Zarmina Bakhtiar is warm and gregarious, with a personable, open demeanour. We first meet in a sunny drawing room, in which some wonderful paintings by Zahoor ul Akhlaq hang next to her own works.
The most striking element of Zarmina Bakhtiar’s paintings is the ethereal, otherworldly light that permeates the works. Her works are about finding peace – inner peace, and peace in the city of Karachi, which, wracked by turmoil, has not seen peace for the past thirty years. She replicates the ethereal landscapes she saw in her childhood as well as the heavenly landscapes of her imagination. While the subject and colours of her paintings evoke an airiness, they are constrasted with the text of her work, which is rougher and gives a grounding and solidity to the pieces.
While her works may depict beauty and grace, they are in fact borne out of sorrow and pain. Many years ago, she suffered a great personal tragedy, which altered her life profoundly. As so many have done, she found solace in creating art, using its regenerative, healing powers to seek spiritual peace. The white light in her paintings, she says, is the link between this world and the other world; the light that streams through the clouds comes from that other world of grace and calm. She imagines ethereal souls, flying into oblivion, and wishing to join them and float on the clouds.
Zarmina had always been fond of painting, and had wanted to attend National College of Arts, Lahore, but circumstances did not permit. She did not let that deter her, however, and took classes at Karachi School of Art and at the home of an instructor, and managed to take a short course abroad as well.
Her love of art becomes clear as she leads me on a tour of her house, pointing out the paintings she has bought and the story behind each one. Over the years, Zarmina has amassed a large collection of art, including a number of modern masters as well as younger artists. Mona Naqsh, daughter of Jamil Naqsh, is one, and her collection includes works by Nepalese and Sri Lankan artists she discovered on her own. The Sri Lankan artist was a self-taught artist whose works she came across in an exhibition in a hotel in Sri Lanka. Along with the aforementioned series of minimalist Zahoor ul Akhlaq works, there are also many works by Gulgee and Bashir Mirza. Other favourite artists include Raja Changez, Mansoor Aye, Ghulam Rasool, the landscape painter.
After the tour, we go upstairs, to her small but airy studio. Even though she is an amateur artist, Zarmina keeps a very strict schedule, working nightly in her studio. Her works are inspired by recent travels and childhood memories. A recent work is inspired by the magical beauty of Iceland’s light; another series she created from photographs of autumn in Ithaca, New York, sent by her niece. She is continually struck by the variety of colours, shades and hues in the clouds she sees from airplane windows, and wishes to capture that delicate palette in her paintings.
Her motto is to “go with the flow and keep doing it and you get there”. She paints fast, finishing a recent large landscape, Dunya, within four hours. In fact, she has completed so many paintings by now that she has run out of storage space at home and keeps the works in her husband’s office. She has shown in group exhibitions at ArtChowk and Grandeur Gallery in Karachi. Zarmina’s style has moved in a more abstract direction over the years. She tried calligraphy for a while, but did not pursue it for very long. Over the years her works have grown less figurative – less straightforward depictions of flowers and scenes – and more impressionistic.
She prefers painting directly, letting colours flow over the canvas as inspiration strikes. When travelling, however, she carries pastels with her, and that is the only time she likes to draw. When she was younger, she was not as confident about using the bright, vibrant colours she employs today. However, as she grows older, she feels less of a need to please or seek the approval of viewers. “Emotional freedom grows as you get older”, she says, and the colours she uses now are much stronger.
Though the landscape theme keeps reoccurring in her works, one can see the changes over the years, as she explores or discards certain motifs. The emotional strength one sees in the woman herself is evident in her works, in the manner in which they mix the sorrows and joys of this world with the deeper grace of that other world she seeks, and perhaps has found, through her art
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