Caught between poverty and politics, Kulgam artist struggles to strike a balance

Caught between poverty and politics, Kulgam artist struggles to strike a balance
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KULGAM: Forced by the perils of living in a conflict zone – where everything, including art, has political repercussions – and the responsibilities that attend supporing a family in humble circumstances, this Kulgam artist makes abstract art even while eking a livelihood from menial jobs.
Mudassir Rehman Dar, a 23-year-old resident of Kulpora village in Kulgam district, has been painting for as long as he can remember.
“I don’t keep a track of how long it has been, but my collections take me back to when I was in Class 4 at a local private school,” Mudassir told Kashmir Reader.
He believes his gift for art is God-given, for he has never had any formal lessons in it.
Gifted he is, for sure, but Mudassir comes from a very humble background.
“And poverty can chain you down, like it did to me,” he laments.
After completing his tenth class at a government school in Ashmuji of Kulgam, Mudassir had to drop out and take up odd jobs to support his family.
“Life has been a struggle ever since,” he said.
But even as he did menial jobs, Mudassir kept his love for painting alive and continued to paint subjects “that struck me through society and my own life”.
He came into a bit of limelight in 2016 during the unrest that followed the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani, when portraits he made of the militant commander were widely circulated over social media.
But the fame was short-lived for he was soon started being summoned and rebuked for making the portraits, by government forces on a regular basis.
“I tried to reason with the forces about painting whatever I wanted being my birthright. But they kept harassing me for more than a year, summoning me to their offices and treating me like I was a militant myself,” Mudassir said.
Agonised by repeated intimidation by the forces, Mudassir says he started to sketch portraits of local mainstream politicians.
“It was to give an impression that I have ‘fallen in line’. But it had a flip side to it as well,” he said.
Soon after he started uploading his sketches of politicians to his social media accounts, the criticism widened and started to come from every corner of the Valley.
“People criticised me for making portraits of the politicians who they thought were responsible for the bloodshed in Kashmir,” Mudassir said. “I was caught in the middle, and it took me a while to figure out what to do.”
Finally, Mudassir took to abstract art, as a way to narrow down his audience and restrict the criticism. He now depicts only the things he wants to, although a subtlety has entered his work, compared to his earlier art, which was direct and unswerving.
Mudassir thinks that his deviation into abstract art has given him a leeway to depict whatever he wants to, without inviting wrath at the same time.
“How could I, being a Kashmiri, choose not to depict bloodshed and violence in my paintings? I realised I have to do it in a way that only the few with artistic inclinations understand,” he says.
His painting following the killing of seven civilians in a blast at an encounter site in Laroo of Kulgam is one such example. The painting shows a faceless girl hanging on to a jacket, while a stretcher nearby is smeared with blood.
Mudassir has found a way, for now, to dodge criticism and condemnation for his art, but he is yet to find a way out of poverty.
He still does menial jobs, “away from the public eye”, to support his family, which includes his aged parents, his wife and daughter and his unmarried sisters.
Lack of resources has not only hindered his art, it has also narrowed his prospects substantially.
He has to save from his meagre earnings to invest in his art, “for the raw material is quite expensive”.
“But what is more disheartening is that I have to turn down prospects of recognition,” he said.
Mudassir was recently called in for an exhibition in Delhi but he could not go for his financial conditions did not allow him to venture out of Kashmir.
“Besides, if I leave like this, who is going to support my family?” he asks.
For Mudassir, unfortunately, there has not even been much support from the government, apart from their declaring him ‘artist of the district’ in 2017 and briefly employing him on a contractual basis,.
“I was asked to teach art at certain government schools for a small, daily remuneration. But that too has been stopped now, after the Governor took over in Kashmir,” he said.
He is back to doing menial jobs at odd places and painting in the evenings with whatever little he can save.
For now, Mudassir is left struggling to strike a balance between art, family and politics