.”
The response was overwhelming, especially from Kashmiri Pandits from around the world, many of whom identified places connected to their childhood. Some old links were revived, some new friendships formed.
“Many conversations were tinged with bitterness and anger as well, which is understandable. To this my answer would be that we were all dispossessed. Has anybody emerged unscathed by the grim and unfortunate realities of Kashmir? The ordinary Kashmiri Muslim living an oppressive existence has also been bereft of the riches of a shared culture,” says Masood.
The migrant Pandits remembered places they had associations with. Many even expressed their feelings through poetry. On the social media, they caught up with long-lost friends and also formed new friendships.
Masood is well aware that to counter the oppressive and confined conditions, one needs to find one’s cultural roots. He hopes this is just the beginning.
In April of 2019, his friend, Rafiq Kathwari, Kashmiri writer and poet from New York, called him for an assignment. Gabriel Rosenstock, one of Ireland’s foremost poets and author, was working on a book of haiku on the life and ideas of Gandhi to mark his 150th birth anniversary. Kathwari wanted Masood to make the illustrations for it.
While the project’s aim was to give young minds a glimpse of Gandhi’s life and its continuing relevance, the idea was also to create a book, in English and Irish (Gaeilic), that would appeal to adults as well.
Masood says, “It did not matter that Gabriel and I had never met. Agreeing to work on this project was important for me. I saw it as my way of making a small contribution to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi.’’
The result is an incredible work, Walk with Gandhi, with over 50 haikus and illustrations, and vignettes.
Ironically, the same year on August 5th, when the government of India abrogated Kashmir’s article 370 and imposed harsh prolonged lockdown on it, he was cut off from the rest of the world. He had absolutely no information about the development of the book. This only intensified his feeling of isolation and being left out of the circle of collective efforts, cooperation and interactions that Walk with Gandhi signified for him.
Masood’s latest work is the cover illustration for American journalist David Lepeska’s book, The Dessicated Land. The illustration is based on Masood’s mixed media painting, Jalodbhava Still Lives, which is based on the story of the origin of Kashmir – a lake inhabited by a demon named Jalodbhava who terrorizes the nearby village and is indestructible while in the lake. A local sage appeals to Vishnu for help and Vishnu requests the plow-master Balarama to clear a path for the water to rush out, killing the demon and desiccating the newly created Valley of Kashmir. Masood’s painting asserts that the demon continues to terrorize Kashmir even today, as it continues to be a place of curbed freedoms and great suffering.
A multi-talented and multi-tasking artist, Masood has designed the entrance gate to the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKAUST). The stone fountain sculpture in Badamwari is also Masood’s work. He had also developed concept sketches for the clock tower at Lal Chowk, in concept similar to the stone sculpture, which, unfortunately landed in controversy and the idea was discarded even before it began.
The 2014 floods had wreaked havoc in the Valley. Low lying areas of Srinagar were inundated with flood waters up to the second-floor level. Jawahar Nagar was one such area. While Masood and his brother were trying to help their elderly neighbours reach safety in their two inflatable boats, Masood’s own house was completely destroyed. The only thing that survived the flood flurry was his series of seven paintings based on seven unpublished couplets that were given to him by poet Agha Shahid Ali during his Srinagar visit 15 years ago. After an effort of almost a year, Masood had completed these series just seven days before the Jhelum swelled beyond the danger mark.
The couplets, on the seasons of Kashmir are titled: When It is Early Spring, The Elements Conspire, Autumn Refrain in Kashmir, Early Winter, Deep January, At the Gates of Paradise and The Blossoms Return. “These couplets gave me a feeling of hope at a time when there was none,” says Masood. “The feeling of hope that his couplets had kindled in me found expression in a painting titled Hope, which, fittingly, was the concluding work of my series Resurrection of a Time Past. This series was exhibited in Delhi’s Art Heritage gallery in March 2005.”
Shahid’s couplet, The Elements Conspire, resonates with Masood, as he suffered losses beyond repair, first in a fire and then the water.
It took Masood 14 years to fulfil his friend’s wish. When he did, the seven canvases were nearly destroyed in the floods of 2014.
When the water levels began rising, Masood and his wife left their two daughters at a relative’s house which was on a slightly higher level. They returned, wading through water, to find their house inundated and houses in the neighbourhood sinking. They first rowed their wives to safety to Haji Bashir Ahmed’s house. They then rescued AK Kaul, a famous dentist and his wife who were barely above water, then an aged Sikh couple and an ex-DG Police, Peer Hassan Shah in his 80s. It took them four hours to bring about 40 people to the two terraces of Haji Bashir’s house.
Next day, Masood made a make-shift ropeway with a steel wire between the two terraces, to send food baskets, blankets and drinking water from the main terrace to the smaller terrace.
It’s truly said in adversity we find strength and for people like Masood, it’s always humanity first.
Art is not essential for human survival, however, thousands of years and generations have proven that art is essential to human existence.
The Samnabal project is being developed through the Vestaun Foundation, founded by Masood Hussain and his daughter, Sanna Masood. About the foundation he says: “Vestaun is the enlightened friendship of kindred spirits committed to heal the world. Our ideals emerge from the word vestaun or nurturing feminine friendship, in the Kashmiri language, bridging geographical, societal, cultural, and gender dissimilarities for a better and brighter tomorrow, keeping with the ethos of humankind for a sustainable ecosystem for our future generations.”
This residency project of Vestaun foundation aims to build bridges between the local communities and artists. Through different forms of art, the project provides an opportunity to interact, experiment and work with local materials, artists, craftsmen and residents. The project will encourage artists to move beyond the comfort of their studio spaces and work under different circumstances and fresh spaces. The residing artists will be invited into the city to different spaces, so that more audiences can engage with and interact with varied forms of art.
The idea of placing a studio on the edge of the city is to spread art spaces around the city and move from the city center to the periphery. Samanbal is an open studio inviting artists to act, research and react to the contemporary art scene, to meet for discussions, exhibit their work and perform, or just come catch up over a cup of tea and discuss art. Besides, there are also opportunities for short term residency programs.
In 2007, Masood Hussain organized an international artists camp in Kashmir in association with Khoj International Delhi, bringing together twelve talented visual artists from various countries – India, South Asia, Africa, England and the Middle East along with artists from Kashmir creating an active platform for dialogue, discussions, exchanging ideas, methods, approaches and exploring alternative means of visual expression. Evening discussions and slide presentations bought artists, art appreciators and connoisseurs, art critics and students of art on a common platform.
Masood’s grandfather, a papier-mâché artist, had a wooden box colour palette. His grandfather had pasted the photograph of his brother on the surface of the box. His brother had crossed over to Pakistan. Masood’s grandfather spent his entire life hoping for his brother’s return.
With years of work chronicling separations, connections and desire to interact with artists of the world, Masood set upon to give shape to Samnabal, all by himself. He has had very little help from any individual, private organisations or government bodies. Samnabal is on its last leg of completion and should start its residency program soon. The project requires for all of us to come together to forward an artist’s dream of promoting art and interaction of artists in the Valley.
Jaspreet Kaur is a Delhi-based architect, urban designer, Trustee Lymewoods & Span Foundation and Consulting Editor of Kashmir Newsline.