Rashmi Talwar

MOHAN RAINA – The soul artist of Kashmir

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Book Review

Illustrations of Umar Khayyam’s poetry.



Portrait of Mehjoor by the artist.

Some artists are born of a feather. Art reaches out to a soul to house its flights of imaginative treasures. Artist Mohan Raina was one such born of a quiver of plumes. His art flew. It reached unknown shores. Some rose like a tidal wave, some in a manner of a feather float, some struck a sensuous caress. All in all, his palette and strokes engulfed the art scene in the little paradise of Kashmir. Drawn from a proud artistic lineage, Mohan’s grandfather – Pt Narain Joo, was an accomplished artist of miniatures; father – Shiv or Sieu Raina a famed artist, teacher, modeller, craftsman, and innovator. Mohan’s churnings were unique. His manifestations spoke a distinct language of symbols interwoven with realism. As his nimble fingers and heart flew over varied surfaces they bore his unique stamp of excellence using many conventional and non-conventional art mediums.
“Art in Kashmir and Mohan Raina the creative Genius” a voluminous 307-page book, penned by Sudesh Raina, author, and son of famed artist Mohan Raina is a befitting tribute to the exceptional artist of Kashmir. The book is a painstaking labour of love, lest, the history of art in Kashmir, forget the energy of an outstanding and multi-talented artist. It offers a rare insight into the development of art in Kashmir, its journey, and the unique contributions of an unsung artist of that period. The book professes the expertise of Mohan Raina –to be incomparable. Mohan left his imprint in the art world to an extent that it is the subject of Ph.D. thesis even today.
The book itself is a result of meticulous research by Sudesh the author, a painter himself, who took on the dedicated mission that took years to search, assimilate and assemble facts and join the lost rings of Mohan’s artistic genius. The compilation is the brilliant bonding of these rings to present a chain of Mohan’s sizable artwork. An artist, whose legacy includes the creation of “Jammu & Kashmir’s State Emblem” which is still in use.
Mohan – an artist, who could leave nothing without a tinge of his genius touch, for instance, the wedding card designed for his daughter Dr Usha Raina with Dr Chand Narain Dhar, is evocatively symbolic. One can see the moon or ‘Chand’- the name of the bridegroom, holding a bright early morning sun or the ‘Usha’- the name of the bride, inside a six-cornered geometrical figure or the ‘Shatkona’. A ‘Shatkona’ a symbol of Shiva-Shakti yantra i.e. a union of male and female; a fusion of Prakarti and Purush, as explained by an avid writer Avtar Mota in his blog –The Chinar Shade.
The hardcover, written and compiled by Sudesh, could by no means, incorporate the expanse of his research. Mohan’s works of art were scattered globally, with the family possessing not a single piece from his huge repertoire. The book, however, presents a fairly wide window about the artist, his flight of imagination, his story, his history, and his artwork that qualifies as magnificent with a matchless style. The book incorporates the born artist’s fledgling steps, honing his skills in that stratosphere and emergence as an artist of class apart, which is a spur for art students of today.
In those times, Mohan’s father Shiv or Sieu Raina, a brilliant artist himself, was quick to tutor the exceptional talent of his son as a Guru and together they explored varied visual art forms. After studying art at Amar Singh Tech Institute, Srinagar, Mohan Raina looked beyond his home towards the seven seas in pursuit of knowledge; and studied at ‘City & Guilds Institute, London’- a global giant in skill development and work-based learning programs. Here, he studied to enhance his art and design skills, combining textiles and painting. He further studied contemporary painting, and art history at the University of Illinois, USA. Mohan’s ultimate recognition came when he earned the prestigious UNESCO scholarship. The book elaborates on several ‘firsts’ to Kashmir’s academic and art landscape, including

An unfinished painting by the artist.

Mohan Raina being the first Kashmiri to go abroad to study art.
The journey of an open-minded artist, experimenting, applying methods and strokes to varied mediums and materials, and employing skills and stratagem, to create innovative pieces of unforgettable art in Kashmir, is well catalogued in the book. From being employed in J&K state’s Information Department, came Mohan’s opportunity to churn out prestigious artwork including the state emblem, and logos for institutions of repute comprising ‘Government Medical College Srinagar and SKIMS. His portraiture brings vivid portraits such as of Mehjoor –The ‘Shair-e-Kashmir’; along with some outstanding ones of Kashmiri greats and also of family members. He created unusual and meaningful brochures, illustrations, posters. The Republic Day tableaux was designed and implemented by Mohan, which won top honours beating all other State Tableaux. Over the years, Mohan created innumerable landscapes, portraits, abstracts, and monograms besides a wide range of art pieces. The author of the book has tried to leave very little untouched. He has included beautifully illustrated pages giving a glimpse of Mohan’s diversity in his creations, to the reader.
The book illustrates pictures of nature paintings done ‘en plein air’ by the nimble hands and eyes of a gifted observer. The pictorial-rich book throws light on the style of Mohan’s art that hugged realism, his favourite being seasons around his home turf of Srinagar. For the 19th and most 20th century artists, it was not unusual to paint landscapes of their surroundings, and if the environs were as enticing as Kashmir, the sky of the artist’s canvas was limitless. In places, Mohan’s creations could be compared with the style of Gustava Courbet, a French artist who stood out with his realism of surroundings of life –‘undecorated ‘ and some deliberately ‘unromanticized’. In some of his works, his landscapes can be compared to those by Asher Brown Durrand.
Even the portraiture collection of Mohan including of Mehjor – the state poet, of Habba Khatoon, Lal Ded, and many Kashmiri Pandit greats could be compared with Courbet’s style of catching the gesture and nuance of a person, instead of just the profile.
Mohan produced one of the finest collections of art estimated to count as about 1000 pieces, besides the book also uncovers his hand at creating Industrial Murals. Lamentingly, not a single one of his magnificent artwork is possessed by his own Raina family!
He writes about the tiny locality of ‘Badiyar Bala’, as a creative oasis in Srinagar, where the artist was born; describing it as an epicenter of art and artists of every hue and shade. He traces the exalted lineage of Mohan Raina’s grandfather – Pt Narain Joo, an accomplished artist of miniatures; along with the artist’s father Pt. Shiv Raina – a reputed painter and sculptor and one credited with the establishment of the first Art gallery of Srinagar in Habbakadal area. This ideal artistic environment carried the silken thread that beaded many of the arts and artists of the times, including those from the performing art, in Kashmir. The book beholds the artistic flair of Mohan’s father – Pt Shiv curating budding artists, who rose to be exceptional levels including Ghulam Rasool Santosh and SurajTikoo.
The volume traces the journey of Mohan to becoming the award-winning creator of the J&K State tableaux for the Republic Day Parade in January 1958. Interestingly, the author of the book -Sudesh Raina, was made to sit on the tableaux titled “Winter in Kashmir” wearing a ‘Pheran’ and holding a ‘kangri’ in the role of a Kashmiri child.
Such a hub of talent hardly went unnoticed by those sitting in the seats of power and acknowledgment for the exceptional talent came in the form of coveted invitations. Once, Shiv Nath Raina along with his family was invited for Lunch by the first Indian Prime Minister of India – Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
“This was on 29th January in 1958, post the Republic Day celebrations”, a picture of which is carried in the book where the PM’s daughter and future Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also present, Sudesh recalls that memorable moment. The book is embellished with many pictures of Mohan with prominent personalities including Sheikh Abdullah and the heirs of the erstwhile ruling monarchy of Kashmir.
The book records the pre-independence art scene in Kashmir that established the Progressive Artists’ Association – aimed at promoting art and culture in the valley. An illustrious artist S.H. Raza known for his fascination with Bindu (dot) and triangles, during his visit to Kashmir in 1948, exhibited his paintings – leaving an indelible mark on many of the local artists. Remarking on the artistic work of Mohan, the artist Raza is reported to have said: ‘Mohan is a great versatile artist in the making.’
‘No Indian or western masters overwhelmed young Mohan’, the book records. However, Rembrandt for his style of portraiture and Raja Ravi Verma in the way he depicted scenes from the epics- exercised a great influence on him. He also liked Paul Cezanne for his varied painting style. Mohan preferred structured compositions and recreating nature and not its substitutes.
Art critics view
Avtar Mota, an avid writer, critic, and blogger observed about Mohan Raina’s repertoire of art that ‘Mohan’s art didn’t stay on the canvas or some materials alone; it included its replications in fine Interior Décor. Mohan’s series of paintings depicting popular folklore ‘Akanandun’, was uniquely replicated on curtains in thread-work by ace Kashmiri craftsmen. In his blog ‘The Chinar Shade’, Mota writes–“Mohan Raina prepared hundreds of designs for handicrafts including the famed Kashmiri shawls. Mohan’s strokes also entered into designs created by crewelling – a Kashmiri embroidery technique and were replicated on apparel and wall hangings based on Kashmir’s folklore, flora-fauna, and scenic beauty”.
Mota writes – “Mohan did a series of paintings on Omar Khayyam’s poetry, just the way A. R. Chugtai did a grand series on Ghalib’s Poetry. A Kashmiri poet, writer, and journalist Ghulam Nabi Khayal possessed a few copies of the book of Kashmiri translation of quatrains of Persian poet Omar Khayyam, published in 1961. Khayal had sought assistance from Mohan for doing artistic Illustrations of the Quatrains. Today they are a treasure trove.”
Book’s inception
Taking advantage of the lost name of the artist and his existence, others had started plagiarising and usurping not only the works but also honours and crediting themselves with them. Such a claim to Mohan Raina’s artworks on an open platform of Facebook spurred the author and son, to get down to cataloguing the soul of his multi-faceted father’s artwork.
Sudesh says, “It was an unimaginable hunger to not let down my father, and let his genius strokes go unnoticed, unsung, in the annals of History of art in Kashmir, that eventually impelled me to embark on this lofty journey to locate art collectors, private and public galleries from around the globe, to bring bits and beauties of Mohan Raina’s creative works in the public domain. The various unique and innovative techniques, the artist employed to achieve outstanding results, had to be catalogued. Alongside this, the precious stories of his artistic life, his journey, and his innovation and imagination led to this meticulous compilation into a valuable book.”
The compilation is truly a collectible for art galleries, art connoisseurs, historians, and collectors. “This is a tribute to my father as well as my family especially my mother’s strong, silent, support to my father’s evolvement into this creative genius,” he said.
The book touches on the vivid reality of the start and the rapid spread of tumultuous years in the Kashmir history of 1990, which led to the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the valley. In one section Sudesh writes -“It pains me how the widespread militancy erupted in the Valley in 1990, played havoc with his (Mohan Raina’s) treasured collection. Everything was looted, and plundered when our ancestral house was ransacked and later the house was gutted in a devastating fire. With such a colossal loss, sometimes I am led to un-believe that my father ever used a ‘brush and canvas’. A little solace arises when I set my eyes on a few of his paintings that were gifted to friends or his artwork hanging in Galleries in India and abroad. My Father, a lover of poetry and music, could not be contained just by colour strokes and forms, he could beautifully strum the ‘Sitar’, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz remained his favourite poet. We lost hundreds of music LPs and the imported gramophone that was dear to him, to plunderers. It was that Gramophone on which he would often listen to Begum Akhtar’s Ghazal: “Meray Hum Nafas Meray Hum Navaa, Mujhe Dost Ban Ke Dagaa Na De.”
This reminds me of Emily Dickson’s poem –
‘Hope is the thing with feathers…….
That perches in the soul……
And sings the tune without the words…
And never stops…at all…
The author can be reached at [email protected]

By Sudesh Raina
Pages: 307,
Rs 695/ $21

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