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It’s ironic, to write in English about an artist who is reintroducing the entire pantheon of Urdu literature to contemporary India. English cannot match up to the rhythms produced in an Urdu sher – a word inadequately described in English as a ‘couplet’. Thankfully, where verbal language fails, visual art elevates.

Dilli-based Khwaab Tanha Collective is the creative enterprise of one artist, but starts to make sense as a collective if we consider the spirit of all the Urdu writers and poets embedded in its gorgeous artwork. The question of Urdu’s relevance today needs to take into account the success and popularity of KTC’s irresistible products. The artist behind these collectibles – Shiraz Husain – makes Urdu literary icons accessible even to those clueless or confused about shayari.

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The 30-year-old artist teaches as Asst. Prof in Department of Applied Arts at Jamia Milia Islamia, his longstanding alma mater where he learns a lot for and from his students. He simultaneously works for KTC in multiple disciplines, apart from sculpting small faces and practicing ukulele.

The closeness with art developed early. As a child Shiraz would draw on anything and everything around him. He’d spend long hours in his terrace-based secret lab creating epic tales with his He-Man, Skeletor and plastic animals. Back then, his favourite pastimes included reading Payam-e-Taleem and Champak, illustrating comic books and painting portraits – the last of which has, much to every Urdu lover’s delight, culminated in KTC.

IB: How did your journey with Urdu poetry begin? And how did you arrive at Khwaab Tanha Collective?

My journey has actually been a gradual process. Literature was all around me while growing up. Jamia school played an important role, as did my father, who was an Urdu teacher, an amateur poet and freelance writer for newspapers, and who used to listen to and participate in Mushairas (Urdu poetry symposium). I even used to doggerel at times. So as a teen I soaked up a lot without even realising. Later, the clichéd visual representation of Urdu poetry ironically inspired me to celebrate our literary icons in visual culture through Khwaab Tanha Collective.

IB: You’re taking an old language to a younger audience, how have their reactions been?

Urdu has always been around us in some ways, the biggest example being Bollywood. Notice that love songs are incomplete without Urdu (ehsaas, muhabbat, ishq, husn, zindagi), and even the dialogues are full of Urdu; it’s just the realisation of Urdu and its literary figures that is new.

And yes, the younger audiences have applauded this effort with extreme gestures of love and respect. I daily receive mail and messages from literature enthusiasts. They not only ask for posters and KTC stuff but shower some genuine compliments, requests, and suggestions before ordering as well. I am thankful for that.

IB: Of all your products, which has been the high selling one?

The KTC prices are quite economical keeping in mind an outstation hosteller from Uttar Pradesh or a middle class student from South India, so this is also a big reason for its popularity. Our posters are quite popular, notebooks are also smooth but the tote bags of Ghalib and Manto are hot cakes. Also, the t-shirts of these personalities are quite a rage; we are deliberately circulating them in an underground band manner before the publishing of our website.

IB: Most of your work features poets and not artistic interpretations of their poetry. Do you think that art is inseparable from its artist?

‘A lover is drowning in the sea’ – now each one of us visualise our own sea, our own lover, our own intensity of emotion, our own tragedy. I don’t want to illustrate mine or any other’s when the poet has willingly left space for the reader’s imagination. That is why my work features mostly poets, and I agree with the part about art being inseparable from the artist.

IB: Khwaab Tanha Collective is a beautiful merger of poetry and visual art. Is there a sher that captures/reflects this fusion?

At this moment, I think of a sher by Sajjad Baqar Rizvi:

tasvīr meñ āñkheñ haiñ ki āñkhoñ meñ hai tasvīr

ojhal ho nigāhoñ se to bas dil pe banī hai

IB: If there was one Urdu poet of yesterday that you could meet for chai and conversations, who would you choose?

Oh, that’s an interesting and difficult one. ‘Jinke ghar sheeshay ke hotay hain woh doosron ke gharon par paththar nahi phaynka kartay’ – everybody knows this dialogue but very few are aware of its writer, poet Akhtar ul Iman. With all due respect to Mirza Ghalib and Dr Iqbal, I would like to meet this man of adventurous life and extraordinary poetry.

IB: Any wise words for millennials?

Well I don’t consider myself a wise person (maybe I will become one someday), but a sher by Majrooh Sultanpuri is quite suitable here…

maiñ akelā hī chalā thā jānib-e-manzil magar

log saath aate ga.e aur kārvāñ bantā gayā

Follow Shiraz’s poetic artworks (including some awesome gifs) and shop for all things Urdu at Khwaab Tanha Collective here on FB.

Image Credit: Sara Samundar

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