KARACHI: Have you ever seen images that Google scrounges for you when you type a search entry with Urdu poetry in it? Much to the dismay of visual artist Shiraz Husain, who hails from New Delhi or Dilli as he insists, he has done so, numerous times. “There are several paintings and photographs of people such as Shakespeare, Twain, Gorky on the internet and not a single decent picture of our poets. When you look up Urdu poetry, all you find are pictures of girls with teary eyes and roses placed on sand,” he tells The Express Tribune.
This aesthetic disaster is exactly what spurred Husain into action. In 2011, he initiated the Khwaab Tanha Collective that aims to make millennials familiar with giants of Urdu/Hindi literature (he does not differentiate between the two) and make them part of today’s visual culture. “I thought let’s start a project where I can make portraits of our writers and also use their poetry for inspiration. I always wonder why we have Jimi Hendrix and Che Guevara on our t-shirts and not Ghalib and Faiz, for that matter.”
While his pace was slow initially, Rekhta Foundation’s Jashn-e-Rekhta 2016 helped him work faster and launch the project formally.
Husain’s family has had a long association with Urdu, Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu and Maulvi Abdul Haq. Husain attended Jamia Millia Islamia and presently instructs art enthusiasts reading for their undergraduate degrees.
When asked why he named it Khwaab Tanha, which roughly translates to a lonely dream or as Husain wants to portray it: a loner’s dream, he mentions the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark. “I had read this book long ago. It shows how this man does not compromise on his artistic perspective and takes on the world. I think this idea was at the back of my head when I started out,” he says.
Admitting that the other word in the title, collective, is a bit ironic since he is alone in the endeavour, Husain brings the example of American conceptual artist Shea Hembrey, who creates artwork through fictional characters, in his defence. “Well some of my friends do help out with things such as framing, printing etc,” he laughs.
Husain doesn’t have an exact count but he claims to have created over and above 100 portraits, both digital and pencil drawings. “There is a room in my studio that is full of these hard copies. I haven’t exhibited those anywhere.”
Khwaab Tanha Collective may still be in its embryonic stages but it already boasts of fans such as Shamim Hanfi, Anwar Maqsood, Anwar Masood, Asif Aslam Farrukhi and Shahid Rassam. “My sketch was presented to Zehra Nigah at Islamabad Literature Festival in April and in return she sent a lovely letter of appreciation. In India, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar had themselves visited my exhibition and requested for Kaifi Azmi’s poster,” he says.
Recalling an incident that explains the impact of what he is doing, Husain says, “This friend of mine once came to me and said, ‘Remember you once said that no one has ever made a Sa’adat Hasan Manto portrait in bold illustrative style. See I downloaded this from the internet!’.” Turned out, the print that his friend was carrying was a work of Husain himself. This brings the conversation to the most important component of the project: availability of the artwork.
In public domain
“Warren Buffet once said price is what you pay and value is what you get,” he says, adding, “The purpose of Khwaab Tanha is to obviously reach out to as many people as I can. The artwork is readily available for download on our Facebook page.”
Husain says his work is a part of the public domain. “Recently Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu released their Akhtarul Iman number whose cover portrait I made for free.” As long as the artwork is not compromised and no one claims ownership of the portraits, Husain is good with them being used for the promotion of litterateurs of yore.
Although, in his own words, Husain is more of a practitioner and less of an exhibitionist, he does not deny the importance of promotions. Ever since the project’s formal launch, he has held around five exhibitions.
While he does fancy the idea of Khwaab Tanha bleeding into a graffiti or mural project, producing mugs, t-shirts and bags with this artwork is the collective’s next target, and work towards it is already under way.
Of late it has become more fashionable to have merchandise with pictures of Manto or Faiz or Jaun in possession, and less fashionable to actually read them up. Husain agrees to a great extent, saying that he’d be a liar if he says that his making of these t-shirts is a service to Urdu. “But look at it this way. Don’t our intellectuals also deserve a visual representation that befits their status? I, personally, am tired of seeing t-shirts with random people on them.”
Husain says he reserves the right to show off who his heroes are. “When people will see these faces, someone might go and actually look up what this man called Obaidullah Aleem, for instance, was up to,” he adds.
Himself a Pink Floyd aficionado, Husain came across the band for the first time after he saw friends wearing The Dark Side of the Moon t-shirts. “I then loved them so much that I actually started playing the guitar after listening to them. So you never know what might spark your curiosity for high art,” he says.
The secular language
While Husain is continuing with his family’s tradition of serving Urdu, he feels other languages of the region are equally endangered. “Languages serve the purpose of communication hence they change with time. People like us do not have a problem with new words being brought into Urdu’s lexicon. The problem is the overall decadence.” Like many, he too blames TV and cinema for this.
Whenever Javed Akhtar is asked to comment on the association of Urdu with Islam, his fists tighten and his tone changes dramatically, as he states that languages belong to regions and not religions. Husain agrees with the notion. “This was done to no language other than Urdu. It is utterly absurd to say that Urdu belongs to a country or a specific faith,” he says, adding, “Such ideas have already been rejected long ago.”
Published in The Express Tribune, July 19th, 2016.