Perspectives on Kashmir: Homefulness

There is war. There is peace. And then there is ambiguous truth.

By Jugneeta Sudan

I have been witness to art vocabulary on Kashmir over the last couple of years in Goa, like studying an Akbar Padamsee diptych of two states in univocal embrace.

The slow pace of life, natural environment, plurality and ease of everyday living lures artists to relocate to Goa, from constricted environments, such that there is a creative explosion here - an amazing and inspiring mix of global population from films, food, architecture, literature & photography. Goa’s syncretic culture encourages a steady stream of visiting artists & thinkers to brainstorm fragile thoughts and have difficult dialogues without fear of them going off in flames.  

No Fathers in Kashmir produced by Ashwin Kumar, part-resident of Goa.

No Fathers in Kashmir produced by Ashwin Kumar, part-resident of Goa.

Ashwin Kumar, filmmaker and part-resident at Sangolda, Goa, recently completed his trilogy on Kashmir. His third film No Fathers in Kashmir, which was released on 5th April, mirrors human stories of militants, uniformed men, politicians and the commoner with their multiple truths: a visual portrayal that makes the distillation of just one truth hard and ambiguous. A trilogy on the conflicted state of Kashmir was conceived and completed by Ashwin in uncomplicated creative centres; with Goa and its strong citizens’ movement being one of them. Besides the ambiguity of truth amidst a polyphony of voices, the visuals in Ashwin’s work humanise the terrorist.

A similar thread is found in the works of Faisal Devji, author of the book The Terrorist in Search of Humanity who most controversially classified “global pacifism and environmentalism as  intellectual peers of militant Islam” at Goa Art & Literature Festival (2016). He made rubble of propaganda on Jehadist in the west and equated militant Islam with “the plethora of non-governmental agencies dedicated to humanitarian work,” directed by the same desire for “agency and equality that animates other humanitarian interventions” towards a  non-polar new global politics. Similarly the previous year Daisy Rockwell, ‘the artist who paints terrorist’, had showcased her artistic missile — The Little Book of Terror, a blast that indicted the armed bulwark against humans labelled terrorists, who were only fighting an unequal war for sustenance in a polarised world.  As she painted a new vista to view the sentenced terrorist, the grotesque and frightening became the story of ordinary human beings in pursuit of justice. This series was an outcome of a single warped thought that assailed her senses when a student of hers sent her his unsmiling mug shot in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers. Contrary to her close association with the said person, her mind which had been conditioned on “fear the terrorist” rhetoric accompanying mug shots of terrorists in the US media, tricked her into thinking the same about her student. The implication of this fear factor became an impetus to her ‘terror series’ which dismantles the state’s strategy to aggravate and label a whole world community as terrorists.

I run with the hem of my burkha held between my teeth
your bomb sniffing dogs bark at me.
I sail on winged sandals across a sky
munching neo-liberalism from chip packets.
Helicopters fan civilisation on my head
You stamp my profile on smart guns
but dare not look into my eyes,
I will turn you into stone
I am the Millennial Medusa
serpents under my burkha.
Medusa in a Burkha
by Asiya Zahoor

GALF with its unflagging motto ‘Different ways of belonging’, has repeatedly focused on Kashmir since its inception a decade ago. As part of this inclusive approach on marginalised voices, last year poet, academic and filmmaker Asiya Zahoor was invited to share her ongoing work on Kashmir. Her film The Stitch (which won the Critics Award for the Best Short Film at the South Asian Film Festival, 2019) poetically paints psychic scars on the minds of young girls in a militarised zone. But in her book of poems, the adult Asiya has morphed from a confused girl into a “millennial medusa with serpents under her burkha”, fired by her grandmother’s image who “spun soft revolutions on the charkha”; an old woman with blazing fire in her heart “whose lullabies on a rehab, put even heavy guns to sleep”. In a strife-torn land where dusty “half open files talk to closed files” in grimy court rooms and pelted stones “pelt across wounds of amputated stump after stump after stump” of the once proud Chinar trees, she gathers her sisters in solidarity, to sing of almond blossoms “before they lay barbed wire across tongues” Trying to hold water in wicker baskets, and like the ‘Koi’ straining against all odds, she is hell-bent to engrave the horoscope of cusps on palms “before they are erased by bursts of lead”

Bharat Sikka’s exhibition ‘Where the Flowers still Grow’ at Sunaparanta Centre Goa (2017). To view more of the exhibition, click  here.

Bharat Sikka’s exhibition ‘Where the Flowers still Grow’ at Sunaparanta Centre Goa (2017). To view more of the exhibition, click here.

Asiya’s extempore stands in stark contrast to the highly satirical photography exhibition ‘Where the Flowers Still Grow’, at Sunaparanta Centre for Arts (2017), a visual mute landscape of Kashmir by photographer Bharat Sikka. Where Asiya’s protest alludes to literary history of vocal vehemence, Bharat’s work subtly impacts the solar plexus. Cloaked in subversion his surrealistic frames shine an otherworldly light on Kashmir through a ponderous stillness.

I went to see, ‘Where the Flowers still Grow’, in my homeland where I was born (Kashmir); and though I didn’t want to go, dreading what I would see, I was drawn to the exhibition like a moth to a flame in my now homeland, Goa.  Yes, I found flowers in a couple of photographic templates  but they were minute, on spiked stems, or had fallen – discoloured, shrivelled and torn, carpeting the earth enmeshed with stones.

The exhibition had an eerie feel with no cataloguing essay as untitled frames hung silently, as if robbed of expression. There was nothing left to say. It was an ode to autumn tending to a frozen winter, devoid of any colour. The first frame at the entrance itself introduced the visitor to the inherent inversion of Bharat’s sublime statement on the state of affairs. The eye came to rest on the silhouette of a man against a grey mist, attired in customary Kashmiri dress with a shawl draped around his upper frame, his back turned to the viewer. Other showed men silently mounted on horse backs, staring fixedly with deadpan expressions or a man rooted in a field of spiked tree trunks, hemmed in by the pointed stalks, immovable and imprisoned. An ash-marked bloodied hand subverted portraiture, occupying centre stage. A Rembrandt shot focused on a man’s face surrounded by darkness. He was asleep or had he shut his eyes against the light, feeling hopeless?

Bharat’s use of visual metaphors and metonymy to express his personal sightings in the valley of death was mesmerising. He amplified the war rhetoric with symbols – a wooden cross with a white sack tied to it; a polished walnut Trojan horse (packed in a punch of conspiracy and betrayal); a double rainbow outlined the mouth of a devouring shark; and a loud speaker mounted on a tripod spewed out words which no one seemed to hear. The entire bricolage gave the landscape a museum-like quality, on which we gazed for hours, drawn by muted rage, its ugliness and dismembered power. The final blow came with the showcasing of postcards from Kashmir in a customary glass-cased window.

Nostalgia hit hard, for instead of pictures of colourful ‘shikaras’ on Dal lake, brightly clad women in ‘phirens’, tall handsome men adorning Kashmiri topee, gardens full of gorgeous chrysanthemums and dahlias – the postcards were a muted grey with silhouettes of  scrawny trees lining the breath of the page. Every postcard was a replica of the one before it and they together completed the exhibit in the show window.

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.
I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.
This is home. And this the closest
I'll ever be to home. When I return,
the colors won't be so brilliant,
the Jhelum's waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.
And my memory will be a little
out of focus, in it
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.

‘Postcard from Kashmir’ by Agha Shahid Ali

Agha Shahid Ali, Kashmir’s own poet of pain in exile, was here in spirit last year at the Serendipity Arts Festival. (Ali passed away in 2001). Who else, but Ranjit Hoskote (translator of Kashmiri poet, Lal Ded’s poems) curated a jugalbandi of Shahid’s words in lacquer frames with artist Nilima Sheikh’s painted landscapes of Kashmir. Nilima’s Thangka (brocade) bordered painted scapes’ work outside the Hindu-Muslim binary of Kashmir to make visible its Buddhist history. Interweaving Shahid’s poems, there is a secular sensibility in the portraits, an aspect of everyday in Kashmir. She writes- “To speak of Kashmir through words is very difficult, everything’s so loaded. Speaking of one thing positively, we are leaving a lot of other things, contradicting a lot of potent realities there.”

Nilima Sheikh’s artwork. ‘Her work focuses on displacement, longing, historical lineage, tradition, communal violence, and the ideas of femininity. ‘ Wikipedia.

Nilima Sheikh’s artwork. ‘Her work focuses on displacement, longing, historical lineage, tradition, communal violence, and the ideas of femininity. ‘ Wikipedia.

Nilima paints to make these contradictions come alive, very much like picture frames in Ashwin’s Kashmir trilogy. “It’s like opening a Pandora’s box, to keep on seeing what comes out of it, and in seeing it, sensitively learning to deal with it as humanely as possible” Positions get taken out of the picture, there are no conclusions, on the other hand inclusiveness through colours and circular lines on her canvas illuminates each aspect, which in itself becomes a starting point for a dialogue between different factions in that space - rooting out hate and segregation, we heal each other through an admission of each presence, in itself constructive and cathartic. 

“Art makes a difference”, wrote Jeanette Winterson, “because it pulls people up short”. It says don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.  For those who tell you don’t put too much politics in your art, they are afraid you are going to upset the system. But in the eye of a hurricane, dialogue is important, such that everyone will take the looming peril seriously and do something about it. Chinua Achebe rightly noted “Artists are committed to art which is committed to people.”

Art brings home the ability to understand behaviour of others by reasoning about their beliefs, desires and intentions, insofar as it is able to transport people and places that otherwise may not be understood due to distance, or predilection whether formed by social conventions, culture, injustice  or personal biases. In such a context a pale hope is born that with the passage of time the Other in  binaries like terrorist-patriot; migrant-native, Hindu-Muslim, American-Indian, Kashmiri-Goan may erode, become Dead … as the Kashmir story gets woven in Goa and vice versa over and over again!

The above quoted artists interweaving the theme of Kashmir in their creative work harbour multiple identities.  Ashwin is a Bengali, who has successfully made a trilogy on Kashmir living in Goa and Europe. Daisy an American artist and translator, who comments on global issues through her art and translates classical Hindi texts into English. Nilima Sheikh has folded iconography of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, South Asian art into her “Thangka” series with aplomb. They seek homefulness.

I am a BurmesePanIndianPunjabiKashmiriGoan

There is war. There is peace. And then there is the ambiguous truth!

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Jugneeta Sudan is our Art Review Editor. To view her profile, click here.