In around 2000, Shaheen Public School in Downtown engaged a painter to paint some legendary poets on the walls of their institute. However, the painter never showed up for work on the appointed day. Disappointed with his behaviour, the School management decided to look around and among the students to check whether anyone could paint. A class 9 student who was known for his doodling in notebooks was asked whether he could do the job. The hesitant boy was not so confident, however, the teacher knew his talent and encouraged him to take up the opportunity and showcase his skill.
The student relented and brought colours from his home to paint Mirza Ghalib on the school walls. The result was magnificent and a similar excellence emanated from the following portraits of Iqbal and other poets. It was the turning point in the career of the young student by the name of Ishfar Ali.
"My life changed after that. People appreciated my work and I started to get orders to do similar projects," said Ishfar 32 as established artist in the field of Painting and Calligraphy. "Both my teachers and well wishers, who knew my art encouraged me to pursue the field and choose subjects in this stream only."
The seeds of his artistic talent were sown in his childhood. Being the son of a Papier Mache artist, Ishfar was always in the vicinity of a field of colours, design and art. He used to pick up brush start draw random things which later progressed into sketches, flowers and landscape.
Ishfar later joined Institute of Music and Fine Arts and completed his bachelors in Fine Arts. All during these years he continued to fine tune his skills and continued to garner more projects.
His next breakthrough was when INTACH took up the project of restoring the Baladari (Pavillion) at Nishat garden. They were looking for a design of paper mache ceiling as part of their restoration work. Ishfar sent his design based on similar designs in Shalimar garden, which was approved.
"The collaboration with INTACH went a long in furthering my career," said Ishfar who was appointed as constable in 2011 in JK Police. "In the police department too I was given work of art and was lucky to be mostly off the field."
In the meantime INTACH was working on a Shrine in Shadipora and Ishfar was roped in to design painting cum calligraphy specimen on the famous Naat Sharief of Jan Mohammed Qudsi (RA). He came up with a calligraphy specimen 8ft X 6ft that went on to beautifully showcase the neat "Marhaba Sayyad e Makki Madani ul Arabi," (PBUH). The Naat is a legendary one and its first two lines are said to have become base for around 5000 Naats all around the world.
"This gave a huge fillip to my career as I discovered altogether new field of Calligraphy and its potential in Kashmir. So many orders poured in after people saw the art at the shrine," said Ishfar. "The calligraphy exhibition held at Nowhatta added another chapter to it. This calligraphy proved to be a game changer for the calligraphers like us. It was as if suddenly we the artists were thrown infant of a huge audience."
There was a rush of orders from people who wanted to decorate their houses with Quranic verses painted in calligraphy. Though the market is still small, but according to Ishfar it is increasing. "In my opinion walls in a house shouldn't be blank and there should be something like painting or calligraphy specimen to decorate it. This kind of taste is increasing in Kashmir," said Ishfar.
Experts says that the reason calligraphy got fillip in Kashmir in recent times is due to the fact that it has already been in vogue here but had been forgotten.
Mohammad Hussain Kashmiri was the greatest of Kashmiri Calligraphers. He was a master of nastaliq style whose genius was said to be at par with the greatest Persian masters. He was highly regarded and venerated by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and later by Jahangir as well.
Such was the beauty of his art that he was given a place among the famed navratnas of Akbar, who also bestowed on Mohammad Hussain Kashmiri the title of Zarrin Qalam. Even Abu Fazl addresses him as Jadoo raqam (magical Calligrapher) in his magnum opus Ain-i-Akbari.
Meanwhile the orders for Ishfar's work have not only come from other states in India but also from Pakistan. Most of the people want calligraphy work to be done. The verses or wording usually recommended by the client.
On the painting front, Ishfar had the distinction of taking part in art exhibitions in Jahangeer Art Gallery Mumbai and the galleries in New Delhi.
Once at an exhibition in Mumbai, an art lover was so much impressed with his work that he brought his painting titled Pathetic Life, based on Kashmir turmoil for Rs 60000. Ishfar was just a student at that time.
His other work regularly sells for thousands of rupees. He has worked for JK Bank by painting portraits of their 09 previous chairmen. For Regional Institute of Medical Science Dobiwan, he has painting portraits of Nobel laureate persons in medicine and done similar work for SKIMS Soura.
On an average he makes around 60 portraits a year and each one earns anywhere from Rs 5,000 to 12000. A portrait may take anywhere from one day to a week to finish, depending on variety of things including the mood of artist.
One of his biggest projects was to make portraits of the Prime Ministers of Australia.
Amitabh Mattoo, Honorary Director of the Australia India Institute in Delhi and Advisor to the J&K government, had sent Ishfar a picture of Alfred Deakin, the second Prime Minister of Australia (three terms between 1903 and 1910), to sketch. The results were impressive enough for the Australia India Institute, New Delhi to commission portraits of seven other Prime Ministers — including Sir Robert Gordon Menzies (1939-41 and 1949-66) and Sir John McEwen (1967-68) — along with one of Sir Donald Bradman.
The entire collection was displayed at a special exhibition held in New Delhi.
His favourite painter is Masood Hussain, who has also remained his teacher. Occasionally he also works with Masood for some projects. He is also impressed with painter Zahoor Zargar. In calligraphy his favourite is one Hussain Masoodi from Iraninan who is known to work beautifully in single brush strokes.
Ishfar was recently selected as Papier Mache instructor in the Handicrafts Department, where he teaches students with the new methods of designing, art and craft. "In police department I had a similar kind of job, but my latest job is more suited to my personality," said Ishfar.
Ishfar says that art and craft flourishes in the genes of Kashmiris but the lack of innovation is killing it. "We are using same old designs like that of chinar leaves or almond shape. We have not been able to innovate on them and match the tastes of modern times. In addition to it the weavers are given less wage and in turn they don't put efforts to produce finest products. Our big export houses don't utilise services of designers and instead leave it upto low wage craftsmen to make the carpet, shawl or any other work. The result is that our quality is going for a toss," said Ishfar.
At his present job he has already produced 10-15 designs, a record of sort. Being born and brought up at a place that is known for producing some of the finest crafts in the world, Ishfar hopes to give back to the society whatever he has imbibed from it.
"Definitely we will value the art and crafts. It will take some time. But for it both government and society has to strive," said Ishfar. "Our biggest impediment is that we don't have any art gallery that could have showcase work of artists regularly. Few years back a single exhibition at Nowhatta did wonders for the art of calligraphy. Now imagine what can such exhibitions achieve if they are organised continuously."