I have had some of my best cultural experiences in conflict zones.
Kashmir, paradise on earth, proclaimed even by the people who have never set foot on the wondrous land ensconced between the Great Himalayas. As I spend days traversing the valley on foot, the call for prayer fills the air. Little red apple cheeks sing in unison, the colourful house boats and shikaras with intricate woodwork bob to its tune. Sadly, this undisturbed tranquility doesn't last long. The changing hues of the mystical blue skies reflect Kashmir’s volatile disposition. Those who marvel at the never ending vistas of snowcapped mountains and glistening Jhelum, are also embrolied in the Kashmir conflict; messy and savage. Empty yet evocative boulevards lined on both sides by tall stiff poplars, men and women in woolen pherans scuttle down shadowed alleys as the curfew looms large over Srinagar.
Curfew is often enforced to push angry people back into their homes. Public spaces might be wiped off of its people and their protests, but in the hearts and minds of these young Kashmiris, they continue to resist and question the authority they see as robbing them of their rights. As the military try to erase the physical presence of dissidents, a cultural space is being created amongst the Kashmiris.
War and peace – the two constants
Art and revolution have always followed each other, where periods of social upheaval are often also periods of profound artistic experimentation. Additionally, art is often used as a mechanism to incite people into action. For example, it was a small piece of graffiti demanding the fall of the Syrian regime which instigated a vicious crackdown by the government upon its young perpetrators that led to the Syrian revolution. Activism through art is using revolutionary power to erase fear, to claim public spaces and set off protests and uprisings. Kashmiri artists and cultural activists are now using creative means to protest and express their anger and frustrations. These young art activists try to mobilise broad popular support in their struggle for freedom and change.
Graffiti at Kashmir University
During my time in Palestine, I met a broad spectrum of artists; painters, illustrators, performing artists and poets—their art thrived on conflict. I was fascinated and baffled in equal measure to see these young artists overcome the affects of oppression in conflict zones and pursue their art. Some paint about political and social change, but for many their art is also a way to escape the gory reality of conflict. The artworks convey their innermost hopes, desires and the events of the past which have moved them. And they firmly believe their art plays a significant role in helping people re-establish peace in these conflict areas. It is inspiring and extremely motivating to see how even in the most complicated situations people continue to produce art and culture. What stayed with me was their belief that it was just as important as basic necessities like food, water, medicine in helping alleviate conflict. And as I ventured into the valley of apples, apricots, cherry blossoms and pellet guns to interact with the young minds of Kashmir, I met artists of similar valour and compassion that I had seen in Palestine.
Why? Digital work by Mujtaba Rizvi (Srinagar)
Meeting these peace revolutionaries in universities and makeshift studios exposed me to the humane side of the conflict. Songs and arts that emerged out of the ongoing resistance gave me an insight into the struggle and helped me look at the issues through a more compassionate lens. I spent weeks with them and it dawned on me how all the stories we read on the crisis are dominated only by a political perspective and agenda. We seldom see the individuals involved.
Children of conflict, digital artwork by Masood Hussai (Srinagar)
I was lucky to have stumbled upon one such artist, Sayed Mujtaba Rizvi, in a cute little cafe who took me through his artistic journey. He is also a cultural entrepreneur who happened to run this artsy café, redolent of Kashmiri culture and history in its decor — a cultural space for the young minds of Kashmir. Rizvi didn’t have any formal education or training until he bagged a scholarship to study fine arts at Goldsmiths, London University. This became a turning point in his life and a new artistic consciousness was set in motion. After being exposed to a whole lot of literature, his artworks acquired a certain structure and presented him with an opportunity to explore various styles of expression through art. As a child he didn't have the privilege of having a mentor, but now his work is considerably influenced by Michael Craig Martin and Raqib Shaw. His work reflects the tumultuous past, unsure future of the youth and the crisis. A journey emblematic of many artists in war-torn regions. For them art is duty that must be performed with utmost honesty, where the pain and suffering of fellow men become the cynosure of the artist, provoking the audience to think about the resistance more in context of personal sufferings.
As Rizvi puts it, “We have to get past the so called ‘news worthy’ stuff and create a fresh engagement for the audience to become involved with Kashmiris and their crisis.”
With this line of thought, he embarked on his first artistic venture in 2010, by organising and holding Kashmir’s first ever contemporary arts show—Kashmir Arts Quest. A network of Kashmiri artists from all over the world came together to display their works representing an eclectic mix of diverse styles that embraced the full spectrum - popular and contemporary, traditional and modern. Individuals came together not only as participants and victims, but also linked as sponsors, creators, and consumers of art. Kashmir Arts Quest is now an annual event, which primarily looks at promoting young Kashmiri artists and involve the locals for more deeper and critical engagement.
Upside Down, digital artwork by Danish Beg, (Anantnag)
There were hurdles. Following bureaucratic intervention after Burhan Wani’s killing, Rizvi and fellow artists were unable to hold the exhibition at its designated venue. Instead they exhibited the work through an online gallery - To Art Is To Resist. Thus pushing the boundaries of political freedom, and giving vent to the frustrations of the people, especially the youth. Through this platform he hopes to be able to raise forbidden questions, challenge preconceptions and garner support for the resistance in the international arena. Other initiatives were also launched and taken to cities all over the world - Basel, Schaffhausen, Kuala Lumpur, Guangzhou, Shiraz, Cape Town, and London. In each city, local artists have painted their interpretation of Kashmir and what it means to them. The canvas intends to travel a lot more before the final artwork becomes a permanent public installation in Srinagar, Kashmir.
All the paintings, poems, writings, graffiti, posters are saturated with the painful journey of these artists. Not only to harvest the memories of their struggle, but also encapsulate for many Kashmiris all that has been sacrificed and all that has been lost. Often wondering when it will all be worth it.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Pratishtha Chhetri
Photographs by Pratishtha Chhetri
Cover photo credit: Digital artwork (Untitled) by Danish Beg (Anantnag)