Alchemies of Art and Resistance in Kashmir

Bertolt Brecht, was to write

“In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing.

About the dark times.”

Violence, persistent and unending, creates an alternative reality, a festering, perverted, horrible, surreal reality. Violence, unending and unrelenting erases all memories of times past, Memories of times when another reality existed, It is this alternative reality that begins to redefine imagery, ideas, sensibilities and begins to creates a new grotesque discourse, a discourse in which the ugly face of fear and death becomes the normative. I’ll give you one example of how this works.

In 1990, Sahmat organized Mangolpuri Janotsav, for six weeks, Painters Sculptors, Puppeteers, Musicians, Actors, Filmmakers, Writers, Poets, Journalists worked with the residents to create public works and hold workshops. Parthiv Shah, the photographer Designer was conducting a workshop on photography with school kids and he was explaining the connection between words and images and how the same word could evoke different images for different people. Sky could be a skyline of multistory structures and Smoke Belching Chimneys with a dull grey backdrop for someone or fluffy clouds and birds on an azure blue background for someone else.  After giving a few examples he asked the students to come up with situations representing words that he would give them. Among the words that he used was Shanti and a girl of eight said Curfew ! CURFEW !! Peace represented by Curfew? We met her parents and were told that her family had recently moved into Mangolpuri from a West UP town that was regularly wracked by communal violence, so much so that the only time the child was at peace was when curfew forced the killing mobs indoors.

It is this kind of mindless violence that has gone on in Kashmir for decades. Peace is only the fleeting moment of preparation for the next season of unending violence. You can imagine how violently this kind of unending violence will redefine reality in times such as these.

To paraphrase Brecht once again, it is times such as these that people talk about and it is times such as these that people choose not to speak about. The artist needs to cut through the shrouds of the surreal to make sense of the madness.

Given the time at my disposal I will talk to you about the work of two creative people who are engaging with Kashmir, taking two totally divergent approaches to reach the same destination.

1955 born Veer Munshi, graduated from Baroda in 1981 and went back to Srinagar where he was born, he had to move out in 1990 with his family and has since stayed primarily at Delhi, his work has constantly engaged with Kashmir.

Twenty years of continued strife and thousands of deaths later has not seen any de-escalation of violence, more than 120 died in firings on protestors across months of strife in 2010, in 2014 the floods devastated the state, 2016 has already seen more than a 100, mostly teanagers, succumbing to pellet wounds inflicted by weapons that are general described as non-lethal. More than 10,000 have been arrested or detained under an act known as the Public Safety Act, more than 15,000 have been injured, a thousand of them in the eyes and more than 200 of these or even more may be blinded for life.

These three events and more, primarily from Kashmir, inform the oeuvre of Veer Munshi across these two and a half decades from 1990. Veer is shaken by all this violence and the loss of everything that gave him moorings and memories and so he documents in a way only an artist can document, events and their aftermath through paintings, photographs, installations and videos.

The Shikara is an iconic symbol of Kashmir, thanks to Bombay cinema and its romantic depiction of the Dal and Nagin lakes. One of the most seen and discussed works by Veer has a Shikara as its centerpiece. Veer takes a commonplace insignificant object and uses it like a scalpel to mercilessly slice through the complacence of our comfortable existence.

The work named Burial 2001 captures the disruptive and destabilizing brutality of death and the myriad ways, in which the Kashmiri is labeled, marked, branded, vilified and placed in little compartments to be stereotyped and then forgotten both within and outside the valley.

The Shikara is turned upside down and suddenly you see a grave with yellow plastic flowers growing from its base, perhaps a reference to Saffron, so closely connected to the psyche of the Kashmiri, grown as it is in Pampore for centuries, or perhaps the sickly yellow plastic flowers are a reference to a uniquely Kashmiri connection with flowers since Iris flowers are traditionally planted on graves in Kashmir.

This Shikara that is now a grave has eight portraits stuck on its flanks and each carries a lable – Refugee, Terrorist, Militant, Fundamentalist, Secessionist,  Extremist, Migrant, Exile, The face that looks at you from each of the portraits is the same face, the face of a Kashmiri, The Face of Veer Munshi.

Veer Munshi’s Mother was 17 year old and lived in Barahmullah when tribals from what is now PAC attacked the area in 1948, her father was killed by the Qabailis, others survived because they were hidden by their Muslim neighbours, mother brothers and the daughter moved to Srinagar, to Barbasrshah at sheetalnath to restart life to be uprooted once more in 1990 to relocate in the hot and dusty land of the Dogras at Jammu.

In 2015 at the age of 84 she returned to the valley, not to stay, for that was out of the question, but to once again breathe the air of her homeland, to see Kashmir, to visit her mohalla and what had remained of her house at Sheetalnath, she wanted to go to Baramullah and see if any of her neighbours and the kids she had grown up with were around and she wanted to see the house she was born in.

Veer travelled with her I’ll talk about just two out of the hundreds of photographs he brought back. These two are enough to last you a life time they send a shiver down your spine and make you tremble in pain and longing for a world that is perhaps gone forever.

The Jammu Srinagar distance is just 300 kilometres and it had taken her 25 years to undertake the journey. Once you cross the Jawahar Tunnel you get the first view of the valley from a curve in the road. She got off the car raised her hands high above her head palms joined together and just stood there, unmoving, the freezing air rushing through her hair, joy, longing, happiness, pain, loss, suffering all rolled together in that one instant. You don’t see her face, who has the heart?

The other photograph is from Baramullah, she and Veer are walking down the street that led to her house and she meets an old man, late seventies or perhaps early eighties, “Aadaab”, an old memory stirs across 67 years, two neighbours recognize each other and they stand holding hands. Time stops.

There are paintings, videos, digitally edited, of a house on fire it does not burn as house on fire normally do, from the foundation upwards, this one burns from the roof down, the arson like the rot begins from the top slowly.

There is a full two story house in an installation at the world art fair in Delhi, a house toppled on its side by the raging floods, a house that had remained unoccupied since the residents had had to leave and now the floods had thrown it off, you enter and you see a screen as if through a broken window and you see a dog trying to come out of a stream that keeps dragging him away you see a women praying and crying, her hands raised to the heavens and in the middle you have real life clips of daily life, houses burning, barbed wire, crowds rushing and such other documents of a people besieged shot by common people on their cell phones, clipped together. There are other installations, a boat arrives, the river bank is covered in snow, a pair of boots walks off the boat across a vast field where things grew before everything froze, the shoes walk to a distant house, up a broken threshold, the door is pushed the pair of shoes enters into nothing, there is nothing beyond the façade or is there only emptiness?

I could go on but I have to talk about another artist – Actor Director, activist MK Raina We have known each other since 1970. He came to Delhi to study at NSD and passed out in 1970.

Every year during the summer breaks he went back to Kashmir to work with theatre enthusiasts. Years before when still in school he had directed a play using the folk form called Bhand Pather, in the years between 1970 and the rise of militancy he continued to go and work with students and others conducting workshops and organizing performances and it is during this time that he began to work more closely with Bhands and in 1981 conducted a major workshop lasting a month and a half, concluding with performances and mainstreaming of this tradition that was slowly losing out.

And then came Militancy and with that came a new interpretation of what was permitted and what was not permitted. One of the tallest artists of the Bhand Pather tradition, Mohammad Subhan Bhagat, the man credited with reviving the form was declared a traitor and would have been executed had it not been for the intervention of Bhands from all over Kashmir, he was placed under house arrest and under a financial penalty tha he could not meet, he fell ill and despite all efforts including being taken to PGI Chandigarh, he died in 1993. The entire Bhand tradition collapsed.

Bhands were being targeted because their theatre ridiculed authority, empty ritual and bigotry, they were declared enemies of Islam, their performances disrupted and their instruments were smashed.

MK  began a slow process of re-establishing contacts and to regroup the scattered Bhands, got them to Delhi and to NSD, slowly work began, productions began to happen, a Kashmiri Kahani festival at Habitat followed, the scared, shattered, Bhands were taken to shrines of Sufis, to show them other inclusive traditions

And gradually performances of Bhand Patthr restarted in Kashmir, with the revival of the form, the need rose for new costumes, old women who specialized in the  specific kind of embroidery that adorns their costumes had to be located and convinced to train younger apprentices, potters had to be found who could turn out pots and vessels that the Bhands used, crafts people who could fashion the musical instruments that the Bhand use had to be found and goaded to go back to the crafts that they had lost in the last two decades slowly this most interesting, satirical, no holds barred, tongue firmly in cheek, folk form was revived.

MK has also made films on Rahman Rahi and Ameen Kaamil and on the tradition of Sufiana Music of Kashmir aside from almost single handedly rescuing Bhand Patthr from what looked like certain oblivion.

You are now going to see Tushar Madhav and Sarvnik Kaur’s film “Soz- A Ballad of Maladies

Soz is a moving gripping and deeply disturbing documentation of creative Resistance to this unending and oppressive violence  I have tried to preface this film through talking about the work of two artists whose work I am familiar with

I would like to end with a stanza from Bertolt Brecht

They won’t say: when the walnut tree shook in the wind
But: when the house painter crushed the workers.
They won’t say: when the child skimmed a flat stone across the rapids
But: when the great wars were being prepared for.
They won’t say: when the woman came into the room
But: when the great powers joined forces against the workers.
However, they won’t say: the times were dark
Rather: why were their poets silent?

As long as the Poets, the writers, the actors, the artists and intellectuals continue to speak there is hope.


The paper was read at the PSBT film festival 2016. Sohail Hashmi is a, Delhi based, writer and film maker


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