Zarina Hashmi Legacy: A Cultural and Identity-Based Journey




zarina hashmi: We are honouring the life of Zarina Hashmi (1937-2020), a significant personality in Indian culture, who passed away on April 25. Zarina was an exceptional artist with an extraordinary life story. During her early years, she was a highly adventurous soul, traveling extensively across all four corners of the world. In 1947, her family's home was destroyed due to the partition of India, imposed by the British to divide the country into two independent states, India and Pakistan, and various family members were displaced on both sides of the partition. Later, Zarina left the Indian subcontinent with her diplomat husband to travel internationally, living in different cities for several years. It was when she was in her forties that she finally settled temporarily in New York, where she collected temporary roots, although she never lost the sense of being uprooted.

Working primarily on handmade paper using intaglio, woodblock, lithography, and silkscreen, Zarina created exquisite graphic images with simplicity and clarity. Her works often complemented by Urdu calligraphy explored the themes of home, place, boundaries, and memories. They not only emphasized the essential nature of line in both the languages of words and images—capturing the essence of place, memory, and boundary lines in her work—but also highlighted the invocation of her mother tongue, showcasing a lifelong 'translation' of experiences. A fusion of artistic and linguistic expression.

"I decided at some point to make my life the subject of my work, but I never knew what people would make of it. Some people who have come to the United States have never turned back, but I am not one of them. They are the fortunate ones!"


While her artistic practice was informed by her lived experiences, Zarina's work transcended immediate personal narratives. In her seminal suite of 36 woodcuts titled "Home Is a Foreign Place" (1999), Zarina worked as a cartographer of memory. Each print captured fragments of memory, such as an idealized ceiling fan in a vast room, depicted with simple lines. It represented a form that is both universal and the essence of individual experience. It also served as a testament to cultural heritage and the reminder of the socio-political particularities of identity. Reflecting on the response to one of her exhibitions, she said, "Many people came to my show and cried. I always ask them why, and they often say, 'This is our story too.' Many were those who were displaced from their own country: survivors of genocide, or those who wished to return home. I feel that if you tell your story and someone can cry on your shoulder, then I think that's sharing."



Zarina discovered a different passion in Paris after receiving a degree in mathematics, where she studied intaglio under renowned English printmaker Stanley William Hayter from 1963 to 1967. , followed by woodblock printing at the Toshi Yoshida Studio in Tokyo on a Japan Foundation fellowship (
1974). When asked about her historical influences, she mentioned two names: Albrecht Dürer, whom she discovered while living in Germany, "I went to Nuremberg for the 500th anniversary of his birth [in 1971] and bought some prints, including Knight, Death, and the Devil," and Rembrandt, whose works she studied at the Morgan Library.

Zarina was an extraordinary human being. While she devoted herself to her art, she lived a modest life in a small apartment in Manhattan, often frugal to the point of asceticism. When a light bulb went out, she would casually leave it unchanged, relying on the soft glow of a candle at times.

Awards and fellowships

With a cup of first flush Darjeeling tea and a plentiful supply of English biscuits, Zarina was intellectually generous and well-read. Conversations with her would span from an in-depth knowledge of current American politics to poetry and memories of meeting Agnes Martin. Her profound insight into the depths of the human experience worldwide was accompanied by a sharp wit, keen sarcasm, and a sense of humor that could turn any tea time into a party. Above all, her understanding of "home" embedded in her spiritual life was a testament to her deep-rooted belief, which not only enabled her to negotiate her own transience but also worked as a sharp, brilliant witness for us all. 


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