Nisar Aziz: The forgotten Picasso of Kashmir

It is said that a single neighbourhood in Habba Kadal produced two great painters in Kashmir, one became a household name and another’s level of popularity gradually vanished with time. The former was the legendary G R Santosh and the later, a humble painter Nisar Aziz Beg. The two were neighbours at Chinkral Mohalla, Habbakadal, and worked during what is termed as the golden age of art and literature in Kashmir.

Those who knew Nisar Aziz say his work was no less important than the top notch artists of that time. Largely a self taught artist, Nisar played his role in enriching and founding the new era of art in Kashmir.

According to known theatre personality Pran Kishore Kaul, history of Modern Art In Kashmir is incomplete without mentioning artists like Nisar Aziz. He was the part of caravan that emerged post 1947 on the horizon of Art in Kashmir valley. Nisar was a neighbour of G R Santosh. He learnt by observation alone. He would visit drawing Masters or Artists during his youth to learn and pick up basics. He would observe, watch and then try himself. 

“I remember he had an exhibition in Kolkatta and people loved it there. The press dubbed him as Indian Picasso while reviewing his work,” said M A Mehboob, a known painter who also knew Nisar.

A down to earth artist, Nisar’s work had elements similar to Picasso. He loved to paint in what is called as cubist style, which was something new in the art scene of Kashmir. With keen eye on society, his paintings depicted scenes with multiple layers of meanings.

Nisar was later known as Kashmir’s Picasso because of his style of painting. Many of his paintings are currently with Jammu Kashmir Academy of Art Culture and Languages, Institute of Music and Fine Arts, various other organisations and in private collections. Number of his paintings were also destroyed during 2014 floods.

It is said that Nisar started painting due to an accident. After being injured during a football match, he was forced to stay indoors. After trying guitar for some time, he started scribbling sketches with his pencil. It kindled a hidden passion in him and soon brush and canvas followed.

According to Mehboob, he did a course in art at Amar Singh Technical Institute, which set a way for him in his artistic journey. Most of the time he learnt by himself by observing others. He got a job in Census department which he left shortly afterwards.

Later he was appointed as art instructor in Gandhi Memorial College. His job was to  assist B.Ed. students in preparation of Charts and Models. The authorities after noticing his talent sanctioned him a Professor’s pay. Since that day he came to be known as Professor Nisar Aziz. He rose to become the principal of the college.

His talent blossomed with age and his work inspired others too. One of his famous exhibitions was at Jehangir Art gallery in Mumbai.

He held many solo Exhibitions in Srinagar also. One such Exhibition held inside Hotel Broadway was inaugurated by Sheikh Mohd Abdullah. He also held an Exhibition of his paintings at Lalit kala Academy New Delhi.

In a post on Nisar Aziz, cultural blogger and writer Autar Mota quotes Bansi Raina, “Nisar Aziz  was a close friend of mine and a member of my theatre club Rangmanch. Nisar worked in Field Survey Organisation once along with Lassa Koul of DD, Akhtar Mohiudidin, Mohan Charagi and others. He was a self taught painter and we attended his exhibition in Bombay in early eighties. His house at Chinkral Mohalla Srinagar  was in the vicinity of  G R Santosh’s house. MK Swaminetri and Theatre Personality ML Saraf were also his neighbours.”

He was a thorough gentleman and a humble person. He was also connected to a local drama club and theatre.

“I along with other young artists Maharaj Bhat and Bavnesh Raina used to visit his studio at his house more than any other artists. He was most humble would go out of his way in helping and teaching us the intricacies of art. When we were young we would just paint colours according to our hunch, but it was he, who introduced us to the meaning of colours,” said Mehboob. “He was Frank and never kept any knowledge hidden from us.”

Along with other stalwarts, Nisar used to grace Indian Coffee House, which was the main waterhole for who-is-who of art, literature and culture in Kashmir. “We learnt some of the valuable lessons of life at the Coffee House where we used to spend days and listen to their discussions,” said Mehboob.

According to experts, together with his contemporaries like SN Butt, Triloke Kaul, PN Kachm, Kishori Kaul, M Sadiq, Suraj Tikoo, Bansi Parimo, Ratan Parimoo and Manohar Kaul, Nisar Aziz comprises of  the first generation of Kashmiri artists whose work, partially or uncompromisingly, embodies the modem art idioms.

Sadly, there is complete lack of focus on Nisar’s work. Even his Gandhi College doesn’t have any mention of him on its website. Same is the case with JKAACL, which even possesses some of his work.

Wasim Mushtaq Wani who did his PhD on “Modern art in Kashmir:1950 to the present” at Aligarh Muslim University discusses scarcity of primary sources about artists like Nisar and M Sadiq and Suraj Tiku. “The possible reason that they did not find a definite and continued mention in the general information about the modem artists of the Valley may largely be due to their early retirement, lack  of necessary patronage, disillusionment or the absence of continued development in the quality or the productivity of their work,” he writes, adding that Nisar Aziz, SN Butt, Triloke Kaul, PN Kachru, GR Santosh and Ratan Parimoo, were convincingly the first initiators to launch a certain renaissance in the field of plastic arts in the Valley.

While discussing one of his paintings, Wasim says, “the work reflects a certain virtuosity and aesthetic erudition that can only be achieved after a sustained practice with the oil pigment, the perceptually rigorous understanding of the subtle tonalities of color, the art-historically informed execution of the canvas space. The work, in its unorthodox and non-conformist stance, posits even greater expressionist/abstract bravado than his fellow artists like Triloke Kaul, Santosh and Kishori. In its gestural dynamism and the overall flat outlook the painting is marked with a vivid reminiscence to the abstract expressionism of Jackson Plock’s drip paintings. However, Nisar appears relatively controlled in his spontaneous mode to invite accidents.”

Wasim compares Nisar’s aesthetic stance with pre-minimal oil paintings of Nasreen Mohamadi of early 60s and the collage mode of Jyoti Bhat’s post 60s paintings. Nisar shares his non-narrative mode of Indian art’s post 60 experimentation in the abstract idiom.

Nisar is thought to have worked till eighties and it was during this time  his last exhibition was also held in Srinagar. Later on he retired from the art scene and people too forgot him.

Wasim, in his research writes, “From the local accounts it is maintained that he was very much active in the early phase of his career and would periodically participate in the annual exhibitions of the J&K Academy but his sudden retreat from the art scene remains a mystery which he possibly does not want to share.”

He spent his last days in USA and died on 12 February 2018 in California.