Zarina Hashmi was just 10 when India was partitioned. Growing up in Aligarh, where her father taught history at the university, the Partition was an intense experience as the violence unleashed by it set in motion a gigantic process of displacement. Her immediate family had stayed on in India. But in the late 1950s, just after Zarina had completed her degree in Mathematics and got married, they migrated to Pakistan. It marked the beginning of exile for Zarina, who travelled with her diplomat husband on his postings. She studied print-making with Stanley William Hayter in Paris and learnt woodblock printing in Japan. In the Sixties, she returned to India and worked with papermakers in Jaipur. In the early ’70s, she left for New York, which became her home in exile for over four decades.
Home, exile and memory were the tropes she leaned on to create art. Over the years, the idea of home became an abstraction for her, appearing in her minimalist works as mere lines on grey sheets, or in shades of black and white. The idea of home became inseparable from the idea of exile, both embedded in memory. Her works recall the deep humanist anguish and sense of loss that distinguish Partition literature and art. In fact, she spoke about discovering a home in literature, especially Urdu poetry, and that seems to have provided a reference point to her exile.
Since displacement and exile are a leitmotif for the 20th century, Zarina’s work has a certain universality, which also makes her more than just a reflective chronicler of the Partition. An unusual 1991 bronze work, “I went on a journey III”, is of a crumbling house without windows on four wheels, each pointed in different directions, indicating the impossibility of movement. In the atlas of her world, exile seems to have been the only permanent state of existence, especially when the nation state and its cities are experienced as cartographic prisons, something that eloquently showed in her works.