‘Ideas can’t be Occupied’

Young Kashmiri girls and boys break new aesthetic thresholds of creativity in a realm of relentless injustice and sorrow
Souzeina Mushtaq Delhi

 

On February 9, 2013, Sara woke up to the news of Afzal Guru’s hanging. The bright Saturday morning, which otherwise was supposed to be a fun weekend in the heart of Delhi, suddenly turned gloomy. As her mother broke the news to her on phone, asking her to maintain calm, Sara grew restless, and impulsively asked her mother, “And Kashmir?”

It has been around two years since the ‘uprising’ in 2010 that claimed more than110lives, mostly young boys. Since then, the uncanny peace in the Valley has been deceptive, compelling some intellectuals to cryptically comment: “Kashmir is happy.”

Sara assured her mother, but deep in her heart she knew that things were not right. She checked the Internet to see if the news was true, and as she typed, ‘Afzal Guru hanged’, Google flashed that he had been hanged in the early hours in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The news hit her hard. She logged in on Facebook and saw people changing their pictures to black, expressing their anger, pain and helplessness.

Some of her friends, living in Delhi, organised a protest at Jantar Mantar against the secret execution, which they termed “judicial murder”. She too joined the protesters, carrying placards: ‘We all are Afzal’; ‘Afzal was not given a fair trial’. Bajrang Dal goons attacked the peaceful protesters, abusing them in the most obscene and offensive language, and throwing mud on them. Instead of stopping them, the police roughed up some of Sara’s friends who started shouting ‘azadi’ slogans. Some were dragged, others beaten up, while others were detained by the police; but the slogans azadi grew louder and louder.

Sara Shabir is among the younger generation, born when the armed struggle started in Kashmir two decades ago. The guns may have fallen silent, but the young carry the wounds of the past — raw, open, simmering and fresh. Indeed, amidst the infinite twilight zones of conflict, the contours of expression have changed: they have learnt and unlearnt the art in different layers. “We don’t want to take up arms; we want to fight the occupation with our intellect,” says Sara, who is studying journalism in Delhi. “Ideas cannot be occupied.”

Her counterpart in Kashmir, Riffat Rathore, who completed a bachelors degree in journalism, says she writes to resist. “I write because I don’t want to burden my heart with grief. I write to give space to this grief — to make it a remembrance. I write to tell my story, the story of my people.”

The young lot of Kashmiris has often been misunderstood and misrepresented by the media as rebellious, particularly after the uprising in 2008 and 2010, when they resorted to stone pelting as the only way to express their anguish. But, with changing times, many youngsters in Kashmir have switched to arts and culture, and other aesthetic forms, to document their voices.

Says Showkat Nanda, an award-winning Kashmiri photojournalist, who is currently pursuing documentary photojournalism at the Missourri School of Journalism in the US: “There is a strong urge to tell the stories of our land and people to a larger audience.”

“I was 12 when the conflict in Kashmir escalated into a full-blown small-scale war. Everything became so uncertain. I stopped dreaming about my future. Survival became the topmost priority, even for children like me,” says Nanda, who grew up with the dream of becoming a doctor. His passion for visuals turned him to photojournalism.

“Being a Kashmiri means having grown up with experiences which not only shaped my perception about the world but also gave a new dimension to the way I expressed myself. My photographs on Kashmir, most of which are revelations of the conflict, are not only about the people I have photographed; it’s also about myself.” His picture depicting three widowed Kashmiri sisters won The Picture of the Year award in the prestigious National Press Photo contest in 2011.

Explains young artist Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, 23, “In Kashmir, a creative outburst is very important… Where the State tries to curb the freedom of expression, where journalists are beaten up, public speakers booked under so-called laws, a boom of creative expression is crucial.” Mujtaba from Srinagar joined the University of London two years ago.

Mujtaba has mostly lived outside Kashmir but his small stint in the Valley influenced him so much that he and his friend, Sheikh Adil Abbas, founded the Kashmir Art Quest in August 2009: “An organisation with the aim to unearth, rediscover, revive and promote the immense, yet hidden, talent amidst the turmoil...”

Since childhood, painting has been his first love. “I wanted to move beyond the conventional way of painting.” His recent work shows a chair whose seat is replaced by barbed wires. It’s more than symbolic: anyone who criss-crosses Srinagar, even tangentially, will not only see thousands of armed uniformed gunmen on the streets, but also barbed wire scattered across the urban landscape, some abandoned and yet universal signs of repression.

“My paintings are not visually obvious in the context of Kashmir but revolve around ideas such as comfort and discomfort, life and death, truth and falsehood, peace and havoc, challenging conceptions, the beautiful and the ugly, the obvious and the oblivious, and the experience of liberating a person from experience itself,” says Mujtaba.

For poet Ashfaq Saraf, 26, poetry is born out of a desire to preserve the memories of the past:  “This fall, mother, we did not plead/we did not ask for a respectful burial/we did not loiter around the (grave) yards/this fall, our children were free/free from the burden of seeing through the haze.”

Riffat Rathore, who completed a bachelors degree in journalism, says she writes to resist. ‘I write because I don’t want to burden my heart with grief. I write to give space to this grief — to make it a remembrance. I write to tell my story, the story of my people’

Says Ashfaq, an introvert: “Poetry is a medium to impart a countenance to one’s imagery. It’s the desire to see a change in what looks normal, but is an ambidextrously unfair affair manifested in all possible forms of injustices in the world.”

He published his 86-poem collection as a book, The Harkening, in January 2012; the book talks of love, conflict, spirituality. An engineer, Ashfaq works in Gurgaon. 

Despite conflict, injustice and relentless suffering being the dominant theme, there are others who want to work on unexplored issues. Says cartoonist Mir Suhail Qadri, 23: “Militarisation is the root cause of all problems, but we also need to dissect other issues stalking Kashmir.” Suhail works in an English daily in Srinagar.

Suhail’s sketches were chosen for the Airport Authority of India calendar and New Year greeting cards after he won a national competition in 2012. He is currently working on themes like Seyaen Meeras
(our heritage), designer motifs, and humourous messages on T-shirts.

Musa Syeed, a Kashmiri-American filmmaker, made the much acclaimedValley of Saints to “provide a rare glimpse into daily life in Kashmir”.  “While there has been news coverage of the conflict, there hasn’t been much of anything about everyday Kashmiris and their culture, loves, hopes, desires, and relationships,” says Musa. Making the film was the perfect way to get back to his roots.

Valley of Saints, which won many awards, including the Sundance Film Festival World Dramatic Audience Award in 2012, is a romantic tale. “Kashmiris are romantic people,” say Musa. “They fall in love like everyone else. They cry with broken hearts like everyone else. They experience unrequited love like everyone else. I thought it was important to have a universal, human desire at the centre of the film, so that audiences everywhere could appreciate and relate with the characters.”

Though creative arts and culture are seen as a positive sign, people still have inhibitions. Recently, the only girl band of Kashmir, Pragaash (light), had to call it quits after the chief moulvi of Kashmir issued a diktat, calling music “un-Islamic”.

“The young generation is coming of age; they have confidence in their story and a deep need to tell it. Creativity and communication are essential in solving problems, so a rising generation of artists will bring good things to the valley,” believes Musa. “It is good to be an optimist. We hope and pray that Kashmir will become a paradise once again,” adds Mujtaba.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2013