A powerful artistic expression isn’t what you would normally associate with someone who comes across as a recluse. But at 18, Momin Fayaz is already an art prodigy.

Looking at his prolific sketches and pencil portraits, I reckon Momin must have been through years of training at some art school. Like his drawings, he surprises me as he tells me how it all came about.

He is self-taught, in fact a school drop-out. Momin hands over a colour sketch to me and the medium he has used looks innovative. It is crayon on a sandpaper sheet and looks like the work of some accomplished artist. “I made this when I was in 4th grade,” says Momin.

As we sit around for a chat, Momin wonders what makes a piece of art great. “Is it the art itself, or the story behind it?” Momin tells me he often struggles with this question.

But there are other struggles in Momin’s life that seem to come in the way of following his dreams. “I wanted to pursue art as a full-time career, have my work exhibited in Kashmir and around the world,” says Momin. After some initial objections, Momin’s family too made peace with his choice to make his passion his profession.

But something came between his dream and life.

A year ago his father, a goldsmith, was diagnosed with a rare degenerative nerve disorder. Momin had to give up school to take care of the family business.

“I sketched this portrait of my father after he was diagnosed with MND. It was like walking into a dark tunnel. But then my father consoled me and gave me hope about future”

To know more about Momin’s art, I caught up with him at his shop in Aali Kadal in the heart of Srinagar’s old city. As some customers mill around, a short, burly and restless, Momin cuts a solitary figure inside his shop. His inner state of a constant dislocation from his art is all too palpable for me to miss. But he struggles to express his feelings and the dilemma he finds himself in. “Physically I am here but my heart is somewhere else. I have this empty space back in my mind. I am in a state of metamorphosis and the experience is strange,” Momin tells me in a rather philosophical explanation as he takes a pause from attending to his customers.

The responsibility of running the family business is clearly a bit too much for Momin at this age. It has also overshadowed the prolific artist in him. It is a permanent clash between his artistic urges and the demands of running the business.

A close relative of Momin echoes similar observations about him. “What he does and what he wants to do are poles apart. But he is trying to strike a balance between business and his art.” He tells me Momin understands the difficult situation the family is in. “The sacrifice he is giving makes us feel guilty and also makes us respect him even more.”

Momin meanwhile is trying to channel all these experiences and emotions into his artwork. “The only way I can express what’s on my mind—and in my heart—is through art,” Momin explains.

It’s evening and Momin gets busy wrapping up the day’s work and close his shop to head home. A hard day’s work at the shop may not be what Momin likes, but he has a vital lesson to offer as he leaves. “I like challenges and love to surprise others with my artwork,” Momin tells me while shutting down his shop.

At home Momin’s room is his door to the surreal — a world he had imagined to be ideal.

Pencils, crayons, colour tubes, paper and other drawing materials lie scattered all around — almost like a tell-tale sign of Momin’s inner dilemma.

“Sometimes I sketch for hours together and lose idea of time and space. At one time I dipped my brush into tea thinking it was water,” Momin tells me as I try to understand why his room has a surrealistic feel to it. “But sometimes it takes me minutes to complete a work of art.”

What makes Momin’s art prodigious is the hyper-realistic details he is able to capture. The fineness of the tones he creates almost give his sketches the feel of a black and white photograph. What add to the visual quality of Momin’s sketches are the tonal variations and ranges he manages. There is detailing that so rich and fine that it will surprise any art critic. Surveying his work, it seems Momin has an exceptional eye for detail.

“One time I saw a photograph of my father lying on a shelf and I instantly raced to my room and drew a close-up facial study in pencil. The detailing and tones were so close to the original that you could hardly tell the two apart.”

Most of his works include portraits of his friends and family, street-smart art, tattoo art and a few abstract paintings on sandpapers. But each artwork somehow resonates with his daily struggles and joys in one way or the other.

The sketches look incredibly vivid and the pencil strokes have a calligraphic touch to them. But Momin doesn’t get carried away by his extraordinary artistic expression. At a young age and with no formal training, Momin has developed a temperament of a professional artist. “I keep demanding perfectionism from myself.” The choice of the medium is equally important for him. “I am very particular about the quality of the paper and the grading and make of the pencils.”

It is not just Momin’s artwork that is so accomplished, his attitude as an artist is equally uncompromising. “If I don’t get a particular piece of art right or perfect I tear the page off, throw it away and start all over again. I am uncomfortable with half-baked works of art,” he tells me and then adds this brilliant one-liner, “It’s either perfect or it’s nothing.”

Momin hasn’t followed any artist in particular, though he says he has been greatly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, a late 15th-century mural painting that represents the scene of the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. “I also like the works of Pablo Picasso.”

So what about the future, I ask Momin. “If all goes smoothly, I am planning to make my own webpage where I can upload and exhibit all of my work and see how people will respond.” Then he adds, “I am both nervous and excited about this project.”

While Momin’s artistic brilliance has been overshadowed by his own family problems, he also sees no sign of encouragement from the contemporary artists and art scene in Kashmir.

“Here artists are looked down upon as some professional outcasts and this is the general attitude. As such many people are afraid to show their art, or talent as it may trigger criticism or outright rejection,” says Momin. “It is disheartening that artists in Kashmir don’t make much from their works and there are hardly any exhibitions. I hope this changes.”

Self portrait

Momin is also distantly related to renowned Kashmiri artist Zahoor Zargar who retired as an art professor from Jamia Millia, Delhi. “I met him once and I showed him my drawings. He was impressed a lot and told me to come down to Delhi, but I never went as life and its struggles got in the way,” says Momin.

So given the difficult situation at home, what about future, I hesitantly ask Momin. His reply is short, but full of hope. “I try to keep looking for the silver linings.”

(All sketches by Momin Fayaz)

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