Baroda broadened Veer Munshi’s artistic horizon, but the real world after it posed uncomfortable problems for him, but it also turned his life around. The artist recounts his new beginning to Santanu Borah. This is Part 3 of a four-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
While Veer’s salad days were coming to a close in Baroda, the political climate in Kashmir became increasingly volatile. This had a profound impact on him, as a Kashmir and an artist. “In Kashmir, the landscape no more seemed so beautiful. The political situation put us into cages and made our lives very difficult. That’s when the personal became political. It had all changed. I became a different person on account of this,” he says.
This is where the story of conflict starts in Veer’s life. The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits started somewhere in in 1989, with the concept of “Azadi” getting Islamised. The peak phase of the exodus was in the early 1990s, with the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and other pro-Pakistan Islamist insurgents threatening the Hindus populace of the valley. As of 2016, only around 3,000 Kashmiri Hindus remain in the Kashmir Valley compared to approximately 300,000–600,000 in 1990. Clearly, Veer’s worldview changed at the time and this is what he had to say: “I experienced violence. When even a small pebble is thrown into a minority, it creates big ripples. I began to understand minority voice then and it has stayed with me. It was like I was born again. I had to leave my life in Kashmir behind and start again in New Delhi. I had hoped that one day I would go back to my home, as I had left before the mass exodus. But that wasn’t to be, until much later. The Azadi (Freedom) movement was growing and the youth were at the forefront. Not that I believed anything of azadi, but it was all about survival.”
Veer was suspicious of the whole movement because it had a religious colour, something which he despised being a citizen of the world. Azadi or freedom, he said, was not something anybody disliked but the idea of freedom could not be hijacked by political and ideological concerns. “Everybody likes azadi, but it was Islamised and radicalism is not good. The intensity of the movement eventually died down, but when there is a gun culture, you can only say ‘no’ at your own peril. While I had no real idea about the mass exodus, I did go to Shimla to my uncle’s place and then to Jammu to find my parents. After that I came to Delhi. It was tough. I stayed in the Lalit Kala guest house for five days. I would loiter around and sleep in breaks. Money was tough to come by and I was lucky enough to find shelter for some forty bucks a night, and eventually I survived four months like a homeless person. As luck would have it, somebody wanted my art work and I got an advance of Rs 1,500. That was such a happy day. I had good khana (food), my favourite chicken curry. Then I went to the Gahri studio and stood at the door of the community studio, till I finished my work. However, I could not paint pretty pictures due to trauma that I had faced, though the idea was to paint a pretty landscape to sell. Instead, I made a terrorist on a floating land, and that not only taught me, but it was therapeutic as well. This catharsis taught me that art has great power and immense magic,” he reminisces. While the story itself is a tragic one, the conflict and trauma brought out the artist that was to become Veer Munshi.
Continuing about his tryst with a newer destiny, he says, “Political art was not the thing that I sought out. I just happened to be my thing. I met the great Ebrahim Alkazi and he gave me my first show in 1992. My works were about human rights and I put out 14 or 15 pieces. This should did not sell out or anything but it did make a dent in the art world at the time. I was called to the United Nations after that show to speak about the situation in Kashmir. After that I did many shows in Mumbai. My journey for over eight years was all about conflict. After that, being in Delhi, my memory slowly began to fizzle and I became a proper city dweller. That was the first time I worked outside the conflict zone, and did a series of 12 paintings entitled ‘Zodiac’. The idea was not to comment on the zodiac signs itself, but to find the luminaries in all the zodiac signs who inspired me. Van Gogh was Aries, Dali was Taurean, Gandhi was Libran, and I also painted my other heroes like Nelson Mandela. I painted Picasso, a Scorpio, who also turned out to be an epic god-like figure in the art world.”
However, this move from his Kashmiri roots would not last very long.