When nine-year-old Fatima Shafqat and her cousins began worshiping their dolls, her father Shafqat Hussain was shocked. The children folded their hands and bowed in supplication — something they had seen in cartoons on television.
Residents of Anantnag town in south Kashmir, Hussain sought to educate Fatima of their faith and identity and prevent her from watching cartoons that didn’t relate to their Kashmiri Muslim identity.
These cartoons made Fatima believe markers of the Hindu identity were no different from their own ethos, she had also begun greeting her family with namaste, the Hindu gesture of folding hands while greeting someone, and applying a tilak on her forehead.
“They were not able to understand the difference between religions and cultures,” said Hussain. “Since that day, I stopped her from watching these cartoons.”
This was four years ago when Fatima was five. She would watch cartoons in Hindi — the popular show Chota Bheem based on Hindu mythological hero Bheem, and the Motu Patlu series based on two friends dressed in dhotis (a cloth tied loosely at the waist). Fatima’s other favorites were cartoon movies like Little Krishna, based on the childhood of Hindu god Krishna, and Bal Ganesh, a movie based on Hindu god Ganesha’s childhood.
Since then Fatima has stopped adopting alien practices but her five-year-old cousin Murtaza, with whom she watched these cartoons, has continued to. Compounding Hussain’s shock, Murtaza recently screamed “Jai Shree Ram (Hail Lord Ram)”.
“I asked him how he learnt these words, he said that some cartoon character says it,” he said. “He uses Hindi words such as aakraman (attack). His behaviour has become more violent and aggressive.”
Despite a variety of cartoons available, parents in Kashmir are compelled — owing to various restrictions, including that of the internet — to rely on television to provide entertainment to their children at home, especially during prolonged confinements during political upheavals. For Kashmiri children, however, India’s most popular cartoons lack cultural representation.
Lack of representation
Cartoons can be an institutional way to make children learn about the culture they belong to in an entertaining way, believes Hussain, but due to the lack of cultural representation, Kashmiri children are misinformed. “This leads to a sort of brainwash,” he exclaimed.
Even children’s products — such as school bags, lunch boxes, clothes, and even toys — are centered on Hindu mythological characters, Hussain pointed out. “My nephew plays with a bow and arrow nowadays. And even that has Hanuman made over it,” Hussain said. “Eventually you need to understand who these mythological characters are and why should our children relate to them?”
As a result, his children and those he observes around him are unable to connect with and value their own cultural roots. “Kids these days have cultural, religious, political and psychological crises,” he said. “They are in conflict.”
Mudassir Hassan Pandith, an assistant professor of child-psychology at the Government Medical College in Baramulla, said that till the time children reach the age where they can differentiate between religions and cultures, there tends to be confusion in their minds. “Even my three-year-old son watches cartoons and often asserts ‘I am Shiva’. Although, he doesn’t know who Shiva is,” said Pandith.
An interim solution, as per Pandith, is exposing children to a greater diversity of cartoons to give them more perspective. “Children should be shown things that add to their knowledge and do not create confusion,” he said.
Gul Bahar Shah, a graphic narrative researcher at the Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, said that religious references in cartoons would have been acceptable only if the references were from different religions and not just one.
“These cartoons are part of right-wing propaganda. They want to assert the supremacy of a particular religion,” she said. “They want to disavow a pluralistic past.”
Shah questioned the lack of diversity in the Indian cartoon industry. “Why not cartoons which tell us about Islam or any other religion?” asked Shah. “There is a problem that we cannot depict Prophets in cartoons but something informative about other religions or cultures could be shown.”
Shah believes that an alternate space for children can be created through comics as they can help in sharpening their memory as children have to cull out the meaning from them. “Comics should be the transcripts of their culture, history, and religion,” she said.
There is a trickle of artists from Kashmir who are now attempting to fill the void. Among them is Ghazal Qadri, a Kashmir illustrator based in the United States, whose quirky depictions of Kashmiri culture have won appreciation back home.
A postgraduate in illustrations from the Maryland Institute College of Art, Qadri designs comics and illustrations for books and digital products. Her recent work includes illustrating a children’s book based on Kashmiri tale, Okus Bokus. A WhatsApp sticker pack made by Qadri is also in wide usage in Kashmir.
More recently, she also designed a calendar illustrating the seasons with a nuanced depiction of Kashmir. “Scores of grandparents and parents believe that they have been relating stories to their grandchildren and children by showing my visuals to them,” said Qadri. “The calendar makes it easy for elders to reinvent and redefine the scenes they have lived their life through, for children.”
Qadri believes that Kashmiri artists can explore different mediums to create content that children of Kashmir can relate to. “We should not confine ourselves to any one single medium. Social media can be an excellent medium to fill the void,” she said.
Given the recent developments in the world, said Qadri, cartoons representing a certain “majoritarian” religion or culture would be attributed to an attempt of intoxicating the younger audiences. “I always attempt to get along with all the religious communities of my native place,” she said.
Books can become another medium for children to learn about their culture and religion, added Qadri. “I plan to write or illustrate books for the younger audience in near future,” she said. “Visuals add a component to the storytelling which the text does not.”