One winter morning a few weeks ago, Neeraj Bakshi, 55, stood on the balcony of his sun-facing apartment in Delhi, watching a squirrel climbing a peepal tree.

As it crossed the long and bulky trunk, the squirrel was lost in the dark green-brown web of branches, twigs and leaves of the Ficus Religiosa, which overshadows Bakshi’s home.

Watching the tree and the squirrel, he was struck by a thought. It felt like a union of the literal and metaphorical, indicating the interconnectedness in the natural world and the need to establish global camaraderie.

Once again, the recluse painter had found inspiration in a regular vignette from the natural world. He entered his studio, picked up his brush, dipped it into a watercolor, and gave final touches to the last painting of the series Dreaming Animals.

Bakshi locked himself up in his studio as events were held across India to mark January 19, which is remembered as “Exodus Day” by the Kashmiri Pandits. This year marks 34 years since the violent expulsion of the community from the Kashmir Valley in 1990.

Dreaming Animals, which Bakshi has also turned into a 32-page lyrical graphic poem, draws on the experiences of the Kashmiri Pandit community.

The paintings delimit and universalise pain and suffering that humanity is facing at a planetary scale, according to Bakshi.

The artworks are at once an act of nostalgia and a call for a wider understanding of global conflicts, violence, majoritarian mindlessness, and ecological destruction as a consequence of capitalist profit-maximisation.

“When I see small kids being killed in Gaza and a sudden attack on Israel, my heart turns numb and I time-travel to the days of violence I have witnessed,” Bakshi told Scroll. “But one thing that I seek to show through my work is that the struggle for survival is universal. I don’t want to be ethnic in my practice.”

Bakshi’s family had to leave their village, Vachhi, in Anantnag, south of Srinagar, in 1990 in the wake of the killing of members of Pandit community by armed militant groups.

Like Bakshi’s, thousands of Pandit families migrated to Jammu and other parts of India to escape the violence directed at their community, a minority in the Kashmir Valley.

Although the migration had already begun, with an anti-India insurgency mounting, January 19 marked the high point of displacement. With several Pandits having been killed in the separatist violence, families started to flee to safer places across Banihal, the mountain town connecting Kashmir with the Jammu province and the rest of India.

Bakshi at his studio.

The exhibition

The 58-painting series Dreaming Animals, Bakshi’s 12th exhibition, was on display at the Triveni Art Gallery in Delhi’s Mandi House between February 20-29.

Bakshi has come a long way since 1995, which was when he held his first show at the India International Centre at a time when the wounds of displacement were still fresh in his mind and his hometown was torn with political violence and armed conflict.

“My siblings and I grew up in a 13-room bungalow,” he said. “But one forlorn day, we were down to a suitcase in a room with no windows at all.”

Yet, for him, suffering is universal that he depicts in his small-format paintings. His art, Bakshi said, bears the message that communities must initiate layers of solidarity to survive mindless majoritarianism and violence.

In foregrounding his story of displacement, Bakshi’s work offers a resistance to the rising tide of right-wing polarisation worldwide that endangers minority communities with violence and threatens secular values of life.

Bakshi’s “journey of exile manifests itself in a series of metaphorical images of predatory beasts superimposed upon remembered places”, wrote Anjolie Ela Menon, distinguished Indian painter and muralist, in a foreword to Bakshi’s Dreaming Animals graphic poem. “Ferocious cats and innocent horses meld seamlessly with the abandoned landscapes, rife with nostalgia.”

A painting from the 'Dreaming Animals' series.

Inspired by nature, folklore

Born in 1969 in a remote village surrounded by rivers, mustard fields, and apple orchards, Bakshi was raised in a home that was deeply interconnected with the natural world, literature and art. In his backyard, he used to encounter an assemblage of animals: cows, cats, dogs, pigeons, crows and chickens.

“As far as I remember, the animal world has always fascinated me,” he said. “On top of that there were breathtaking landscapes that made me a nature lover. In my work are fond memories of childhood because my childhood was beautiful.”

During the late 1980s, Bakshi’s village was a cultural centre where singers and bards would give voice to their or others’ words.

A syncretic Sufi culture existed. At home, Bakshi read the works of poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mirza Ghalib and Rasul Mir, philosopher Albert Camus and author Anton Chekhov while listening to the music of Zoon Begum and Raj Begum. In the poetry of Shamas Faqir and Wahab Khar, Bakshi found a calling for his art.

His sister read to him Nilamata Purana, an ancient history-folklore text on Kashmir, and Heemal and Nagrai, a folktale, both of which instilled an appreciation for social diversity and a love for nature.

“All this exposure put together made me turn painting into a mode of expression,” he said. “So, I started making sketches.”

“My friends and I used to sit by the banks of Jhelum and paint,” he said. “Next day, we would go to Pahalgam mountains, and paint there. We used to spend hours together in these landscapes.”

A painting from the 'Dreaming Animals' series.

Bakshi was pursuing a degree in fine arts from the University of Kashmir in 1990 when a neighbour, Sarla Bhatt, was killed. Terrified, Bakshi’s father quickly packed a suitcase and huddled himself and his family into a bus to Jammu. “There was so much terror in the air,” recalled Bakshi. “Both Muslims and Pandits were killed.”

Conflict and human struggle slowly crept in Bakshi’s work as he felt a strong resonance with authors Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. “I felt human life is not easy; that it is full of conflicts and there is widespread political exploitation of human beings, which is still very prominent,” he said.

“When I was in Kashmir, I painted beautiful landscapes,” said Bakshi. “But my work suddenly turned dark because of the melancholic atmosphere after the events of 1990.”

There were burnt skulls and human suffering, he said. “This was the paradigm shift.”

Bakshi took to art as a healing process. “In Jammu city, I was exposed to big names of the day in the art world: Bhushan Kaul, Rajendra Tickoo, Hasan Gayoor, Shabir Mirza and others,” he said. “My interaction with them was my greatest education.”

Bakshi preparing a watercolour.

Painting emotions, nostalgia

After finishing his studies in Jammu, Bakshi shifted to Delhi. Settling down in the capital city was difficult but he soon achieved some recognition after connoisseurs of small-format art began purchasing his paintings.

In Bakshi’s view, there are a miniscule number of artists in India who work on small-formats in watercolor. “Small format is the inner format,” he said. “My work seeks to keep the tradition alive.”

“I never treat my art as a commodity, something that is very prevalent in our country right now,” he said.

In 2018, Bakshi also published a graphic novel on Kashmir titled Premonitions, which he has dedicated to his “friends in Kashmir and elsewhere.”

Throughout, Bakshi has defied being reduced to his ethno-religious identity as a Kashmiri Pandit. For him, producing art with global implications for social action and change driven by informed and humane communities is the responsibility of an artist.

Troubled by hate speech, Bakshi said art is the greatest ambassador that brings human communities together.

At the same time, Bakshi’s art is also deeply personal and emotional. “If it was painting that allowed me to express myself as a matter of transference, I deeply feel that I give back to the art by pushing its meaning and objectives as a matter of countertransference,” said Bakshi.

Transference, said Bakshi, would mean what the painting brings to him and countertransference is the exact opposite: what he brings to the art. “So, the relationship is mutually constitutive,” he said.

Even now, Bakshi often returns to Kashmir. “I still go to places and paint on the spot,” he said. “As an artist, it is my responsibility to explore elements of nostalgia.”

Imran Muzaffar is an academic and freelance journalist based in Delhi.

A painting from the 'Dreaming Animals' series.