It happened purely by accident but the first portrait that Masood Hussain drew, as a child back in the 1960's, was of a young man whose head was covered with a blood-stained bandage. The critically acclaimed artist, admired by the likes of Agha Shahid Ali, grew up painting, as he puts it, Kashmir’s rustic charm, her fertile fields, white turban wearing peaks, her laughing streams and sobbing lakes, and her spectacular autumn foliage. He had no idea that later in his life he would spend over three decades doing portraits of many such physically and mentally hurt Kashmiris.
They conquered we prevailed - Reflects upon the conquest of Kashmir at different times by various empires, but they could not conquer ‘our hearts and minds’, Hussain says.
“Natural beauty was, in fact, the subject of every artist who came to Kashmir. But all of that changed with the turmoil, which broke out in the valley in the early ’90s. I began painting about the conflict and suddenly all my patrons, in Bollywood, among the curators at various art galleries, lost interest in my work. They told me that they did not want to see gloomy paintings,” Hussain says. Any artist’s lived experience sits close to their art, he says, adding, “I can only draw what I see.” And when, at the height of protests in the valley, Hussain went to hospitals with a pen and some paper and saw young people blinded and maimed by pellet guns, he came up with a series of artwork that became a social media sensation.
Masood first started drawing as a seven-year-old boy who found pleasure in reproducing illustrations that he saw in the medical journals of his father, who was a doctor. In 1971, Masood flew to Mumbai to study fine arts at the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Arts. After graduating, he worked in Mumbai for six years. In 1977, he returned to the valley to start teaching at the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, University of Kashmir, where he also helped establish a department of applied art, teaching fine arts to hundreds of students and upcoming artists until his retirement in 2011.
The Shepherd’s bargains - Hussain wonders whether Kashmiris have been bartered, bought and sold like a flock of sheep.
During the pandemic, Masood collaborated with the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock to create an illustrated book, A Walk with Gandhi, to mark the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary. At the same time, Masood created a series of relief works evoking Kashmir’s Central Asian cultural heritage.
The series of images of the paintings that Masood has shared with the magazine are named ‘Vitasta’ (Sanskrit name of the river Jhelum) whom he calls the silent witness of Kashmir. He says that he wanted to paint, in a ‘relief medium’ that has taken years for him to develop, the history of Kashmir. Something that would evoke the rich history of the place, its composite culture where Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam coexisted peacefully.
One of the most striking paintings in his ‘Vitasta’ series is called ‘Jalodbhava Still Lives!’ Jalodbhava is the name of a demon in a famous Kashmiri folklore. The present day Kashmir is almost submerged by the water of a huge lake in which resides Jalodbhava. He feasts on people and wrecks havoc upon the people of Kashmir for thousands of years. He remains elusive because of his ability to hide in the huge lake. He is finally defeated by Vishnu when he strikes the mountains of Baramulla, up north, and drains away the water of the lake. Parvati spots the demon and drops a mountain on him to finish him off for good.
‘Jalodbhava still lives!’ wonders whether the ancient demon who wrecked havoc upon Kashmiris still lives in the valley.
“But I ask - Did Jalodbhava really die or is he still alive to rear its monstrous head from time to time, to tear asunder the storied brotherhood between the people, to inflict inhuman cruelties on the people, some of whom were forced in exile and others left to suffer in pain, to make daily bloodshed routine, to destroy the very essence of "Kashmiriyat" and to cast a never-ending gloom over this earthly garden of Eden?” Hussain says about his painting.
At home in Srinagar, Masood is surrounded by three women: two daughters, both entrepreneurs, and a “wife-goddess who commands respect because she showers love”.
Masood’s favorite color is blue because he says it has infinite spiritual depth. He has been deeply inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, painted in June 1937 after the Nazi casually practice-bombed the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting is considered by many noted art critics as the most moving anti-war painting.
“Did you do this,” Franco’s goons asked Picasso pointing at Guernica leaning against the wall in his art studio.
“No,” Picasso said, “You did.”
And Lalla Bled - a contemplation on a verse by 14th century philosopher and poet, Lalleshwari or Lalla Ded, who wrote that wisdom lies in knowing oneself.