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Writings On The Wall

Over Coffee Urdu 05 Oct

Pehle Aap is a mural conversation project as part of Design Fabric's Urdu Issue between artists Sanki King in Karachi and Zeenat Kulavoor in Mumbai. Using their own unique styles and perspectives, these two artists had a conversation with each other through Urdu script and through four wall murals- two in Karachi and two in Mumbai.

Over three cups of coffee, in that now vintage form of communication, 'Gchat' the artists spoke to me about their method, their love for Urdu and this barrier breaking project of writing across walls. 

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Zeenat Kulavoor painting her first mural Pehle Aap’ (Photograph by Sanjana Nanodkar)

1. How do you like your coffee?

Sanki King: Hazelnut Cappuccino

Zeenat Kulavoor: I’ve recently gotten into ’coffee’ since my mural was next to a coffee shop :) I’m more of a tea person, I love Sulaimani chai/ black tea w/o sugar.

2. When did you pick up painting?

Sanki King: Can’t recall for sure, at 5?

Zeenat Kulavoor: I started drawing before I started writing.

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WIP of Zeenat Kulavoor's mural Pehle Aap’ (Photograph by Sanjana Nanodkar)

3. Why does Urdu as a script and as a language interest you?

Sanki King: I grew up with 2 mother tongues, Urdu and English, along with 2 second languages; Arabic & French. My father spoke 19, so we had a humongous collection of books at home because of papa and at a very early age I developed a deep love for literature, poetry, music etc in not just Urdu but many different languages. But why I love Urdu the most is because of the humor and poetry I read in Urdu; writers like Ibn-e-Insha, Shafiq-ur-Rehman, Ahmed Faraz, John Elia, Meer Taqi Meer.

Zeenat Kulavoor: At the age of ten I did a short stint at a local madrasa to learn reading the holy Quran (in Arabic). All the little time that I spent there made me very curious and interested in the script. The shapes, the styles, the possibilities, all endless. During my time at Sir JJ institute of applied arts I got a chance to revisit with the script. This time, I decided to take up Urdu as it was an Indian script, I started research on the script and I’m still learning the language. I started practicing calligraphy, lettering and Arabic/ Urdu type since my college days.

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Zeenat Kulavoor's completed mural Pehle Aap’ (Photograph by Zeenat Kulavoor)

4.  We just did a piece on Urdu in the future, how do you think Urdu would exist in the future?

Sanki King: I think it is going to grow and become a Type 1 language in future because of the richness of its vocabulary and the ease with which it can be learnt and understood.

Zeenat Kulavoor: I think Urdu in India is slowly picking up again and if it continues at this pace I think we’ll be able to break barriers of religion and race and look at this beauty with an open mind which could eventually lead to using Urdu in mainstream Design and Art.

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Sanki King working on his mural in response to Zeenat's mural,Pehle Aap’ (Photograph by Shaikh Danial)

5. In the age of Facebook, 'walls' have an entirely different meaning so using the physical space of an actual wall to communicate in an old almost forgotten language and using the idea of walls which seemingly exist as barriers to exchange poetry that breaks barriers is all very 'meta' to me. Did you read into all of these things when you created your piece or was it a spontaneous piece of work for you?

Sanki King: If you look at my work in the past 2 years, I have been incorporating Urdu in my work on paper/canvas and murals, a very prime example of which can be seen in my work, titled “Solitude”, for my 1st solo show last year in Karachi. And I have been doing murals and other works using Urdu literature and poetry ever since because I wanted to treat the walls like pages of a book or my own personal diary. I had a strong feeling that Urdu was being taken over by English due to the insecurity injected in our society that speaking in English makes you more respectable and acceptable in the modern society rather than Urdu. Also, I see the coming generation being completely unaware of the great works of Urdu literature and poetry that have earned respect globally and they would rather read Western fiction and mythology than the great works in Urdu, which can really give them perspective and teach them important lessons.

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WIP of Sanki King's mural Inqilaab 1’ (Photograph by Shaikh Danial)

Zeenat Kulavoor: I’ve worked on various mediums when it comes to Urdu calligraphy, lettering and type like wood, marble, brass, acrylic sheet, linoleum sheets, virtual reality and of course the traditional pen, paper and ink. In this particular project there's a dialogue between two individuals but using walls as a medium is a way to make it accessible to the common man on the streets. There’s a need to shed the ‘religious’ image of the language, it needs to be seen in public areas that are cosmopolitan and not just clusters of muslim dominated areas.

6. Urdu is all romance and beauty, the language of poets and lovers. But it is after all, a language. How do you abuse in Urdu? I'm just curious.

Sanki King: I abuse a LOT! And when I am angry all hell breaks loose. Don’t wanna say anything here that would make the interview R-rated.

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Sanki King's completed mural Inqilaab 1’ (Photograph by Shaikh Danial)

Zeenat Kulavoor: I come from a rather diverse language background of Gujarati, Malayali, Hindi, Marathi and English and so I personally don’t converse in Urdu on a daily basis. I’m proud to say that I’ve never abused in Urdu :) But I do know of people who speak in Urdu and romanticise every mundane thing but when time comes to abuse they switch to English or Hindi and its quite funny!

7. What according to you is making this script and this language inaccessible to the masses?

Sanki King: Extreme westernization which has made the masses ignorant of the beauty of this language and they would rather want to think, act and speak like a Gora than be themselves.

Zeenat Kulavoor: In India, its ignorance that is to be blamed. On one hand there’s Islamophobia and on the other, is the rigid thinking of our Indian Muslims who aren’t yet open to using this beautiful script on non religious mediums.

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Zeenat Kulavoor painting her mural in response to Sanki King's ‘Inqilaab 1’ (Photograph by Sidharth Paurana)

8. What other script do you find as beautiful, challenging or alluring as Urdu?

Sanki King: English, any day.

Zeenat Kulavoor: Urdu is a very different kind of beautiful. But if you ask me, Malayalam interests me a lot.

9. What is your painting process? How do you design, put together and create a mural on a wall?

Sanki King: The process is that I look at the space and measure it with my eyes, then I create a piece in my head and cook it until it reaches my standards of perfection. I very rarely create any initial sketches and then improve and finalize them. I am just able to look at a blank canvas or a wall and know what the final piece would look like, no matter how complicated the piece is. This can be confirmed very easily looking at the WIP images of some of my most famous pieces. I see a blank space and I just see art, I don’t know how this happens but it does.

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WIP of Zeenat Kulavoor's mural‘Yahaan bhi wahaan bhi’ (Photograph by Sidharth Paurana)

Zeenat Kulavoor: I come from a graphic design, typography background and have a very heavy inclination towards shapes, forms and invisible grids. Once I have a concept, I have an idea as to what and how I’ll be creating the design. Next step is to look for an appropriate medium ( in this case it’s the wall) sketch the design out and create a digital version of the same with some fine tuning and then finally on to the wall.

10. Who did you make this piece for? Yourself? Zeenat? Sanki? Or the man on the street?

Sanki King: Myself, because I am selfish and self-obsessed. But yes, it’s for everyone else to enjoy as well, because I am generous.

Zeenat Kulavoor: I’d say ‘man on the street’. I really want the common man to be exposed to the beauty of the script and how it can be used creatively.

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Complete view of Zeenat's mural‘Yahaan bhi wahaan bhi’(Photograph by Sidharth Paurana)

11. It seems to me that art belongs to the people and yet it is cloistered in museums and galleries where the common man doesn't enter. Which is why street art strikes me as a powerful medium, and yet in India it is used decoratively and not provocatively or politically, what do you think is holding us back? 

Sanki King: Well, out here in Pakistan, the very reason I started doing graffiti was to express myself in bigger and better ways and to share my imagination with the people, and I have never created anything keeping the society’s expectations in mind. I create what I feel like and feel right and people have the free will to hate it or love it. I have zero interest in provocation and politics. And yes, I agree that art in museums and galleries can only entertain a limited audience and that’s why I paint on the streets, buses, rooftops to make my art accessible to as many people as possible.

Zeenat Kulavoor: In India, it's quite difficult to express your honest opinion in the form of art and get away with it. We Indians are quite touchy when it comes to religion or politics.

No one wants to hurt anyone, everyone wants to live in peace.

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Sanki King painting his response to Zeenat's mural‘Yahaan bhi wahaan bhi’ (Photograph by Shaikh Danial)

12. Send me an emoji that describes exactly how you're feeling right now.

Sanki King: Is there an emoji to express artistic royalty? That.

Zeenat Kulavoor: 😇 content.

13. What do you wish for the future of Urdu?

Sanki King: To become a global monsoon rain.

Zeenat Kulavoor: I want Urdu to stand at par with Hindi as sisters just like old times.

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WIP of Sanki King's mural,Inqilaab 2’ (Photograph by Shaikh Danial)

14. In Pakistan is graffiti used to stir up thinking, provoke political or cultural thought or rebellion? And if yes, does the use of Urdu help the cause as it is understood by most people?

Sanki King: My work is almost always painted in a way that it can be understood by myself as well. Doing graffiti or calligraffiti in readable format makes me feel like a signboard painter. The very reason why I choose abstract techniques is to spark curiosity in people and make them question what they are looking at. But yes, my work has been having a very good and lasting impact on people and other artists because the kind of work that I have been doing has never been done before and seeing me using Urdu poetry and literature in my works make people feel more connected to my work. People who have access to me or my facebook page can find out the text that I use in my work, but for everyone else it is a mystery, and mystery I love!

Zeenat Kulavoor: ----

15. What did this exercise of talking across countries leave you with? How do you feel now?

Sanki King: Connected.

Zeenat Kulavoor: I’ve never interacted with a Pakistani artist before, and I must admit it has been a great experience. Art is the only thing that can unite/ connect both countries!

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Sanki King's complete mural,‘Inqilaab 2’ (Photograph by Shaikh Danial)

If you are an artist interested in keeping this beautiful dying language alive and would like to join in and continue the mural conversation in your own city and create the #PehleAap movement, please write to us at hello@designfabric.in