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‘Teach Urdu to kids’

For a visual artist, painting or photography are not a matter of creating pretty images, they are ways of awakening social consciousness

Shiraz Husain is an independent artist and art educator. He is the founder of the popular Facebook page Khwaab Tanha Collective. A former assistant professor at the Department of Fine Arts, Jamia Millia Islamia, he is presently involved in multiple initiatives, including art workshops, art education and so forth. A coffee table book on his Khwaab Tanha portraits is also in the offing.

I met him at his Delhi residence last month, where apart from warm hospitality and Ramzan delicacies, I was taken on a tour de grand in the world of art, Urdu, literature and all in between. At one point during our conversation, at a petulant question that threatened to pull our talk much away from the topic intended, he remarked that his answer would be like a montage, which by the end, he hoped would tie up together into one single narrative. I found the approach both beautiful and befitting for a person who dealt in visual poetry, if not sorcery. So here I’ve collected the bits from our conversation, I hope they find a place in your mind and much beyond, as they did for me.

On art beyond recreation and entertainment
Last year, in a dissertation done under me, the student asked why photography must be taught in schools. It’s not necessary that one who studies photography in school will end up becoming a photographer one day. But say, a student is sent to photograph the footpath. He may not become the next Steve McCurry necessarily, but something there, the state of people being forced to live on the footpath, may push him to do some social work for them. The role of art is then the task of making the other person sensitive, to generate empathy. So focusing on an art like dance, just so that the child can perform at the family function is not the way art is meant to be. Art is meant to touch you on other levels, we need to focus on that.

Here’s how I learnt to play the guitar. I once saw a man wearing a t-shirt which had a white line going from one side and emerging on the other into the seven colours. Beneath it was written ‘Dark side of the moon.’ I found the artwork pretty cool. I asked someone and found that it was the artwork of a band named Pink Floyd. So I heard Pink Floyd and its guitarist, David Gilmour. I heard some of his acoustic tracks. A friend had a guitar, I borrowed it from him. Six months later, I bought my own guitar. From then I started playing the guitar. You see how one thing triggered the other? My posters and artwork are like that. What it might trigger in you, your creativity, your language, your literary tastes, that I don’t know. The good thing is, Khwaab Tanha has filled the void which most people didn’t know existed in them.

On the response his works have receivedSo I expected people would like it. Didn’t expect a cult following but yes, I expected people with a particular liking would take my work well. But such popularity I didn’t expect. In the beginning, I used to upload large-sized images of my posters, so that people could save it, print it, hang it on their walls. The thought of selling wasn’t there. I went to the World Book Fair, and found a man calling out, ‘Faiz, Faiz, Faiz! Jaun, Jaun, Jaun!’ So I saw in his hands a bunch of my posters. I asked him, whose posters are these? He said, “Poets.” I asked him, who made them, who is the artist? He shrugged, “He was someone.” I laughed. They had killed me! Later, I politely asked him and the publisher to stop this as this is quite unethical.

On art as a means of popular resistance

So when I’m creating something for the masses, it is not necessary I only talk of love. The injustice happening in our society is also what I can focus on. So that objective was there right from the start. So we created this artwork on Adam Gondvi’s ‘Mazhab se ye wafadari haqeeqat may siyasi hai.’ Also something from Dhoomil’s poetry, a particular piece which says that our socialism is like the buckets hanging in godowns, on which is written ‘fire’, but which inside contain sand.

If there is social discord, as a visual artist, how can I contribute to end it? If I can raise some questions in the receiver’s head, then my work is fairly successful. As an artist, one has to reflect what is happening in his time.

On working with the Urdu script
So we recently had this workshop with Master’s students from France (L’École de design Nantes Atlantique). They had called me so that I could show them something about illustrations, my work at Khwaab Tanha Collective. They came to know about the Urdu language and some poets for the first time. They did their artwork using the Urdu script. At the start, some of them were a little sceptical. I told them what the French artist Monet had said, ‘May my memory go away. So that I can see things the way they are, and not as I know them to be.’ They were seeing Urdu for the first time, they could take it visually, do some work with it. That struck a chord with them. And the result was surprising.

The importance of the script to the language
I’m little particular with the script. The Rasm-ul-khat is important for two reasons. Visually, it creates its own space, and if you know the meaning of the script, it creates a different sort of connect. So when I create the Jaun Eliya t-shirt, the text was clearly visible, for I wanted it to say that this is the Urdu script. There’s a phobia being created against the script, and by different sources. As a visual artist, what can I do to change it? So I’m thinking of creating t-shirts having only text. Like from ‘alif’ to ‘choti ye’, each letter with a word to it. Sometimes, I do this, I sit with an Urdu book in the Metro. So that people get used to it, they don’t think it is an alien language, an enemy language.

On rising interest in Urdu
We can’t ignore the role of cinema in here. So when a director like Vishal Bhardwaj teams up with a writer like Gulzar, a language comes out with new words which people may not have heard before. So people would like the song ‘Bekaraan hai bekaraan.’ Bekaraan means without a shore. So a song can teach you the meaning of a word, so people remember that other than Hindi and English, there is a language called Urdu. Many people tell me that their grandfather would know Urdu, write letters in Urdu. So there is a nostalgia for it. An initiative like ours, it connects people to their nostalgia, the dust that time has laid over it, we can remove it in our own way. But just cinema won’t do. We need good modern literature, Urdu journalism too.

I have met many people who used to read Urdu once, but who have now left. Why? So we need good books, well-designed appealing books. That will help Urdu at the ground level.

For example, a magazine named Pluto, meant for young kids, comes out from Bhopal. It’s a good magazine. I loosely remember a poem came in it, going something like, ’Mere Papa ka kitchen. Kabhi lete hai aaloo, kabhi lete hai ande ubaal. Kabhi banti hai machli, kabhi banta hai chicken. Mere Papa ka kitchen.’ What is important here is that very beautifully, role reversals have been talked about. Why should only the mother be in the kitchen? Why is it when a father cooks, he is laughed upon? In a child’s mind, these things seep in slowly.

Giving space to our own writers
It’s okay if you read writers from outside, it’s great. But it’s important that you also read Indian writers. There has been a tremendous amount of work in literature and culture in Indian languages.

I met a man at a book fair, wearing dhoti, kurta, sporting a tilak, he was in his late fifties. He purchased many posters. I generally inquired, for whom are you purchasing this. He replied, ‘I’m purchasing this so I can make kids laugh at it.’ I was taken aback.

He then explained that he teaches maths at a Delhi school. When he would hang these posters in the classroom, kids will point at it and make fun, ‘Look, how this one’s beard is! Look at this one, such a long topi. What is his name? Ghalib? Okay!’ Some may look at a photo of Tagore and say, ‘Look, he looks like our friend’s grandfather.’

The point is, kids will at least know about these people. So even in their childhood, kids would know about these literary figures. I liked the man’s idea. I thought that we need to do some artwork for kids.

There is this African proverb I really like, ‘They thought they could bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.’ The case of Urdu is the same at some level. On ground, things are happening. But unless we teach our language to our kids, it won’t help.