The Afghan who saved his country's art collection is overwhelmed to have visited India this week on an ICCR tour of Delhi and Jaisalmer. Dr Mohammad Yusuf Asefi (45) is the deceptively mild and softspoken gastro-enterologist and artist in oils, who quietly saved 40 old paintings in Kabuls National Gallery from destruction by the Taliban three years ago by painting over them.
Like other Afghans leading regular, decent lives, Asefi was heartbroken by the unhappy events in his country since the last many years. A born Kabuli, he took his medical degree at Kabul University but alongside, pursued his boyhood passion for oil painting, learnt from a private tutor.
Post-Bamiyan, when the Taliban decided to find and destroy any artifact or image that they considered "non-Islamic" to "purify" the Afghan nation, Asefi quietly offered, at his own cost and with free labour, to "restore" damaged paintings in Kabul's National Gallery of Art.
Keeping a very low profile, he succeeded, over five months, in covering up 80 old paintings that had human figures, technically forbidden in orthodox Islam. Asefi turned them into unexceptional landscapes, using a thick overlay of watercolours over the original oils.
When the Taliban finally trooped into the gallery, they found nothing on their list of taboo objects and left, satisfied that all was as Mullah Omar had decreed. It was almost the same story in the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where Asefi had managed to cover up 42 paintings.
After the fall of the Taliban from Kabul, Asefi went back to the paintings and painstakingly washed the watercolours off each. They include the works of famous Afghan painters of the 20th century like Abdul Kadir Brishna, Professor Ghulam Mohammed Maimaneghi of the Kabul University Fine Arts Faculty and Master Abdul Aziz, an Indian from Delhi who settled in Kabul long back and lived there for a good 80 years.
Asefi says he thoroughly enjoyed the Hindustani vocal by Madhup Mudgal and the Kathak by Aditi Mangaldas's students that experienced at an art camp last week in Jaisalmer. "I have great hope for the future of my country," he says gently, as he excuses himself for the evening prayer, with the poignantly unnecessary disclaimer, “I am not a mullah. But I like to pray."