Review: Dina Nath Walli: A Passion to Portray Kashmir by Tej Krishan Walli
As Kashmir simmers, poet-painter Dina Nath Walli’s art assumes great cultural significancebooks Updated: Oct 20, 2017 21:39 IST
Growing up in Kashmir, in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the paintings of Monet, Renoir, Constable, Degas, Van Gogh and Gauguin.
Kashmir lent a mesmerising backdrop to the pursuit of art and art movements, given the striking resemblance of the valley’s idyllic landscapes to places that inspired the great Impressionists. Monet’s Water Lilies and Haystacks, and Constable’s The Cornfield were familiar sights in my neighbourhood. Years later, in 2002, when I was in Indiana, USA, I encountered Dina Nath Walli’s paintings. ‘Monet!’ I thought, glancing at Walli’s A Houseboat in Moonlight.
The paintings transported me back to my long-lost homeland. I yearned for Kashmir all over again, especially the places that had shaped my imagination.
The cobbled pavement near our backyard, the ration ghat on the bank of the Jhelum, the Sufi shrine by an embankment, an almond groove at the foothills of Zabarwan, the fort atop a sacred hill, boatmen of the Dal Lake selling vegetables and lotuses, willows in our courtyard, and the balcony and the thatched roof of our ancestral house. Magical dreamscapes.
Walli’s style may have an Impressionist imprint but his form is unique. His compositions are poetic, and evoke a deep sense of longing. The depiction of life and nature is untainted by any affectation. Realism, humanism, and harmony between mankind and nature characterise his art. Inspired by Rousseau’s Back to Nature call, Walli explored the relationship between nature and people. And the discovery is stunning. Nature depends on humans as much as humans depend on it to thrive and blossom. Each painting narrates a story.
Boat Women is a window to the rustic pleasures of life — you hear a folk song and find yourself swathed in the fragrance of lotuses; you feel the gentle touch of the spring breeze; you even taste snow. The Dal and Jhelum paintings bring alive Kashmir’s lost folklore. They tell us how people lived, what they cared about and loved, what they venerated, and how they derived sustenance.
Walli was born in Badiyar in downtown Srinagar in 1908. Having lost his father at an early age, his childhood was marred by financial difficulties. Encouraged by his mother and his maternal grandparents, he did a course in Fine Arts from the Amar Singh Technical Institute. Kashmir inspired Walli so much that, apart from painting, he also explored its bucolic outdoors through swimming, cycling, trekking and boating. He founded a trekking group and undertook expeditions to Kausernag, Mount Zabarwan and Mount Harmukh.
He was also fond of Sufiana music and played the violin, sitar, sarangi and flute. During a trip to Calcutta in 1940, Walli was spotted by British scholar, artist, art critic, historian and archaeologist Percy Brown, who became his mentor. In 1953, Brown inaugurated Walli’s first solo art exhibition in Srinagar.
An accomplished poet, Walli wrote in Kashmiri as well as Urdu under the pen name ‘Almast Kashmiri’ (The Ecstatic Kashmiri), and recited his Urdu poems at mushairas attended by great poets like Josh Malihabadi and Jagan Nath Aazad. In 1955, his first book of Kashmiri poems, Bala Yapari (This Side of the Mountains), was published. His second book, Sahravuky Posh (Desert Flowers), was published to critical acclaim in 1978.
In the mid-1950s, Walli was invited to join the Progressive Artists’ forum in Jammu and Kashmir but chose to remain aloof to preserve his distinct style. From 1953 to 2004, Walli held several art exhibitions in India. There were years when he became a recluse yet continued to paint mesmerising landscapes. He died in Karnal in 2006. The only recognition Walli ever received from the state of Jammu and Kashmir came in the form of a gold medal bestowed upon him during Maharaja Hari Singh’s regime in 1939. More recently, the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) instituted an award in Walli’s name. The award is conferred annually on emerging artists.
Sadly, the Kashmir of Walli’s art isn’t alive any more. Once a paradise, it has become a place of strife and violence. How does one rediscover that lost way of life marked by a solemn, yet charming ordinariness, love of nature and humanity, and a sense of abiding contentment and togetherness? Today, when Kashmir simmers, Walli’s art assumes historical and cultural significance.
Future generations will have no other artist except Dina Nath Walli to show them what was lost during the two-and-a-half decade long conflict.
Our lost Kashmir, in all its pristine beauty and romance, will continue to live and breathe in our collective memory as long as the legacy of Dina Nath Walli, one of the finest painters the state has produced, is celebrated and cherished.
Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Prize-winning author