Artist Veer Munshi remembers his early life in Kashmir and tells Santanu Borah what made him want to go to Baroda. This is first part of a four-part series
There are enough instances in the history of the human race that shows that conflict mothers great ideas, events and art. The thinking human being always looks for an anchor when they find themselves in circumstances inundated by dark waters of violence. Artist Veer Munshi’s story seems to mirror this historical precedent with great fidelity.
Before we begin, one needs to define the versatility of Veer Munshi. He is not just a visual artist, but also an accomplished curator and an agent provocateur. His art, more often than not, is political and gives voice to the minority, their hopes and dreams that seem to blur out in the din of populist politics and viewpoints. With that in perspective, let’s take you through a journey of Veer’s album of memories, right from the time when Kashmir, his original home, was peaceful and beauty its default setting.
Due to the restrictions of the pandemic, this writer met with Veer over a telephone call. The languid drawl of his measured tone did not give away the turmoil of exile that informs his artistic practice. In fact, the very first question was met with a chuckle:
Writer: “What is your earliest memory?”
Veer: “My earliest memory is of my mother’s womb.”
With this starting point, it was clear that one would have to be incisive while conversing with this keeper of a people’s conscience, the excavator of the complexities of exile.
Veer Munshi was your average Kashmiri boy. The earliest days were filled with play, with him and his buddies doing their utmost best to whisk away apples and apricots from their neighbours’ trees, and face their indulgent ire in the process. It was a happy time, filled with the innocence of childhood.
During this period there was art too in his life. The music of the mountains has the uncanny ability to arouse the spirit of creativity. Veer and a couple of his friends trundled around the hills and vales, with their landscaping pads and watercolours, turning out idyllic scenes that revel in the translucent beauty of crystal-clear water and crisp air. These paintings came naturally because, well, what do you do when a million colours and the grandeur of a place floating in a utopian frame beckons you? Veer is quick to point out these works helped him understand the importance of skill and draughtsmanship, though at the time it was more of an instinctual activity.
“Art is a gift that you born with. I was confident by the fifth and sixth standard that I could draw and make watercolours. It wasn’t something I questioned or probed. It was all a natural flow,” Veer says, reminiscing about the days when the landscape wasn’t a reminder of the pain the Kashmiris have had to go through.
“Our play was adventurous. We would prowl around the mountains. We also went to the theatre, and in winter we made ice cream and sculptures out of ice. We would also go with our parents to the Mughal Garden. There was political stability and the art college I eventually went to, drew me towards watercolours. On-the-spot watercolour was the tradition of the place. We did the stereotypical landscapes with mountains and streams,” he adds.
Veer’s tryst with exile is grounded in the fact that he was from a Kashmiri Pandit family, who were landlords. The entire family seemed to have a penchant for art: his father, who was a teacher as well, was good at drawing. His brothers and sister too dabbled in painting and showed considerable promise. However, at that time the concept of “being an artist” wasn’t in Veer’s universe. Rather he dreamt of something far removed from the world of art. “I thought I would become a judge or a magistrate. I would see such families and feel very motivated by that. I was impressed by the respect magistrates got. My uncle was a magistrate and that really drove me into wanting to be one. However, when I eventually visited the court and saw how it functioned, I said, ‘rubbish’. That was the end of it.”
An academically bright student, the road ahead cleared out for Veer after he painted a portrait of his headmaster, which was seen by Banshi Parimoo, a popular artist. He was instrumental in guiding Veer to the local art college which had evening classes, a move that was to decide the course of his entire life from there on.
“I remember that teachers had come from M S University in Baroda to our college. It was interesting to get a glimpse of their world view. I was very curious. I wanted to go and study in Baroda and see the wider world. I wanted to escape from Kashmir and then take it as it comes,” he says. And escape he did.