Zarina Hashmi, in the short film 'Zarina Hashmi – 'My Work is About Writing' by Tate Modern.
This quote wonderfully brings out the immense power of art to channelize our own struggles into something more universal that transcends the realm of the personal. To understand Zarina Hashmi’s work — its origins, its inspirations, its message, we must first delve deeper into the course of life that shaped her artistry.
Zarina was born in Aligarh, British India, on July 16th, 1937. Nestled in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, 100 miles southeast of the bustling metropolis of Delhi, Aligarh served as the backdrop for Zarina's formative years. As the youngest member of her family, she grew up alongside her four siblings: Hamid, Saeeda, Aslam, and Kishwar, affectionately known as Rani. Tragically, Zarina's bond with Hamid was destined to remain unformed, as fate had snatched him away prematurely, even before her arrival.
From her early days, Zarina found herself ensconced in the embrace of Aligarh Muslim University's faculty housing. Her father, Abdur Rashid, a distinguished Professor of History, had provided them with a home that stood as a testament to the interplay of gender and culture. Within those walls, a captivating dichotomy unfolded. The male quarters exuded a distinct Western influence, while the female domain emanated a more traditional ambiance, steeped in the rich tapestry of Indian Muslim values and adorned with decor that whispered tales of yore. This very abode, resonating with architectural grace and spatial arrangement, served as the wellspring of inspiration for Zarina's evocative masterpiece, aptly titled The House at Aligarh.
But it wasn't only the architectural and literary wonders that kindled Zarina's artistic spirit within those hallowed walls. The enchanting allure of her mother's garden cast its spell upon her young heart. In an abode where nature was revered, Zarina imbibed her parents' love for the natural world, and a garden bloomed forth, a testament to their shared appreciation. It was amidst these fragrant blooms that Zarina discovered her enduring passion for scents, forever rooted in the petals that graced her childhood sanctuary.
Zarina, in an interview with author and curator Nancy Adajania, for Stir World
This interview was conducted in the fall of 2016 in New York. At that time Zarina was 83 years old. Even then her fondness for flowers had not diminished and one can trace it back to her childhood. This is a testament to the power of childhood, its memories and experiences, and how it shapes us, and by extension, our creative process.
Yet, amidst the myriad influences that shaped her creative path, one bond stood unrivaled in its significance — the unbreakable connection between Zarina and her beloved sister, Rani. Inseparable allies, they traversed life's journey hand in hand, their synergy leaving an indelible mark on Zarina's artistic pursuits. Together, they embarked on countless ventures, their collaborative spirit breathing life into their shared projects. Zarina would often seek Rani's discerning eye, eagerly soliciting her input on her work, and on occasion, the dynamic duo would unite their talents to forge artistic marvels. This bond, profound and unyielding, endured until fate dealt a cruel blow in 2013, snatching Rani away, and leaving Zarina bereft of her most cherished confidante.
Zarina Hashmi, in the short film 'Zarina Hashmi – 'My Work is About Writing' by Tate Modern
One of Zarina’s seminal works, Letters from Home is a portfolio of eight monochromatic woodblock and metal cut prints, produced using original letters written in Urdu to Zarina Hashmi by her sister Rani. With impeccable craftsmanship, Hashmi harnessed the power of original letters, penned in Urdu by her beloved sister Rani, to create a mesmerizing collection that transcends time and language. These heartfelt missives form the very essence of her artistic expression, serving as the catalyst for a profound exploration of textuality, native language, memory, childhood, diaspora, the concept of home her and her identity as a Muslim-born Indian woman artist.
In her New York studio in 2004, Hashmi meticulously crafted these prints, breathing life into the intimate connections between family and place. She transformed the letters themselves into printing plates, each stroke preserving the essence of her sister's words. Onto the canvas of handmade Kozo paper, she delicately imprinted the letterforms, surrounded and adorned by the evocative contours of houses, floor plans, or geographic maps, meticulously rendered through the artistry of woodblock printing. The result is a poetic interplay, a dance between the tangible traces of correspondence and the symbolic imagery of dwelling, inviting us to navigate the interwoven tapestry of her existence.
Hashmi's artistic odyssey is enriched by her formative years in pre-partition India, where the notion of home held profound significance. Yet, as fate would have it, her path diverged as she embarked on a nomadic life, following her husband Saad Hashmi, an esteemed military officer engaged in the realm of international diplomacy. Bound by duty, she traversed cities, countries, and continents, etching her memories across a constantly shifting landscape. The partition of India and Pakistan brought about a wrenching displacement for her family, stripping them of their ancestral abode and ushering them from Aligarh to Karachi. This tumultuous experience ingrained within Hashmi a deep-rooted fascination with themes of home and the poignant longing for a sense of belonging. As she poignantly declares, "Home is the centre of my universe; I make a home wherever I am."
In her long and illustrious artistic career, Zarina created several brilliant works through the mediums of drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. However, Letters from Home is the most personal among them and is crucial to understanding her oeuvre. Although primarily known as a printmaker, she also worked with puncturing, scratching, weaving, sewing on paper and created sculptures using a variety of media such as bronze, aluminum, steel, wood, tin, and paper pulp. Her contributions to the Minimalist movement are undoubtedly astounding and her works have this innate ability to evoke almost spiritual reactions from their viewers. On 25 April 2020, Zarina passed away, but her legacy continues to influence young artists. Her life and artistry are a testament to the fact that no matter the abyss of our personal struggles, we can always find an honest outlet for it through art.
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