Your violence shall only become
My poem some day
We are all but Parts of that Whole
Equal parts, powerless parts, ephemeral parts
No part can exert violence on any other part
Violence is only forgetfulness of being a part
Love is being mindful of that supreme whole
Even as additional Indian troops were rushed to Kashmir and security was intensified, five students from the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, University of Kashmir, were winding up a month-long residency programme at Fort Kochi recently. These students were among the 11 who bagged the Students Biennale national award at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018.
Though they refused to speak on politics, their installations reeked of it—showcasing death, displacement and sorrow. And as the Valley shut down cutting off all communication with the rest of India, all five artists—Arona Riyaz, Numair Qadir, Anis Wani, Ahmad Muzamil and Tabeena Wani—who had returned to Kashmir only days before the lockdown, were unreachable; the enforced Silence in the Valley had sealed them off.
The recurring theme of their artwork was of graves and grave diggers of Kashmir. We saw that tormented theme earlier too at the Srinagar Biennale, Kochi (KMB 2018), where coffins of infants took centre stage of an installation, with the horrendous high-pitched wail of widows and mothers as the background score. A video installation in the adjoining room told the story of the conflict in Kashmir through a grave digger. He tearlessly lamented about burying countless dead that were brought hurriedly to him. He tells of a body he had buried and how he had to dig it up over and over so that people who had come in search of their disappeared loved ones could identify the body. The body was never identified. Once again, at Fort Kochi, the haunting wails of women followed us from room to room tormenting our indifference to sorrows of a distant part.
Independent broadcast journalist, Gowhar Geelani, in his book Kashmir, Rage and Reason, quoting human rights body JKCCS, writes that there have been more than “8000 to 10,000 enforced custodial disappearances since the eruption of armed uprising 29 years ago. There are also credible reports about the discoveries of over 6000 unmarked and mass graves.” (Read here: The Language of Resistance, an excerpt from Kashmir, Rage and Reason.)
“It’s a baggage that we must carry everywhere we go,” said 22-year-old artist, Numair Qadir, whose work Memoryscape shows rows of unmarked graves punctuated by flowers. “On my way to the University I have to pass several graveyards and a few of them are of unmarked graves. These are of people whose faces have been so badly mutilated by pellets and bullets that they are unrecognisable. The grave digger keeps an account of the dead; he makes a note of the cause of death in his diary. They have no name or identity; the grave digger gives each of the dead, each grave a number. The cause of death becomes the only record of their life.”
Numair speaks about the daily ordeal for him and his family. His mother would be happier, he says, if he sat at home and did not go to the University. “She does not know if I will return. I understand her fears, for I have seen people dying on the roads and this stays with me every waking moment of my life. As for the flowers on the grave, the graveyards of Kashmir are so beautiful”, says Numair. The graves are covered over with lush green grass, under the solitude of trees—“it seems like the dead are in Paradise.”
However, these students reject the depiction of Kashmir as paradise by Bollywood. They think the Bollywoodisation of Kashmir masks the truth. Anis Wani in his multimedia work Jannat e Benazeer (Unparalleled Paradise), juxtaposes the images of Bollywood’s Kashmir with the images of conflict—Shammi Kapoor’s jerky motions as he sings contrasts with the ground reality of barbed fences and gunshots.
There were over 15 cinema theatres in Srinagar before the 1990 uprising, which were shut down by Islamic fundamentalists. The empty halls were then converted to camps by the Indian army and some were even converted to “torture chambers”, according to Wani. He says that the cinema halls of Srinagar are witness to history. “It fills me with disgust when Kashmir is portrayed as paradise by Bollywood, how can it be so when massacres happen? My generation has no memory of going to a theatre. I went to the theatre for the first time here in Kochi to watch Spiderman.”
Arona Riyaz’s work is a deeply personal one—a joy ride with a cousin turned into a nightmare for 22-year-old Arona Riyaz. She was badly injured in the accident and was in coma for over a month and subsequently confined to bed for 8 months. “I was mentally and physically broken at that time. My body ached all over as I had broken most of my bones during the accident.” She found solace in art and as a means to overcome the trauma of the gruesome incident. Her work reflects her 4-year inner battle of being confined to bed and to the brokenness she felt. The shattered mirrors on the floor catch your attention. “The idea was to showcase my memory of the accident which predominantly is focussed on the time I spent bed-ridden. During the time, I constantly asked for a mirror to see the impact of the accident but my family never gave me one,” said the artist.
Ahmed Muzamil Aftab Rah’s installation Massacres and Home showcased the graves of the ordinary civilians who were killed in police firing on the roads. “238 innocent people were killed but I have only made 112 graves here at the two ends of the space given me.” In the middle is an empty space reserved for the undead—future graves. “The mental trauma we experience seems to destroy the youth, more than the blinding pellets and bullets,” says Ahmed.
The poem by Rumuz from the book Kashmir, Rage and Reason
Cover Image: Installation by Arona Riyaz
Picture Credit: Minu Ittyipe
With inputs from Geetha Jayaraman in Kochi