Originally published in the Hindu Sunday Magazine on June 8th, 2013
Malik Sajad has been drawing political cartoons and graphic art about his home, the disputed territory of Kashmir, ever since he was 14 years old. He has had his share of sleepless nights, but his reasons are different. Growing up in the state’s capital Srinagar, conflict was commonplace and so was political news. “It is part of the way we are brought up. Everybody talks about politics every day, even to their kids,” he says. Of his first memory of conflict in the valley he says: “There are many memories piled up in my mind. The earliest memory was about a road accident. I must have been four years old. A woman had been crushed by a truck; there was blood all over the road. I couldn’t get over it; I was quite terrified of that image. I avoided looking at anything to do with death.”
Sajad picked up art and drawing from his father, often helping him with decorative works. The son of an artisan, Sajad would see his father drawing up designs of furniture and lamps on paper. “He drew traditional Kashmiri motifs as part of the design and I would help him with it,” he says.
He never felt that he wanted to do anything else apart from art after that. “Apart from the pressure of deadlines, I feel like I am playing when I am working.” His works have travelled the world, being exhibited in Poland, New York, London and several Indian cities as well. “I did have an anxiety about my career. I knew that I wouldn’t get joy in any other profession apart from Art.”
Now 25, Sajad returned after earning a Master’s degree in Image and Communications at Goldsmiths College, University of London early this year, and is now preparing for two residencies in the United States this month.
1. At what point did you feel like a serious, political cartoonist? Was there any particular incident?
In school, we used to talk about politics and situations; I think that became a foundation stone for my early work. In 2003, I showed my published cartoons to the editor in chief at Greater Kashmir office and asked for the job as the daily editorial cartoonist. He welcomed me. It was difficult for the first couple of years. I used to think about the situation, politics and how to depict the same through my cartoons, all the times. I lost my sleep. Today when I look back I think those were some precious learning experiences.
2. And when did you begin to write graphic novellas like Endangered Species and Identity card?
In 2005 or 2006, one of my friends informed me about comic journalism, and asks me to draw something about Kashmir. It was a daunting experience. But gradually I learned more about this medium. I must add that comic journalism is not my thing. I am a fan of storytelling and that is altogether a different medium.
3. More importantly, why did you feel like these stories and experiences about life in Kashmir needed to be narrated to a bigger audience?
I found animations or visual stories as the best mediums to communicate the experiences. Kashmir or any other conflict zone, may be a dispute, conflict zone, paradise, flash point, or what ever you call it by looking at the postcard pictures, the photos or a news story on the newspapers. But it is someone’s home first. There is a window, there is a mother, a child, many close friends and a love affair. If one wants to understand what Kashmir means for Kashmiris they should check out their own houses, families or close ones and not only the burning staged debates on the flat screen. In order to achieve that awareness, I guess communication is important. As Joseph Beuys used to say, through artwork one can communicate the experience without repeating the event.
4. Tell me a bit about how you evolved from drawing one panel cartoons for a daily newspaper to the novellas to now, your animation work and anything else you’re writing.
That is a very big question. But in short I would say if there is anything in my life I can brag about that would be my friends, teachers who always challenge me. They are behind the education, conversations or the happy accidents that expose or force me to experiment more.
6. Is your work semi-autobiographical? Or entirely based on true events?
You see, my work reflects the experiences or environment I grew up with. Some stories I am working on are fiction and some are non-fiction. But when it is non-fiction, one has to intervene in the layout of the memories. Otherwise it would be chaos like the old furniture in the storeroom.
7. On a more general note, what do you think about this relation between fiction and reality? We’ve seen in visual narratives such as Waltz With Bashir that true events-stories work better when they have a strong undercurrent of emotion, often the writer’s own emotions.
Well I think referring to a story as fiction or non-fiction is a process of branding an artwork, with underlying ideology of demand and supply. There is an aesthetic experience in creating or writing something and then comes what you are creating or what you have to say, according to George Orwell. I don’t know the exact words but Manto said my stories might be fiction to you but they are the reality I see. To be honest, I see truth in their work.
8. What can you tell me about the time you spent studying in London?
London time was important in order to shun away some of the personal insecurities one inherits by being stuck to one place only. I made many new friends and I still Skype with my tutor.
9. What other projects are coming up for you now?
I am going to participate in two artist’s residencies in New York and Berkshire in next two months. I am looking forward to know more people and experiment more.
10. What plans do you have after the Residency in New York?
Back to Kashmir, I love to hang out with the people in the streets, it is a learning experience and it is their sense of dark humor that pulls me back to Kashmir, which is also a basic ingredient of my work.
11. Lasty, what are your thoughts on the future of Art in Kashmir? There are a few other voices rising, in the form of musicians and writers and filmmakers who are providing a different discourse on the ‘Kashmir issue,’ if I can call it that.
Well, there certainly are many artists in Kashmir today, when I was a student in Institute of music and fine art, Srinagar, there were only a bunch of students there. But today there are many with some good teachers as well. There are many writers, poets and many journalists as well. Like everyone else in Kashmir they have something to say, and they have seen a lot. The creative process enables one to make sense of his or her past and deal with the present, and move on to cultivate hope for the future.