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A brush with conflict

  • Across generations and geographies, Kashmir’s artists experiment with diverse media and articulate themselves in vibrant and memorable ways
  • They testify repeatedly to radical confinements of will and desire, conveying inventories of vulnerability

A five-panel work, titled ‘A Murder Of Crows’, rendered in charcoal accents by Gargi Raina.
A five-panel work, titled ‘A Murder Of Crows’, rendered in charcoal accents by Gargi Raina. (Photo: Kochi Biennale Foundation)

When political unrest and social turbulence become chronic to a region—leading to exodus for some and siege for others—the testimony that its artists bear inevitably assumes a sombre colouring. Kashmiri artists, whether at home or in the diaspora, can’t turn away from the pervasive experiences of crisis, embattlement and marginalization that afflict their home.

These conditions have defined the lives of several generations of Kashmiris who have, as I have written elsewhere, been trapped between two extreme sources of pressure. On the one hand, they face an Indian hypernationalism that refuses to acknowledge the agency of Kashmiris to shape their own destiny. This attitude vehemently dismisses all Kashmiri attempts at self-assertion as suspect and illegitimate. On the other hand, their consciousness has been informed by a Kashmiri exceptionalism, an a historical insistence that Kashmir shares little with the subcontinent. This stance ignores the reality that for most of its history, Kashmir has been integral to the circulation of people, ideas and goods across the subcontinent. As a result of these cultural contestations, Kashmiris find themselves forced into the role of representing, even embodying, a problem.

In the context of art, this means that the region’s artists find few spaces of cultural expression where they can wrestle productively with the predicament and its larger trans-regional contexts. Some of them have studied at the University of Kashmir, Srinagar. Others have been trained at institutions elsewhere in the subcontinent, such as Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, or the Maharaja Sayajirao University Baroda. A few have studied overseas—for example, at Goldsmiths University, London. A number of them began their careers as photojournalists but have devoted themselves to slower, longer documentary cycles.

Artists who belong to the Kashmiri diaspora approach questions of identity and location from a somewhat different angle, being both insiders and outsiders. Across generations and geographical locations, Kashmir’s artists experiment with diverse media and articulate themselves in vibrant and memorable ways. Visitors to the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale discovered this at the pavilion for Kashmiri cultural practitioners that Gurugram-based artist and cultural activist Veer Munshi curated there.

They were welcomed by Hina Aarif and Sauqib Bhatt, who frisked them before they could enter the pavilion. A performance piece, Aarif and Bhatt’s frisking procedure communicated the degree to which surveillance and intrusive control have become part of the textures of normality in the valley. If only for the brief duration of an exhibition, this performance allowed for an overturning of entrenched power asymmetries. It opened up the possibility of empathy, of understanding a situation in terms of its human costs rather than through the rhetoric of belligerence.

Kashmiri artists testify repeatedly, in their work, to radical confinements of will and desire. Munshi’s sculpture Zuljanah, which I showed at the 2017 edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, is a horse set on a plinth, its saddlebags filled with skulls and bones. The steed, its accoutrements and its minatory freight are all rendered in papier-mâché. Their starkness is camouflaged with exquisite lacquered patterns. Zuljanah is an image of Imam Hussein’s horse, a survivor of the massacre at Karbala who carries news of the sufferings of the martyrs to the world. This work is part of a series of projects that Munshi has developed through a long-term collaboration with a community of papier-mâché artists in Srinagar.

In his sculpture-installation A Country Without A Post Office, Munshi invokes Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry to reflect on the dwindling of dialogue, the imposition of silence, self-censorship and isolation through the long decades of militancy, terror and militarization. A red arabesque that flowers like a luxuriant creeper across a wall when installed, this work reveals its disquieting details on closer engagement. The vajra thunderbolt is, in fact, an axle from a bombed vehicle, and some of the vegetal forms are shrapnel.

Gargi Raina, a painter who lives and works in Vadodara, returns often to the visceral realities of everyday violence and uncertainty. Her ancestors migrated from Kashmir several centuries ago, moving to Lahore and Delhi. Over the last two decades, her work has attempted to bridge this distance.

In a recent five-panel work rendered in charcoal accents, subtly titled A Murder Of Crows—the collective noun for crows is the same as the word for the brutal taking of life—Raina focuses on the central figure of a woman dressed in a distinctively Kashmiri pheran and headcloth. She holds a dead bird and waits for other birds to arrive for the last rites. The tall trees in the forest are the only other witnesses to this farewell to a future.

In The Endless Wait, a series of black and white photographs, Showkat Nanda dwells on the sorrow of the women and families who have been left behind by the relentless march of events. For whom do the protagonists of these portraits wait, sometimes for decades, and more often for an eternity? A husband taken away by the paramilitary forces for interrogation, a brother seized by militants, a son whose body may never be found.

Meanwhile, our eyes settle on details, on the flow of time as it has come to a stop in the fold of a robe, a household object, the border of a photograph of the disappeared person. Or, more grimly, the tattered and bloodied robe of a young man buried in a mass grave; the local men forced to bury him nailed his clothes to a tree, hoping that his family might sometime come looking and find closure. The play of black, grey and white does not suppress, but, rather, accentuates Nanda’s poetics of poignancy.

Malik Sajad, who contributed editorial illustrations and cartoons to a newspaper in the valley while yet a student, has been placed by commentators in a genealogy that includes graphic novelists like Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi.

In his graphic novel, Munnu—A Boy From Kashmir (2015), Malik portrays Kashmiris as human beings with hangul heads, a satirical yet tragic gesture that registers how the sovereign Indian perspective views his people. And how they see themselves. Munnu spells out what it means to grow from childhood to adolescence in a region that is landlocked as well as barricaded by restrictions on speech, movement and dignity.

Kashmir’s artists do not offer simple consolations or pragmatic resolutions. Their work is often elegiac, and not only because their primary experiences have been, and continue to be, harrowing. It is melancholy because they have to work so much harder than many of their contemporaries, to get past the debilitating syndromes of helplessness, rage and isolation, to reach the sources of self-renewing vitality. And to make themselves heard.

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator

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