Art survives against odds in Kashmir

Art in Kashmir

Art in Kashmir works like the Midas touch: everything it touches turns political.

That is what happened when the celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta brought his orchestra to Kashmir in 2013. 

It was intended to be a concert for peace; in the end, more security forces were deployed, and common Kashmiris were annoyed as VIPs took front seats and blocked their view. The separatists called for a boycott of the event.

When a group of Kashmiri singers settled in Pakistan came together at Karachi’s famous Coke Studio to the sing Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor’s famous ‘He gulo’, that created a political storm, too, though the song itself is about a man talking to a flower.

The singers were a picture of bliss, which some Kashmiris back home saw a symbol of liberation.

But these were political only by accident.

But Kashmir, which does not have public spaces for art performances partly because they are "un-Islamic" and partly because 'we're all super happy here' is not the message they want to send out to the world (for generations, 'cinema in Kashmir' is something used in the past tense) some of the most powerful art coming out is political.

Some of the more consciously political art also tends to be very experimental.

Beats of protest

The concoction of the music in Kashmir and the Internet is highly inflammable.

Roushan Ilahi, better known by his stage name of MC Kash (short for Kashmir), is your quintessential enfant terrible: he is not the biggest fan of the Indian state, neither are they his.

Standing in a tradition of Urdu and Kashmiri protest poetry, he went on to break the mould: he rapped in English and put his songs on YouTube with the logic that Kashmiris know about their suffering, it’s the rest of the world that doesn’t.

His videos have stark backgrounds: his videos, all of which are on YouTube and sometimes shot with cameras offering less than desirable resolution, are set in parts of Kashmir that are far removed from the romanticised locations Indians love the Valley for.

Kash’s ‘Listen, my brother’, both an ode and a eulogy to fellow Kashmiris, had a video that simply showed a postcard, perhaps in allusion to Agha Shahid Ali’s collection of poems ‘Country without a Post Office’.

The postcard has a stamp with a picture of the hanged separatist leader Maqbool Bhatt, whom in yet another video, Kash describes as a “shaheed” (martyr). Under Bhatt’s picture, you see the words ‘Republic of Kashmir’; at the bottom is a cautionary note warning that the letter contains “truthful content”.

For those like Kash and some others inspired by him, the strong beats of hip hop are both entertainment and war cry.

There are also others standing in an older tradition of protest.

Much before the militancy, and even before Kashmir had cinemas showing Bollywood and Hollywood films (many Kashmiris before the 80s had a special love for the latter), a long tradition of poetry dominated the cultural scene in the Valley.

Many of these poems are not political in the sense Kashmir’s protesters seek today. Some poets like Ali Saifuddin, however, make an amalgamation possible.

A YouTuber, Saifuddin’s videos are far easier on the eyes than Kash’s. “In the 90s, I would have picked up a gun; today, for the same reason, I pick up the guitar,” he says in an interview.

His videos, unlike Kash’s, move slowly, covering the waters and the snow in Kashmir, and presenting songs from a bygone era. Some of these songs simply mourn separation from a beloved, yet they make sense given the Valley’s politics.

Changing landscapes

It’s incredible how much the perception of Kashmir has changed in the space of a generation. Showtime asked the painter Veer Munshi, 63, what Kashmir was for him then and what it is now.

He remembers the Jhelum fondly, and says he used to take his canvas and walk to the banks of the river. The only interruptions were from nosy people who wanted to know what he was painting.

What is the arts and entertainment scene like in Kashmir?

"What entertainment? Now you mostly hear the sound of gunshots, from both sides," he says.

When Ramneek Singh, a young and passionate spoken word poet from Jammu and a familiar face on YouTube, spoke about the Jhelum, it seemed the river had aged horribly and beyond recognition.

In the performance of his poem ‘Jhelum’, Ramneek speaks about the mothers whose sons were being dumped as corpses in the river.

He speaks about how censorship kicks in much before a performance reaches the state’s watch.

“I have stopped writing a lot of things that I want to write. The anger has not receded, but I have stopped. Fear does that,” Ramneek says.

He had kept a set of nine poems hidden from his parents; he describes them as “anti-regimish”. His family destroyed them when they found out because they were worried for his safety.

“Whenever we hear people talk about Kashmir, we never hear them saying Kashmiris are ours, we need Kashmiris; they always say Kashmir is ours, we need Kashmir,” he says.

Many artists in the Valley bloom very young, often before they hit 20. Ramneek started penning verses when he was in high school. They weren’t angry back then; he had no reason to be until he was 16.

“My house and the nearby bakery are 200 metres apart, and my father and I were on our way there. That’s when two armymen stopped us, and asked us for our ID cards. My father was not carrying any, and they did not let us go,” Ramneek says.

“We wanted to go to the bakery some 200 metres away, so we were arrested. You know when you are a kid, how you fear your father being humiliated? Outside, you want to look brave, you want to say that no matter what, you will protect your father. Inside, you are crying,” he says.

“These things add to the direction your writing goes in,” Ramneek says.

Having moved out of the conflict zone in 2012, Ramneek does not claim to be a representative of the art scene there, although his sister is stuck in Srinagar during the current blackout (“a black hole” in Ramneek’s words); he reluctantly admits he was a “witness” to the events.

And having been a witness adds to much of the anger in his poetry and performances. One poem was in response to four youths who were shot dead by the army when they tried to cross a barricade. Ramneek says the firing was based on misinformation.

“Imagine! Four kids died because someone received misinformation,” he says.

His work tries to imagine a back-story to such events. The poem was written in the voice of a girl to whom one of the four boys was to propose on the day of the killings.

“Now, when I write, I think this can go wrong or that can go wrong,” he says.

Ramneek believes many performers are young because that is when the anger hits you the hardest. “When you are 30, you become rational,” he says, all of 29 years old. 

Body is all you need 

There are others who push art and performance to a place the general populace fears to tread.

It is not that someone like Inder Salim has any problems with the traditional arts, per se; he just wants something you can’t easily push into a gallery somewhere, and for that, the traditional instruments had to go.

And so he chose performance art.

“The advantage with performance art is that you can play with all kinds of materials, including the body. Mind you, it’s not the bare body. That’s a wrong way of understanding performance art — that it’s only about the body. It is walking along with the body, because wherever you go, you go with the body,” Salim, 67, told Showtime.

One of Salim’s most scandalous “performances” was when he masturbated in full public view on the 2014 Republic Day in Kolkata’s Pathuriaghata Ghosh Bari. He later used a blade to cut his finger, with the blood he wrote: “India you have blood on your hands”.

More than a decade before that, in 2002, he sliced a finger off and threw it into the Yamuna to protest the environmental threat to the river.

His bodily protests embody a dictum from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze: “doing something inaccessible to the world”.

“It is done to outwit both the artist and the audience. The shock is not meant just for the audience, it is meant for the artist also,” Salim says.

Salim sees himself as a Kashmiri protest artist, and his performance perhaps starts with his name. Born Inder Tickoo, he sought a midway between being a Kashmiri Pandit and a Kashmiri Muslim and changed his name to Inder Salim.

“I am in a no man’s land,” he says, “I happen to be useful to some who come close to the no man’s land.”

Girl who called herself the moon

For some artists like Neha Tickoo, protest is so fundamental even their names must
not escape scrunity. In 2010, like her father Inder Salim, she adopted a new alias,
one she asks us to call her by. This was a crucial time for Kashmir: when mass graves were discovered, and the national media was discussing army atrocities. Neha wanted to look at both sides.

Around this time, she became interested in the poetry of Habba Khatoon, originally
called ‘Zoon’, which is Kashmiri for the moon. After one performance where she
was ‘Zooni’, she decided to christen herself Zooni Tickoo, half-Hindu, half-Muslim.
‘People would come to me and ask, ‘Are you a Muslim? Are you a Hindu?’ and I
would go, ‘Who knows?’,” she says.

She says her father has not influenced her too much. “At one point, I wanted to
stop performing Kathak because I wanted to discard that Brahminical codified language,”
she says.

For a while, she rejected the narrative culture and focused on performance like her father, but that was not something she liked. Zooni went on to do her Masters in Performance
Studies from Ambedkar University, which helped her in understanding spaces. When you spatially reconstruct a narrative, its whole politics changes, she observes.

“Take something like Draupadi Cheer Haran (the Mahabharata chapter where Draupadi is disrobed). It means one thing when it is performed in the Kamani auditorium in Delhi, and another when it is performed at the protest space in Jantar Mantar,” she says.

(With inputs from New Delhi-based writer Ifra Jan)

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