Art in the Valley of Kashmir

Picasso’s Guernica

By Fahad Shah

Pablo Picasso is not alive but his work tells us stories of his time. His art, displayed in almost every gallery of the world, uniquely depicts human relations, social dissent and sufferings. He gave the world a monumental art work which was created against the bombing of Guernica, Basque Country, by German and Italian warplanes on 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Republican government had commissioned him to create a large painting for the Paris International Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. It was one of his best, titled Guernica, which later helped to bring the Spanish Civil War to the world’s attention. The painting shows the tragedies of war and the suffering meted out upon innocent civilians.

Art has no borders. It reverberates. It crosses every barrier of oppression, of siege, of what is acceptable to the rulers of the time. An artist creates the world he/she lives in. Protest through art has been going on for centuries during every uprising. Francisco Goya, the famous painter of Spain, too painted protest art works. His famous, The Disaster of War, is a set of aquatint prints created in the 1810s, but it was not published until 1863, 35 years after his death. It is viewed as a protest against the violence of the 1808-14 ‘Dos de Mayo Uprising’. All the plates of this art work reflect a different story of war. This art work by Goya reminds me that Kashmir conflict too has produced art works on similar lines. The famous painter of Kashmir, Masood Hussain, creates art works which poignantly reflect the incidents of Kashmir’s conflict. In one of his paintings, he shows the aftermath scene of the road where Indian forces opened fire on the funeral procession of valley’s head cleric, Mirwaiz Molvi Farooq. Mirwaiz was assassinated on May 21, 1990, at his house in Nigeen- on the city outskirts and at least 27 people in that procession were killed in the firing. On my last meeting with Hussain last year at his home in Srinagar, he explained the painting to me so eloquently that for someone like me, who hadn’t witnessed the mass killings, the artwork transferred every poignant detail of that tragic day. There are many such art works by Masood, which show different tales and incidents from Kashmir.

Often, painters are influenced by contemporary incidents which seep into their art. Painting in Kashmir has not been so popular but in the recent times, the trend has changed. It has become a channel to connect with the world and tell stories. These days, the youth can be seen making varied art works in the fine art school of Kashmir. I visited the school this year and a student took me through every art work, hanging on walls, created by the budding artists and their faculty. Although mostly unknown to public view, there are many Kashmiri cartoonists and painters. One renowned cartoonist, Malik Sajad, has been sketching cartoons since he was 15 years old. Perhaps, today, he is the best cartoonist from Kashmir till date. He has become an inspiration for many Kashmiri youth and has even paved the way for many to adopt sketching and cartoons as their career. His art has covered various subjects of Kashmir- from conflict to everyday life of the inhabitants. They carry a profound discourse- a political statement, dissent, and keen observation.

Every artist ultimately gets absorbed into the social milieu which affects the form and content of his works. A child sees his father being beaten up by an army personnel; he too tries to sketch the scene on his/her school notebook. In my childhood, I remember, I would often also make drawings of bunkers and guns along with armoured trucks. These were our early reflections of time and childhood. It is always been there embedded within the children of Kashmir.

In a weekly writer’s workshop run by veteran journalist, Muzamil Jaleel1, of which I had been a part, someone read a personal narrative piece of a young boy whose father was killed by Indian forces. A pall of chill fell in the hall. The reader stopped after reading a few paras, his eyes filled with tears; he couldn’t read. As I slowly sank into the couch I was sitting on, the images of the boy’s father, his family and him were swirling in my mind. What did it take for him to write this tragic story. It has been such a long, hard journey of many young Kashmiri writers and artists, many of whom make their impact in the world arena and write about their first person accounts from Kashmir. Jaleel has been a mentor to many such youth. The workshop had been successful to produce some of the best young writers of Kashmir. And the practice continues; today’s learner becomes tomorrow’s mentor.

For the past few years we have seen more and more writers coming out from Kashmir. In 2008 and 2010, which were particularly marked by political, social turmoil and mass protests, art became a space of expression. This was the time of a shift in Kashmir’s resistance movement– from guns to stones and art. First mass protests gave Kashmir many graffiti artists who would sketch graffiti’s of slogans. Slogans like “We want freedom,” “One slogan one track, Go India Go Back” and “I Protest” are a few of the graffitis which have often been seen on walls in Kashmir. Most of them, though, were defaced by state government agencies by painting them black. Yet, the sentiment couldn’t be erased.

Thus, Kashmiri Art has begun to provide a significant resistance narrative. It doesn’t romanticise or exaggerate. Music, another form of art, has shaped various resistances of world. From Bob Marley to Immortal Technique singers or rappers have always raised their voice against social injustice through music. One such anthem of Kashmir’s resistance was “I Protest”, a rap song written and sung by 21-year-old native rapper, Roushan Illahi aka Mc Kash. He was a college going boy, then, who expressed his reflections on the then situation through his poetry and rapping. This song became a rage in Kashmir and world recognised him in a few days of its release on internet. The song became viral. Media from every corner of world was looking for him and asked, “What inspired him to sing such a song?” The children of conflict don’t need inspirations. They live in circumstances where their everyday life is a way of resistance. It is the continuous suppression, an era of bloodshed, exploitation and choking freedom of expression, which sprouts resistance from them.

Yet, it is not always resistance which Kashmiri art showcases. Kashmiri art is filled with metaphors. In some cases, theatre as an art form shows different aspects of life, society or politics through different metaphors performed creatively. In Kashmir, such a theatrical form has always existed– the Bhand Paether. It is a bhand- a form of story telling in which stories are enacted. Often the paethers (storylines) are humorous and satirical. This art form too got affected due to the armed rebellion and insurgency which started in late 80s. As Mehboob Jeelani writes,

Before the 1950s, Bhand Pather was a celebrated tradition in the villages. The bhands were the only credible and critical source of information about local and political happenings. They would enter a village in the dark, holding torches raised on long bamboo sticks, and within a minute or so the village would erupt with the sounds of jesters. But things changed after 1987, when a rigged state election resulted in the formation of militant wings and the beginning of the mujahideen insurgency.” [The reporter adds,] “Only a handful of bhand groups have continued to perform since the conflict began in the Kashmir Valley. More than 100 groups have abandoned pather. Without an audience or money, they had no choice. Conditions were so desperate that some bhands sold their instruments. Others took on menial labour. (Caravan Magazine, 2011)

Now, today, as this form of art has been revived to some extent, the stories in it are mainly satire and include some conflict related stories too. It is a way of resistance by criticising the regime, whether it was pre-1947 Dogra rule or the Indian state. The fear of getting punished always remains there and it stops Bhands to perform to their hearts’ content.

In this part of world, a disputed land, with more than half-a-million Indian troops spread in a small region, theatre has always been a form of expression. People would demonstrate how they are living through plays of satire, which ridicule the powers of governance. Poetry is also used in theatres to elucidate the contemporary circumstances in which people are living. One if reminded of Agha Shahid Ali’s famous lines—

“Rizwan, it’s you, Rizwan, it’s you,” I cry out
As he steps closer, the sleeves of his phiren torn.
“Each night put Kashmir in your dreams,” he says,
Then touches me, his hands crusted with snow,
Whispers, “I have been cold a long, long time.”
“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighbourhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning. (Shahid Ali 25 )

In 2011, an event was organized in the capital city of Kashmir in memory of this world famous native poet, Agha Shahid Ali. Shahid has written several poems on Kashmir, which includes the famous collection of his poems, The Country Without A Post Office, on the conflict of Kashmir. On December 8, it was Shahid’s death anniversary and speeches, videos, pictures, poetry recitations, tributes and a play called Bithi Chuss Shahid (I’m also Shahid) comprised the remembrance function. The play was directed by theatre director, Arshad Mushtaq. Mushtaq is a Kashmiri theatre personality and filmmaker, whose debut play in Kashmiri, titled Wattepaed (Footprints) was shown in 2011 and was widely acclaimed. The play shows that what Shahid did has been transformed to the new generation and they have taken the responsibility to continue it. The conclusion of the play shows a boy telling an old man that he won’t return a bag (in which there are letters of people to others, including a letter of a mother waiting for her son’s return).

The boy tells the old man, “No, I won’t return this bag. This is my responsibility now. This is my journey from here. You leave.”

“Are you sure you are ready for this journey now?” man asks.

“Yes I am ready. I understood this is my existence. This is my story; the story of my own people. The journey of my existence. And I’m also Shahid2 of this journey like you. Bithi chuss shahid, you leave,” the young boy replies, holding the bag of letters.

As the man leaves, the young boy stops him and asks, “Where were you? Who called you?”

“I had gone to meet that person who had given me this responsibility and he called me to say that my work is over now. This has got today’s Amanthdaar3. Hand this over to him as he is ready to take this responsibility. Yes, he is today’s Amanthdaar. He is today’s Shahid,” tells the old man.

Boy replies— “Yes I am today’s Amanthdaar. I am today’s Shahid.” Both look towards the sky as the sun rises and the curtain falls.
This play poignantly demonstrates that the youth of Kashmir have taken the responsibility of preserving their history, fighting for their cause and rights, telling the world about their place and people. Indeed, this has happened. There are number of Shahid in today’s Kashmir, not only in poetry, but in various forms of art.
As Kashmir’s history has been of bloodshed and occupation, the stories told through art are not of happiest times. Kashmir has hardly been happy, ever. It is an unhappy place. How can a mother, whose eight year old son was killed in 2010 mass protests, be happy? How can a land which has seen generations of brutal conflict, loss and is still continously fighting for a human right to live, be happy?
A slogan in Kashmir rightly explains it, “Kashmir, we watered with blood, is our own”. The red colour in a painting of a Kashmiri is only the colour of blood. The performers in a play look towards the rising sun—one day the rising sun they look towards, would shine on a new dawn in Kashmir.

The piece was first published in
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1The workshop is called “Kashmir Writer’s Workshop” which was started by Muzamil Jaleel, who is now Associate Editor of The Indian Express newspaper, India.

2Shahid is an Urdu word which means witness. Here the word has been used both as its literal meaning and also in reference to the Poet, Agha Shahid Ali.

3 A person who takes the responsibility of keeping something, handed over to him, safely.

Works Cited:

Mehboob, Jeelani. “The Other Kashmir Problem,” Caravan magazine, India. September, 2011. 
Agha, Shahid Ali. “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight.” The Country Without A Post Office, W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.

Thumbnail: An underground graffiti artist at work somewhere in Srinagar, Kashmir.

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