Four years ago, while sitting with the distinguished Kashmiri poet Rehman Rahi in his windswept garden in the Srinagar neighbourhood of Vethar Nag, I received a sobering lesson in the long-term damage exacted by the continuing cycle of violence and counter-violence in the Valley of Kashmir, beyond even the tragedy of the missing, the tortured, the abducted and the dead. Listening to Rahi recount the excesses on every side in the complex and deadly mix of factors called the ‘Kashmir issue’—part struggle for self-determination, part insurgency, part low-intensity proxy war, part struggle to regain a simple normality—I began to realise how and why culture had become such a major casualty of the turbulence.
“Neither the State nor the militants wanted to do anything for Kashmiri culture, for our language and our arts,” said Rahi. “Each side had its political agenda and enforced it, but our language, our poetry, our traditional music, the theatre form of the bhaands, all these are dying.”
Rahi’s diagnosis was confirmed by a young man in a tight sweatshirt and gelled hair in a music store in the bazaar in Anantnag, in the south of the Valley. When I asked him where he would place Kashmiri music in his Top Ten, the music of the tumbak-naar, the rabaab, the sehtar and the santoor, he briefly switched off the Hindi movie number that was blaring from his speakers. “Kashmiri traditional?” he asked, eyebrows raised. “Not even in top twenty!” He mused a little and conceded, “Maybe number eighteen.” Bollywood came back on, as I left.
I have returned to this brief essay after two years. The notes for it have been lying in my journal for November 2007, looked at every few months, touched and annotated, but never tuned up into a complete text ready for publication. I spent part of that month in Srinagar as critic-in-residence at the international workshop KHOJ Kasheer: a signal and important initiative that evolved from discussions between Pooja Sood, Director of KHOJ, and Masood Hussein, artist and academic based in Srinagar. In consonance with KHOJ’s long-standing policy, the organisation does not lay down a central mandate, but rather, engages with and catalyses efforts that have strong anchorage in regional aspirations towards the transformation of a cultural scene. It was Hussein who played a pivotal role in turning the idea of KHOJ Kasheer into a reality. He convened an enthusiastic and energetic group of colleagues—teachers, students, viewers, sponsors and supporters—to produce, over October-November 2007, the Valley’s first international, contemporary and trans-medium assembly of art practitioners.
KHOJ Kasheer brought together artists from Kashmir as well as from elsewhere in India, from Iran, France, Mozambique, Nepal, and the UK. During the residency, they used a range of expressive devices to convey their engagement with the region, its beauties and its disquietudes, including the trees at the residency venue, kangris or Kashmiri portable coal-burners, pine cones, magnolia seeds, chinar leaves, river stones, and pieces of parchment. One of the artists had built a simulation bunker to house an installation. The sites for site-specific works included the dark cellar of the house where the residency studios had been set up, as well as Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s most famous and politically volatile public square.
Each artist brought into play her or his own specific ideas about communicative engagement, the relationship between artistic endeavours and the assumptions of audiences, the evolution of a shared language of performance and understanding in interactive settings; and, vitally, they developed ways of addressing one another’s very different and distinctive formal and conceptual choices. Within the workshop, our conversations flowered at diverse tangents, wove into surprising tapestries.
If I have not completed this text until now, it is because I find it very difficult to write about Kashmir, despite being engaged on a translation of Lal Ded, one of the region’s most radiant mystic-poets. Going to Kashmir is always an emotionally fraught decision for me: it is a return to a homeland in circumstances that make both ‘return’ and ‘homeland’ very vexed terms.
How, through what doors of the mind and which windows of the senses, do you return? Through a glimpse, a sound, a smell, an atmosphere? I am writing this in Bergen, on the western coast of Norway: the lake, the bowl of the valley, the craggy mountains rising into an immaculate blue sky, the scent of pine, all these remind me of Kashmir. But the traffic moves discreetly here, the lake is not ringed with barricades, there is not a single soldier in sight.
You are from India?
From Bombay. But also from here.
Yes. My ancestors left the Valley many centuries ago.
My interlocutor cannot make sense of this long-ago migration. There has been too much tragedy here in the last two decades to recall the tragedies of seven hundred years ago. That past is accorded a paragraph in the standard histories. The past, the present and the future are all silenced by the single deafening thrum of the Disturbance.
How do you return to a place that is both homeland and alien zone?
Humhama Airport. Without thinking, as I get off the plane, I bend down to touch the earth. My wife, her own ancestors refugees from a Persia imploding under internecine Abbasid conflicts, understands. Instinctively, she moves to shield me from the curiosity, the possible scepticism of our fellow passengers, many of them Indians. On arrival in Srinagar, I fall instantly into thinking of them as ‘Indians’, in consonance with local usage; my Indian passport secure in my jacket pocket. Who, exactly, are your own people?
Politicians and bureaucrats speak blithely of the restoration of normality. Those of us who have suffered diaspora or military rule cannot share their confidence: we know that there is no normal to go back to. In the last two decades, Kashmir has become a monoculture: an anomaly in a complex world of plural entanglements and unpredictable coalitions. A generation has grown up in Kashmir that cannot recognise a Hindu, does not know that Kashmir was once the home of diverse ideas and philosophies. A generation has grown up, which cannot frame a world-view that is not hemmed in by the forbidding presence of the machine gun, the grenade, the handmade explosive, the rocket launcher.
And if the Kashmiri Pandits were forced to migrate under terror and uncertainty, large numbers of Kashmiri Muslims have also left the Valley under terror and uncertainty. You will find them on the beaches of south-western India, selling ‘Kashmiri crafts’ that grow ever louder in colour with the passage of the years, the subtle shades of the mountains yielding before the more garish taste of patrons in the peninsula.
And in every street, every shrine, every graveyard, the visitor may remark the waste of youth, the sap of life spilled and never to be retrieved. I think of the word ‘half-life’, referring not to the luminous explosion of isotopes, but to the penumbral existence of women who will never know whether their husbands are dead or alive, mothers and sisters who weep and pray for hours, tying knots of hope on the balustrades of the Valley’s Sufi shrines.
Can culture act as an antidote to great suffering? Can culture bring regeneration to a landscape sown with bitterness? Can it restore the measure of lost time?
The day is one long evening, even when the sun has rippled across leaves going russet, orange, gold. This country is frozen in a continuing moment called the Disturbance. The Kashmir issue has expanded to become the dominant life-theme in a region where there are more military personnel than citizens: it colours or pre-empts all other discussions. In thinking of the conditions of cultural production, for instance, I find myself wondering what aesthetic expression can mean to people whose experience of life is saturated with the political. Would any form other than testimony seem like a cruel fantasy?
Can there be any art in Kashmir that is not thoroughly politicised? Through what idioms does the pent-up momentum of feeling course through the art world in Kashmir? Are artists making videos, setting up ephemeral public installations, creating performances or leaving text-based works as traces behind them? Or are there cryptic, allusive, subterranean narratives that we miss during brief visits? Are there image-makers and narrative-sharers in Kashmir who have not yet been defined as artists?
While not wishing to diminish the undoubted importance of the Kashmir issue to the people of Kashmir, it is perhaps time that we began to consider other ways of conceiving of Kashmir: not only or exclusively as a disturbed area or a zone of contestation, but as a site where a plurality of ideas and expressions may flourish once again. In speaking to painters, writers, sound engineers, musicians, cultural activists, journalists, cartoonists, graphic novelists, sculptors and teachers in the Valley, we realise that there are many temporalities trapped inside the ice of the Issue: histories of Kashmir as a culturally vibrant space in the 1950s and 1960s, the venue for national art camps where artists from across India would congregate, and where writers would convene to map alternative futures of global literature, speaking across English, Urdu, Kashmiri, Persian and Arabic. A thaw is required: a thaw would allow these artistic hopes and dreams to flow again.
A functioning cultural infrastructure certainly exists: the Jammu & Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages actively supports both expressive and pedagogic initiatives. It helps keep traditions and their bearers alive, sustains the transmission of knowledge in the visual, literary and musical arts, and opens up spaces where discussion on the forms of Kashmiri and global culture could thrive in the years to come. But the outlines of a fully functional art world are not present yet: more galleries, more discussion forums, more publications, no matter how brief or irregularly published, are crucial to maintain the life of art. What is imperative, also, is that we initiate a discussion about the renewal of art practices in Kashmir. One of the best ways of achieving this is to create a platform where artists from Kashmir can meet, converse and collaborate with their colleagues in other parts of South Asia and the world. Many closed doors will open, once we begin to see contemporary art from Kashmir elsewhere, and contemporary art from elsewhere comes to Kashmir. We must not underestimate the transformative power of the work of art.
(Srinagar: 9 November 2007 – Bergen: 18 September 2009 – Bombay: 28 December 2009)