Digital comic girl draws Kashmir's culture, contemporary times

Her increasingly popular figurative illustrations celebrate strength and confidence in a way that has captured the attention of many, especially the younger generation. Ghazal Qadri, a Kashmiri illustrator, currently based in Maryland, USA, explains how her illustrious freelancing work in digital comics has exposed this young girl to the dynamically expanding illustration work going on across the world.

In a candid interview with the Greater Kashmir, Ghazal shared her journey of art from Mallinson to Maryland. Ghazal is presently represented by the Pippins Properties Ltd, a literary agency based in New York. The agency looks after her interests by promoting her portfolio of illustration work of comics, graphic novels and children’s picture books to potential clients across the world.

Ghazal goes by Alif on a prominent social media networking site, Instagram, where she shares her work. Her ‘Alif’ title has an interesting story behind as at a young age in her boarding school in Jaipur, she had named one of her friends Laila. “We were very good friends so I named myself Alif.” Currently, she is one of the very few Kashmiri illustrators known for her exemplary works.

Alif was brought up as Ghazal Qadri in Bhagat, Barzulla, Srinagar. After her matriculation from Mallinson Girls School in Srinagar, she went to pursue +2 studies in commerce from MGD High School in Jaipur. She did her B. Design in Fashion and Lifestyle Accessories Design from the NIFT, Hyderabad in 2017. “After finishing my undergraduate program, I was placed as a full-time Illustrator in a UI/UX design studio in Bangalore. I designed illustrations for the company’s digital products.  After a two years’ stint at the studio I attended the MA Illustration program,at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and graduated in May, 2020,” she says.

Her hard work and passion got her a fellowship under Abdul Ahad Guru Scholars Programme, which she attended during April-May 2018 at Buffalo in the United States.

“For the past 4-5 years I have been quite active on Instagram where I share my doodles and comics. It’s overwhelming when I draw my stories and people also relate to it,” she says. “Non-locals, curious to learn about Kashmir, its people and culture, enjoy my comics. For them my illustrations are from the horse’s mouth, authentic and reliable, as they could otherwise never get to know such minutest possible details.”

“I do not just draw comics on the basis of my experiences in Kashmir alone but also on the basis of general observations in my life. I am happy, people like to engage in my simple slices of life. My recent attempt of making animated reels is well taken by people. The series ‘When I am home’, featured my character in different settings of Kashmir.”

In 2019, Ghazal illustrated the children’s picture book, Okus Bokus, authored by Oniza Drabu. Aimed at promoting the Kashmiri culture and language the book is the first of its kind and is available on Amazon. “The same year I also was an active participant in the collaborative illustration work for the calendar that celebrated the successful, yet forgotten, women of Kashmir. The calendar was a great success and received widespread acclaim.”

“I always enjoy making relatable comics in the form of stories and engagements, online. My illustration style is of a cartoonist and genuinely comic. The stories that I tell are my own daily experiences; they reflect my person. Some years back WhatsApp launched sticker sending/sharing features on phones. With a whole lot of Kashmiri phrases around I tailored them to my illustrations in png/jpg format (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.alif.kathbathapp &hl=en). The emojis received over 1, 50,000 users. The mobile application has currently more than 50,000 users across the world,” she informed.

“My freelancing work in illustration, spread over more than 5 years, has exposed me to the dynamically expanding illustration work going on across the world. I am presently represented by the Pippins properties ltd, a literary agency based in New York.”

Ghazal says that during her school days her friends considered her “chatterbox of the class.” “I would be caught drawing caricatures of my teachers in the class while they were busy delivering lectures. As a result, most of the time I found myself sent packing outside the class. Born to rebel, a second-born, and a contrarian to boot, I kept on doodling and decided to take a departure from the much-cliched path of becoming a doctor or an engineer. I went to a boarding school after class 10. It was kind of a defining moment for me,” she says. “I got an opportunity to work as the illustrator of the school magazine and represented the school in several cartoon competitions. While all this happened my friends and family always encouraged me to pursue my passion.”

Staying away for almost 10 long years from Kashmir seems to have taken its toll on this young illustrator “My yearning for my native place, its climate, music and songs, personalities, personal associations (present and past), possibilities and events (especially ‘the good old days’), the warm childhood, the innocence of childhood and sweetness of youth is simply overpowering. The recollections of important events, people I care about, and places where I spent time all trigger me to draw stories which readers somehow relate to their nostalgic experiences.”

She draws her illustrations digitally on her Ipad. “I am not a traditional artist. Unfortunately, I have lost touch with paper and pen. I usually make art by observing people and things happening around me. I keep a note of things that interest me. I use small pocket notebooks to note my observations and then take out time to draw them in a comic format.”

Asked what makes her bring Kashmiri elements to her work, she says, “Kashmiri attire doesn’t predominate my characters. I always try to lay stress on other aspects that include cultural mores, gestures, living habits, food habits, and so on connected to Kashmir and add a pinch of humour to bring the Kashmiri element.”

Politics & Parody:

Ghazal says the decades-old Kashmir conflict has made victims of it directly or indirectly. She says that she always enjoys making relatable comics in the form of stories and engagements, online.

“It is heartening to receive an overwhelming response for my illustrations from the admirers and critics out there. In the year 2019, I designed the Kath Bath calendar-2019, that depicted the selected 12 emojis. The calendar was well taken. I’ve once again released a calendar for the year 2021. The calendar draws inspiration from the ‘Six Seasons of Kashmir’, …… Shishur, Sonth, Grishm, Vahrat, Harud, Vandeh, referred in the book, The Valley of Kashmir, by Walter R Lawrence.”

The calendar strictly follows the timeline associated with each of the six seasons. It is an attempt to characterize each season by way of illustrations depicting therein the Kashmiri household traditions and relatable life activities. “I am hopeful that it’s going to be fun to discover a whole lot of relatable scenes with awe, every time you flip a page of the calendar. I have already been receiving an overwhelming response from my audience and it makes me happy,” says Ghazal.

She says that in a conflict like Kashmir, most of the artists make art out of their lived experiences and as such it is difficult to separate politics from art.

“It is crucial to see which art form is given encouragement and which one isn’t. Music, poetry or illustrations, cartoons have a way of getting under your skin and the state is aware of the impact these media have. The artists go forth with their resistance knowing the cost it comes with. I believe my love for storytelling and my ability to present everyday life through my illustrations, might have some potential to make an impact on the Kashmiri community.”

“While working on my WhatsApp stickers, I tried to shape them with the Kashmiri characters, proverbs and contemporary street-lingo and humor, for example, stickers saying, ‘Is there a curfew tomorrow?’ This arguably has been one of the most frequently used phrases of the contemporary times in Kashmir.”

The young illustration artist says that there are many things about Kashmir which can’t be captured in the form of text and could be presented in the form of visuals.

“Storytelling is an important aspect and I think I am trying my best to bring about life and history in the form of visuals. It’s always been my endeavour to work on the issues that concern us and that could be made more interactive through illustrations in its many forms,” she says. “Illustration is a powerful means of expression that can break barriers, change preconceived notions and bring about great changes. For artists, like me, social media is the best way to find new means to make voices heard and seek support for unspoken issues of great concern to us.”