Envisioning Kashmir’s Future Through Paint and Verse

In 2019, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, Irish writer and poet Gabriel Rosenstock and Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain collaborated on a book titled Walk with Gandhi: Bóthar na Saoirse. It featured Rosenstock’s bilingual Irish and English haikus and English prose on Gandhi’s life, illustrated by Hussain’s watercolor paintings. The two artists bridged their geographical gap again to virtually collaborate on a second book, Boatman! Take these songs from me in 2023. This time the subject was grief, which found its way into Masood’s painted reliefs embodying human suffering and the visceral struggle against colonial oppression in his homeland of Kashmir. Rosenstock responded to Hussain’s artwork with his ekphrastic tanka poems on sacrifice, longing, and freedom.

Their third and latest collaboration, Love Letter to Kashmir (2024), acts like a balm for the wounds of a strife-torn and occupied Kashmir. In it, Hussain turns to the soothing potential of his watercolor paintings, which offer a glimpse into what was once eulogized as “paradise on earth” by, many scholars believe, the Persian poet Amir Khusrau. Through 69 artworks on Canson paper created over the course of two decades, Hussain reveals the extraordinary in the mundane: verdant fields against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains, majestic chinar trees in gardens carpeted by fallen leaves, lakes caressed by the oars of boatmen dressed in Kashmiri pherans. The artist also renders shrines of Sufi saints, mosques, and temples.

Hazratbal Hugs the Shore
Masood Hussain, “Hazratbal Bazaar” (2018), Canson paper 330 g/sm, 20 x 30 inches (image courtesy Private collection)
Jamia Masjid
Masood Hussain, “Jamia Masjid” (2018), Canson paper 330 g/sm, 20 x 30 inches (image courtesy Private collection)

Hussain began uploading these paintings and several other of his watercolor works to Facebook 15 years ago as part of a series called Transparent Strokes. The idea was to connect with Kashmiris who had been forced to leave the valley during periods of unrest amid Indian, Chinese, and Pakistani occupation. Hussain’s initiative snowballed into a movement, with Kashmiris from different corners of the world reminiscing about their homeland and culture in his comments section.  

As for Rosenstock, poetry channels his experience of the divine in each of Hussain’s paintings. In Love Letter to Kashmir, his minimalist haiku and tanka poems carry an ocean of emotions, encapsulating our foremost longing for community and love. And the poet’s idea of love is multifold, encompassing memories with old friends or rendezvous with one’s beloved. Beloved here has several connotations, as in the poems of Sufi saints and Bhakti poets. It could imply connecting with a divine power or god, lover, guru, or any living being, as Rosenstock too believes that a universal consciousness pervades all matter. His verses trace this cosmic connection in the breath of a calf, the silence of geese on a winter’s day, and a mouse rattling a kitchen utensil. 

This multivalent work by the two artists and friends presents an intimate vision for a future Kashmir, engulfed in a light they channel through a paired painting and poem: 

shining on all
tyrant and toddler alike
light of the sun
Hazratbal Bazaar
Masood Hussain, “Hazratbal Bazaar” (2018), Canson paper 330 g/sm, 20 x 30 inches (image courtesy Private collection)
Hungry Angel
Masood Hussain, “Hungry Angel” (2015), Canson paper 330 g/sm, 20 x 30 inches (image courtesy Private collection)

Love Letter to Kashmir (2024) by Masood Hussain and Gabriel Rosenstock is published by Cross Cultural Communications and is available online and in bookstores.

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