A place called home: Remembering the life and art of the reclusive Zarina

Zarina with her work, Shadow House, at Jeanne Bucher Jaeger Gallery in Paris
Zarina Hashmi spent the better part of her life looking for a home to call her own — an act of political rebellion as well as social ostracisation — reflecting a migrant’s rootlessness, the inability to feel settled. Ironically, she had a surfeit of homes: the first, in Aligarh, a sprawling professor’s house with the tang of mangoes in the backyard but also the corralling of the native in a colonised land. To be Muslim in post-Partition India was a cross her family found increasingly hard to bear, and migrated, in 1959, to Pakistan. One identity was erased, replaced by another. But for Zarina, it came with a caveat for she had married, a year earlier, an Indian diplomat. Where now lay home? In India, with Pakistani parents? In Pakistan, with Indian in-laws? In alien lands where the duality was replaced by that of the “other”?

Zarina had difficulty fitting into the roles that were expected of her. Her interests and curiosity had been piqued amidst the bookshelves of her father’s library. She wanted to study art in a home where none existed, where there was a zenana section for the women and a Westernised one for the men. Her father demanded a university education so art would not render her “illiterate”. Printmaking excited her — but who had heard of women printmakers back then?

In Bangkok, her husband’s first posting, Zarina accidentally came across a Japanese printmaker’s work, and her interest was once again pricked. Back in New Delhi, she perused art journals and discovered Stanley Hayter’s work. Fortuitously, her husband’s next posting was in Paris, where she studied under Hayter at his well-known Atelier 17, shedding her figurative, romanticised paintings in favour of minimal lines that would forever inform her work. A fellowship took her to Tokyo and Toshi Yoshida’s studio. By now, she had lived in Bonn and Los Angeles, but returned to New Delhi to practise printmaking, and then — on a whim — to New York, in 1976, where she rented a studio. When, in 1977, her husband passed away, the studio became a permanent address, one she would occupy for more than four decades.

Home Is a Foreign Place, Zarina’s 1999 portfolio of 36 woodcut chine colle prints, is an ode to the house in which she was born

Walls between neighbours; barriers between friends; nostalgia, passports, humanitarian and gender issues — Zarina grappled constantly with her need for identity as she contended with immigration authorities of her twinned native countries. In New York, in her studio apartment with its threadbare carpet and living room furniture designed by Ravi Sikri of Taaru, New Delhi, no ephemera cluttered a space devoted entirely to her woodcuts and printmaking. The intangible became art as the world hardened around her. Zarina grew lonelier, dropped her surname, her work focused increasingly on issues of home, nation, identity and discrimination. 

She studied maps, was appalled by how administrators had split up continents and nations with rulers and lines. “People who have lived through the Partition carry a scar,” she said once. “When I was young I didn’t realise it but it has come to revisit me with age. I have no physical wound to show for it — no one’s house was burnt, no one in my family died — but the emotional scars remain. I am the only member of my family who stayed on in India. So we are a divided family; we have grown up in different countries.”

Her work reflected her turmoil with exhibitions titled “Home Is a Foreign Place”, “Dividing Line”, “House with Four Walls”, “Cities, Countries and Borders”, rendered as architectural drawings of houses she had lived in, of grids and lines marking barriers, creating mazes — a minimal expression of emotional wastelands rendered by a callous inhumanity. Critics thought her work to be an intimate biography of her life even though its greatest feature is its resonance of these fissured times. Her reconstructed geographies featured in the Guggenheim’s “Zarina: Paper like Skin” exhibition which the catalogue described as “richly autobiographical, sustained by the experiences and memories of an exile and travel, but then this autobiographic dimension is not articulated in self-indulgent or even nostalgic figurative ways, it is worked through formally, relying on a carefully crafted, largely abstract, non-figurative vocabulary”.

(Clockwise from left) Untitled, serigraph (1972); Untitled, serigraph (1971); calligraphed print tracing Zarina’s journey from Aligarh, via Bulandshahar, Khurja, Ghaziabad and Dadri, to Delhi; Grey City, emboss on paper (1971)

Exhibitions at the Guggenheim and the Art Institute of Chicago did much to establish her relevance, and her work became increasingly sought after, even as she became more reticent in public. Zarina had always had an inner quietness. She welcomed subcontinental visitors to her studio with warmth and conversation liberally infused with Urdu, Hindi and English, but she did not suffer fools gladly, and kept most dealers at an arm’s length. Her last exhibition in New Delhi, in 2018, “Weaving Darkness and Silence”, was prescient of her illness and her descent into dusk, one that she feared. Visits to India and Pakistan had reduced because of the pain and humiliation homeland scrutiny caused her. Soon after her last visit, she told me that she would not return to the subcontinent. “I carry my home with me,” she said on the occasion.

Unable, finally, to live alone, she left her New York studio to spend her last days again in exile, cared for by her niece in London, from where she left, at last, for a final place to call home. In New York, she had shared a print of place names with me, a mapping of her childhood journey from Aligarh to New Delhi, traversing Bulandshahr, passing through Ghaziabad, past Dadri — the last place making her pause, for it was here that an ordinary Mohammed Akhlaq had become infamous in death for allegedly slaughtering a cow and storing beef at home in an increasingly intolerant Hindu nation. Finding a pencil, she recreated the journey below the written words in Urdu and signed it for me. It was her way of sharing that childhood route, nostalgically recalled; but instead of healing, that path had fractured further with the passage of time. 

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