Hailing from Check Chotipora of South Kashmir's Shopian district, Mohd Aslam Khatana, 24, has pledged to preserve the cultural identity of his Gujjar community through art.
For this, Aslam uses his portrait illustrations, poetry, and calligraphy to draw attention to plights of the community.
"Since childhood, I observed that our culture was dying everyday," Aslam says while speaking with Rising Kashmir.
“We are responsible to preserve our culture and languages ourselves or it will disappear from this world. There is no superior or inferior Culture, every culture is equally important and all of us should protect our languages,” Aslam added.
Aslam says that he prefers the art, especially drawing portraits, because art speaks louder than words. He believes that art has a magnetising power that raises social issues or delivers messages with great success. "Everyone respects art," he says.
Aslam, who is pursuing bachelor's in law at Central university of Kashmir is a self-taught artist. Brushing portraits, jotting calligraphic pieces and penning poetry in Gujari and Urdu languages has become the norm of his life.
“Art was in me from childhood but lack of platforms for art in Kashmir thwarted my interest and I was not optimistic about it," he said
Aslam says since school times he used to participate in art competitions but they were not promising enough to procure his attention.
Belonging to a community in which education is not prominent and intuition of art is not encouraged, sharing thoughts about art is not backed by the family or society.
"I once participated in district level art competition and eventually received first prize," Aslam says, adding "l was very excited that my parents will celebrate my accomplishment but to my surprise, they behaved normally and asked me to pay more attention to studies."
He says that his family thinks that pursuing formal education is the best way to serve your people. Therefore, unlike art, it should be taken more seriously. This is what prods him to follow education full time and take art as only a sideline engagement.
"I am the first person from my family to join university. My family always appreciated it and they are benevolent to me," Aslam says.
Back in 2019 he uploaded a portrait of Ghulam Nabi Azad (former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir) on Facebook, and to his surprise it went viral and everyone showered praise on him over his art.
"After receiving huge encouragement, l continued making portraits on daily basics with this only aim that i wanted to promote our art and culture. Besides, I was regularly writing poetry in urdu and Gujari languages," he said.
Aslam says, in 2020 he was invited by Radio Kashmir to partake in the Gujari program where he was honored with an award and trophy for his contribution to promoting Gujjar culture and language.
"One day, the Chief Justice of Jammu and Kashmir Highcourt, Ali Mohammed Magray paid a visit to our department at University and I gifted him his portrait. Upon receiving it, he was all praise for my work. And that was the time when my teachers and classmates started realizing that side of my art," he said.
Aslam also presented a portrait to former central university vice-chancellor Mehraj Ud Din on the day of his farewell and in return, the vice chancellor honoured him with a shawl and certificate.
He says that everyone is after him all the time to get their portraits done and many are willing to pay good sums.
Aslam has always been fond of Dr. Sir Mohammad lqbal (Alaama Iqbal) and his literary work. He considers Iqbal as his mentor in Urdu poetry and Taj Ud Taj, the famous Gujari poet, as his mentor in Gujari language.
"In future l will publish my poetry in both Urdu and Gujari languages to preserve both the languages. l have emphasized on education, lifestyle, and culture of our community in my poetry," Aslam says.
" I have done mostly Islamic calligraphy with the motive to add meat to my religious endorsement and l believe religion is the most important part of our culture," he said adding " our community is following a religion with great pride and satisfaction. So the tone of faith makes my art reliable and plausible."
Now, Aslam has got the support from all the quarters and his work is widely recognized and endorsed.
"Whenever l am murmuring any line from my poetry abruptly everyone around me starts following it and often begins imitation of my words with love and happiness," he says, adding "l believe anyone can serve people through education but only a few can serve through art and culture."
Aslam has embarked on a journey that he says will culminate only with his death. He is operating a Facebook and Instagram page under the name "Aslam Anwar".
" l am getting huge response whenever l upload any portrait, poetry, or calligraphy. That thing thumps my morale and l keep myself active", he says.
As technology is ever changing, it has become easy to craft digital art but he prefers handwritten art over it. " People are falling prey to handwritten art than digital one that is why l prefer it over the digital one.”
Aslam says we should shun reluctance about choosing artwork as a career option as with time art is magnetizing people with a minute glimpse so we should remain optimistic about its bright future.
"Art has become a powerful tool that captivates people and l request every parent to support their children when it comes to art and craft. Believe me, artists help a society the most," Aslam comments.
Aslam is grateful for the appreciation that he recieved for his art. Till now he has received many awards for his artwork and poetry. In 2020 republic day celebration, he was honored with certificate and a medal for his contribution to Gujari language. He is constantly taking part in "mushaira" and art competitions to pursue his dream of preserving the community's art and culture.
At DIET level pursuit he has accomplished three awards and won three inter school competitions.
He believes that the youth of the Gujjar community are very much talented and if they are nourished well and provided opportunities, they can excel in any field.