“Go on, do a search for visuals for Hindi and Urdu poetry,” Shiraz Husain tells me over the telephone from Delhi. “What did you find? A hand crushing a rose, blood drops, a single tear rolling down or a beautiful woman. Why does the representation have to be so boring?”
It’s a fair question. Husain, 31, an assistant professor in applied arts at Jamia Millia Islamia, has taken it upon himself to change this representation through his project, the Khwaab Tanha Collective (KTC). “I have always wanted to change the visual interpretation of poetry. The literary material should be strong, interesting and as evocative as the actual poem,” say Husain.
Husain, whose father was an Urdu teacher at Anglo Arabic School has grown up surrounded by Urdu literature. “We attended and watched it all, kavi sammelans, ghazal symposiums…if any of it was on TV, we were forbidden from changing the channel,” he says. Add to that a love for painting and it was natural for him to combine the two. He started gifting friends artwork featuring shayari and paintings of the poets.
It was only last year that he began to take this seriously. “I was asked to create some illustrations for Jashn-e-Rekhta, a festival celebrating Urdu organised by the Indira Gandhi National Centre For The Arts. I did three installations and a few posters,” he says. The installations featured dedications to Urdu poets Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf – a framed patterned quilt with a portrait of the poet in the centre created using beads; Rajinder Singh Bedi – a portrait of him using cloth and fabric as a tribute to his iconic story Garam Coat and Ek Chadar Maili Si; and Akhtar ul Iman – a framed image of his iconic line ‘Jinke ghar sheeshe ke hote hain woh doosron ke gharron par patthar nahi phenka karte’ (loosely translated to people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones) with a slight crack in the glass.
The response to those works got him started on the path to KTC. He started by creating posters featuring iconic lines from Urdu poems (their Hindi translation) and a sketch of the poet. He has since branched out to putting up his prints on T-shirts and tote bags; Husain is currently exhibiting his work at the World Book Fair in Delhi.
It isn’t just Urdu poems that feature in his works, but Bengali (Rabindranath Tagore), Hindi (Amrita Pritam) and Punjabi (Paash, the pen name of Avtar Singh Sandhu). “I get a lot of requests to work on poetry in other regional languages. I can’t say no to them,” he says. “I just want more people to know about about literary greats.”
It is why his works feature the poems in Hindi and Urdu (and sometimes English) to reach a larger audience, why he gives his artwork, for free, to any event that is dedicated to regional literature and why his work has already been plagiarised. “I’ve been told that when people start plagiarising your work, you’ve become famous,” he says. “I would rather these literary greats find the spotlight, not me.”