The flag-makers of the yore who translated emotions on cloth, irrespective of politics or ideology behind them, try to survive on the margins of modern technology. Safwat Zargar meets some of the artists who struggle to stay relevant
It was on an early morning in 1996 Shakeel Ahmad realized that colours can be dangerous. A flag artist and painter, Shakeel was whisked away by a group of Ikhwanis from his shop at Gow Kadal along with all of his employees. In the evening, all of the men were released after a “day-long interrogation” at Kawdara camp, except Shakeel.
“I am an artist,” Shakeel says. “A painter’s brush doesn’t know politics.”
For 18 days, Shakeel was “interrogated” by counter-insurgents and men of Border Security Force (BSF) for making a flag of Al-Umer Mujahideen group – an armed resistance outfit.
It was a “terrible” experience for Shakeel, who almost like everything that time, saw himself under a dangling sword of loyalties. A refusal to paint might have invited a bullet, from either side, he says.
So, he had two options: quit or act neutral. He chose the latter.
“I designed flags for every kind of parties; from National Conference’s plough on red to Hizb-Ul-Mujahideen’s symbol of Koran above two AK-47s held back-to-back,” he informs.
When Shakeel was young, the elegance of brush strokes and vividness of different colours had inspired him to shun pencil and pick up a brush.
In 1983, after returning from Delhi where Shakeel had worked as an apprentice with a painter for few years, he started his own painting firm at Gow Kadal in Srinagar. His initiative started blooming colours of success. By 1987, he was making flags for all pro-India as well as pro-Independence parties – National Conference, Congress, Awami Action Committee, Jamaat E Islami, Islamic Students League and many more.
But 1989 brought new customers – armed resistance groups; Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Muslim Janbaz Force (MJF), Al-Umer Mujahideen (AUM) and so on. It also brought death, destruction and decline. Valley started fading, but flags of every colour; green, red, black, kept fluttering. Sometimes angry young men mourning death of their dear ones waved them in unison, sometimes flags served as shrouds and sometimes they became gauzes to stop oozing blood.
“I never imagined my flags will become shrouds for martyrs,” Shakeel says.
However, with the political tides in valley hitting new heights, Shakeel knew his safe zone.
“Labour looked like playing. I was enjoying every bit of it,” a continuously-blinking Shakeel says, while recalling days of past when he had chosen painting and flag-making as his career.
“Making flags is my profession. I couldn’t shun it. So I decided whosoever the customer, my brush and cloth will serve him,” Shakeel says while sitting in one of the rooms of his painting firm ‘Do Bhai’ in Srinagar.
A flag is charged metre-wise. From a mere two rupee per-metre flag to a two-hundred rupees per-metre flutter, Shakeel has witnessed all the ups and downs in the business. But what has become a cause of constant worry for him is the advent of “computer and synthetic printing by non-professionals.”
“Like Samovar and Kangri, painting by hand will also enter the museum,” says Zameer Ahmad, who switched over his painting firm ‘Dar Brothers’ to computerized printing in 2005.
Out of 10 orders Zameer receives seven to eight are for flex printing. He, too, is worried. In 80s, then young, Zameer remembers working day and night with his father to deliver bulk orders of NC flags.
“They rarely come now. Elections pushed up the flag business in the past but now parties get their flags printed in bulk from Delhi,” he says. While election buzz has already started in valley, Zameer doesn’t expect any orders.
Zamir’s father, Noor Mohammad Dar is one of the veterans of commercial painting in valley. Noor Mohammad’s old, parched hands are too fragile now to outline a sketch on board but the identity he earned through the art he had learned from his master Mohammad Akbar of Lal Chowk is as new as morning.
“My master Mohammad Akbar had learned the art from an artist in Peshawar Pakistan,” septuagenarian, Noor Mohammad says.
Sonaullah Matta of Barbar Shah, Srinagar, doesn’t look an artist at first sight. His long, flowing grey-beard belies his attachment with brushes and colours. Nobody can guess that for thirty years of his life, Matta has made and painted every kind of flag, boards, street corners, walls, electric poles and “everything that can be painted.”
“I learned the art from various painters from Delhi and Mumbai who used to work in different painting firms of Kashmir,” Sonaullah says.
Sonaullah, who can paint alphabets of any language; Hindi, Urdu, Kashmiri, English, remembers making extensively flags of National Conference and Peoples’ Conference led by Abdul Gani Lone during mid 70s and early 80s.
“Flags are very important, as it symbolizes an idea,” he says. “It is an umbrella that unites and makes a statement.” Politics in Kashmir had mushroomed parties, so had flag business.
More than 1500 painters are associated with the business in Srinagar city alone, says Farooq Ahmad, owner of Shahi Arts at Khayam, Srinagar. Farooq who started his career as a painter in 1968 is now deciding to wind up his business and “change the line.”
“Even flags are printed in machine these days in Kashmir. It has no future,” Farooq says. A painting firm in the past used to employee 10-20 artists on average who used to feed their families by labouring day and night as per the demand.
On the other hand, flag-making business, Shakeel says, will never go down as the demand for flags in the valley is always high. But he sounds like Farooq when “growing computerized printing firms come to his mind.”
Currently, Shakeel designs flags for almost all pro-freedom groups including Hurriyat(s) and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). However, as per Shakeel, his long-term and biggest customers – National Conference, Peoples’ Democratic Party, and Congress – order flags from Delhi.
“One of my biggest orders was of 6,000 flags from PDP during last elections,” Shakeel says. “They (pro-India political parties) won’t come this election.”
On the other hand, the business mushrooms during religious events and celebrations. On the onset of the holy month of Muharram, Shakeel doesn’t have time for sleep. His employee strength grows by three folds at that time.
As computers loaded with high-end softwares and sophisticated printing machines continue to axe artists, who rely on hand than a keyboard’s cut-paste, forty-nine year old Shakeel, now, is one of the few masters of the trade in Srinagar.
“My son will not do this job,” Shakeel says, “painting is an art; computer has made every layman a boss.”
Sonaullah, Shakeel, Zameer, Farooq, all, say that nobody bothers about their plight. They have least expectations from the government to “preserve” this skill.
“We make flags for all who have a cause,” remarks Farooq, “we too have a cause but we don’t have a flag!”