Growing through self-censorship


One of the artworks by Syed Mujtaba Rizvi. Title: "There is no flag large enough to hide the shame..." - Mixed Media and objects on canvas. [40" x 30"] (Title is a part of a quote by Howard Zinn)
One of the artworks by Syed Mujtaba Rizvi. Title: “There is no flag large enough to hide the shame…” – Mixed Media and objects on canvas. [40″ x 30″] (Title is a part of a quote by Howard Zinn)
After my birth in Kashmir, my family moved to Iran. We returned when I was five years old. From my faint memories and from what my mother tells me, it was a strict curfew day. Shoot at sight orders had been enforced. I was too little to understand all this, but I do remember walking outside the somewhat desolated airport road towards the buses that had been arranged for passengers. It was a rainy day. The reflections in a puddle got my attention and I tried to splash water with my feet. My mother grabbed my hand and we rushed towards the bus. Men in uniform and their loaded guns stared at us.

Our journey back home was that of horror. At one checkpoint, my sister, who was 6 years old at the time, made an innocent statement seeing my mother in fear – “Don’t you worry mom, I will beat this man if he scares you.” The trooper gave us a stern look, but luckily we made it home – alive. This is where I would live and grow up.

I recently found a note in my diary that I had written just a couple of years after our return to Kashmir. It talks about the ironies and the troubles that I witnessed as a child, in a very childish language – my difficulties with absorbing the disturbing visuals around me, how I missed my father, how I found Kashmiris different from Persians and other random things. It ends with a line that has disturbed me ever since I re-discovered it – “In spite of the fact that I have spent very less time with my motherland, I know, and I will, do anything for her.”

This line has made me reflect a lot on my artistic practices in particular. I have produced hundreds of works in the form of drawings, paintings, installations, prints, photography and film. I have exhibited extensively at various places; but where is Kashmir in my works?

I have realized that my entire art practice has grown out of continuous and sub-conscious self-censorship. I have made works that are loud and obvious in their political and narrative voice, but they are not a part of my general practice. Why I indulge in self-censorship is a long story altogether. Fear of the state,obligations,force,conformities,pressure – words like these would often re-occur in that long story.

But I have also realized that the core idea of my works is greatly influenced by ironies in Kashmir. They are not visually obvious in the context of the Kashmiri narrative, but they revolve around ideas such as comfort and discomfort, life and death, truth and falsehood, inner peace and havoc, challenging pre-conceptions, the obvious and the oblivious – the experience of liberating a person from experience itself!

I have witnessed clampdowns on freedom of speech and artistic expression. I’ve spoken to beaten journalists. I know musicians like MC Kash whose studio was raided for producing ‘offensive’ songs. Even Man Booker Prize and Sydney Peace Prize winner Arundhati Roy was booked on charges of sedition for proclaiming solidarity with Kashmiris. Social media is also seeing restrictions.

Creative expression has been greatly damaged in the last two decades of turmoil and the immense art talent in Kashmir has gathered dust. Art paves way for open dialogue; its helps facilitate critical thinking. It is, therefore, important that there is a creative outburst in Kashmir.

The author is Managing Director of Kashmir Art Quest and is studying at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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