Home, as I’ve come to understand, is synonymous with the concept of time— abstract, transient, and shifting. In our constant search for permanence in impermanence, physical spaces, walls, and windows start becoming meaningful.
And these erstwhile destructible structures are able to survive the ruthlessness of time, even if only in memory.
This profound connection to places and objects is perhaps best depicted in the works of Zarina Hashmi, an Indian-born artist who spent all her life searching for a home. Just ten years old at the time of the Partition, she belonged to a generation that would be scarred for decades to come.
Dividing Line Abyss
In the woodcut prints Dividing Line (2001) and Abyss (2013), a jagged line cuts through the plain background, referring to the hastily drawn Radcliffe Line that tore the subcontinent apart. With no direct reference to the horrors that took place, Zarina subtly shows how a single geometrical figure divided thousands of families, leaving them to be engulfed by total darkness.
Her gruesome experiences of refugee camps and forced migration shaped her artistic sensibilities. Simple and minimalistic in expression, her works seek to acknowledge the plight of refugees all over the world— such as the persecution of Rohingyas in Floating on the Dark Sea (2015) and the Syrian refugee crisis in Sinking Boat with a Heartbeat (2015).
Floating on the Dark Sea Sinking Boat with a Heartbeat
Her marriage to a diplomat and eventual success as an artist further contributed to the peripatetic nature of her life. Emblematic of her journey as an ‘exile’, her works carry stories that are both personal and universal.
Works like Cities I Called Home (2010), Homes I Made A Life in Nine Lines (1997), and Atlas of My World (2001) follow her life events as she made homes in different parts of the world— Aligarh, Bangkok, Delhi, Paris, Bonn, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York, and London. Home, thus, appears as a fluid concept in her life.
Homes I Made A Life in Nine Lines
Her exploration of the idea of ‘home’ seems to be an intimate exercise in unfolding the different layers that constitute the term. Her frequent use of Urdu calligraphy, geometric elements inspired by Islamic architecture, and references to Urdu poetry demonstrate her cultural attachment to her home, as well as her ardent desire to preserve her dying mother tongue.
Language plays an integral part in understanding her idea of home. With paper and black ink being her mediums of expression, her love for writing becomes evident. By infusing entire verses of poetry in her works (e.g. Muhammad Iqbal’s poem in Road Lines, 1996) and providing a visual translation for words as simple as ‘ghar’, she reminds us of the various associations we have with ‘home’.
She once said, “I do not feel at home anywhere, but the idea of home follows me wherever I go. In dreams and on sleepless nights, the fragrance of the garden, image of the sky, and sound of language returns.”
The loss of her childhood home at Aligarh is a subject she visited frequently. For My House at Aligarh (1990), she recreated her experiences by combining symbolic images with phrases like ‘At night I go to the house at Aligarh’ and ‘Aslam tells a story’.
My House at Aligarh
Zarina’s sense of belonging is deeply reflected in one of her most powerful works, Home is a foreign place (1999), a portfolio of 36 woodcuts that are reminiscent of her times in Aligarh. Meant to be read as a poem, Urdu translations for words like ‘door, ‘border’, and ‘afternoon’ accompany monochromatic geometric forms— a sort of deconstruction of memory.
Home is a Foreign Place One of the 36 woodcuts, representing a ceiling fan. The Urdu word ‘Dopahar’ is written on it.
For Zarina, home is as much about people as it is about physical spaces. In Letters from Home (2004), she uses letters in Urdu sent by her sister Rani from Pakistan. The letters carry devastating news from home— such as the death of their mother and the pain of being away from children and siblings. Miles away from Pakistan, Zarina found a home in Rani. She overlays the letters with floor maps and architectural plans of cities, illustrating the consequences of political conflicts and the pain of separation.
One of the eight prints in Letters from Home
Well-versed in not just printmaking but also architecture, aerial perspectives, and cartography, she was one of the few artists who could weave personal narratives into a global context. Her disturbing encounters with borders from an early age led her to observe the polarization of the world more closely. This allowed her art to resonate with people from different cultures. Her works, as she intended, pay homage to the homes she created, the lives she led. If her journey as an artist (and as an exile) were to be described with a single quote, it would be this one:
“I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home.”
– I Belong There, by Mahmoud Darwish