The Castaways

Kashmir: A paradise lost to violence and bloodshed

Kashmir has faced unspeakable crimes, and it would be a sin to forget them. The Srinagar Biennale pavilion in the Kochi Festival does the opposite. It remembers, laments and somehow, celebrates.

 |  The Castaways  |  12-minute read |   02-02-2019
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Me miserable! Which way shall I fly

Infinite wrath and infinite despair?

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;

And in the lowest deep a lower deep,

Still threat'ning to devour me, opens wide,

To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

- John Milton, Paradise Lost

***

And when the trees are bereft of colours, and the women cry at the shrines, and snow lies on the graves, you remember the shrine. You remember the communion with the saint that you would return to untie the knots. You remember the stories of dervishes dancing among the pigeons on a moonlit night.

You also remember the graves. You have always looked for your house and ended up with frames of many abandoned houses in Kashmir you photographed while you looked for your own. And you remember a line from Elie Wiesel, "In this city, I am memory."

For Veer Munshi, 'A Place of Repose', an installation as part of the travelling Srinagar Biennale pavilion at the TKM Warehouse in Kochi, is a reminder that it is a perilous affair to make art in a region torn by conflict — yet the art isn't devoid of the adage of Paradise Lost.

There are stories of barbed wires and springs and collective mourning and Sufi shrines and graveyards. 

The wooden structure that is a replica of a Sufi shrine in Kashmir by Munshi is a place he wants to hold on to, to protect in a conflict zone where often the shrines have been burned or attacked.

And if freedom comes, what would it be if these shrines are lost?

“Homes don’t get demolished. They live within us,” a woman repeats the line to Munshi at the site. He smiles and tells her about his lost home. There is a distant sound of azaan that plays on loop. And then you step inside the Dargah and you are confronted with 14 delicate caskets and a cross-shaped piece of a graveyard where he has left two spaces unmarked for more bodies to arrive. Children die in conflict, he says. “So many of them,” Munshi adds. 

house-copy_012519082809.jpg(Photo: Chinki Sinha)

You lift the lids and there is a piece of the anatomy in paper mache and a line about death and remembrance from philosophers and poets Munshi has read. He calls these relics from a "lost paradise". “These are souvenirs of death in place where you come to see beauty, a place called paradise on earth,” he says.

For Munshi — whose art latches on to the political via his own loss and nostalgia — says the shrines are the middle spaces that have been marginalised over time in the Kashmir Valley.

In spaces where power is often demonstrated primarily through acts of violence, art and culture can serve as an alternative form of empowerment for the disenfranchised and victims, he writes in his curatorial note. 

A woman stands in the center holding a dead bird. The crows gather around her on the five-panel canvas in ritualistic mourning typical of the scavengers, who, as folklore goes, hold funerals and express grief collectively. And a collective noun used to describe a group of crows is “murder of crows."

That’s the title of the five-panel painting on gouche. Gargi Raina’s painting with crows surrounding the woman is an omen of death, a political and poetic take on the state of affairs in Kashmir where women are forever mourning the death and disappearances of their sons.

hina2-copy_012519082842.jpg(Photo: Chinki Sinha)

While the Srinagar Biennale which was announced in June 2016 could never take off in the state because of the volatility in the region, the artists have been traveling with their art throughout the world, telling their stories in what they refer to as “paradise lost”.

The KMB edition is one such attempt for a travelling biennale. 

Ever since the rise of militancy in the 1999s,  most Kashmiri artists have been in and out of the Valley since the 1990's.

***

At 12:18pm, you can hear the muezzin at the TKM Warehouse in Kochi. 

Inside the makeshift shrine, there is a distant Azaan.

The mixing is what makes this space a tesseract. 

There is the facade of faith, a conjuring of a place where he believes the saints lie. 

Featuring 14 artists, the pavilion comprises performances, paintings, photographs, papier-mache works and new media mix. “This is how we do our biennale,” says Munshi. 

Kashmir itself is an installation in a way most places could be. Littered with bunkers, and sealed with barbed wires, the state renders itself as an inspiration, and the hope for the artists belonging from here is to become a storyteller, reporters, chroniclers. 

When Ehtisham Azhar, a participating artist, wrote Come Butcher Sing me a Song, he knew the metaphors. The butcher is a heavy word, and yet so ordinary in his context. He feels common objects are events, too. 

"It is also a subtle metaphor. It can refer to anyone. It can refer to the state, it can encompass many meanings. It can be me. Why I want the butcher to sing? I don't want to give the context. I was making work on geopolitics, different power relations, etc. Everything from me to the state and everything to do with boundaries is the context. Everyone has the same idea for someone. It is existential. There's intimacy with the oppressor for instance," he says.

And with the sheepskins hanging on the wall and a chair places across the wall, you know you have been called to witness a prolonged past, a present continuum of bloodshed and exile.

“Come Butcher, 

sing me a song

For I am waiting for sleep to come 

Weave me a lullaby"

Azhar’s words on the wall are an ode to art from a place of conflict. And even if the state could never host the biennale, hundreds of kilometers away, in a small fishing town, the travelling biennale has come to tell stories of faith and loss. 

ehtisham2-copy_012519083059.jpg(Photo: Chinki Sinha)

***

I first met Munshi in 2016 in Srinagar when they all gathered to announce the Srinagar Biennale. The audacity of hope, they said. 

Srinagar is not a place of right and wrong. It is a place of floating land and floating identities. On canvas and otherwise. 

But this is also a place of prolonged past, and a continuous present. 

Here, these young men and women have grown up as silent wounded men, bereaved women who wail at the shrines, hands outstretched, and they have all heard the gunshots and the flapping of the wings of the pigeons. There are the disappeared, the dead, the wounded. The love, the war, the redemption. The hope, and the despair. Everything was here. They needed no more inspiration. 

Stories like that are like a drumroll. 

Munshi, who left Kashmir in 1990 and returned only in 2008, to stare at the ruins of the house he once lived in, was part of the group of artists who had got together to put together a biennale in Srinagar. 

"I see Kashmir everywhere. Wherever you go, you carry home," he said. “It is the nostalgia of the cultural renaissance.“

But war is a voice that supersedes all. It is a lived reality — and a paradox of this heaven where Munshi started documenting abandoned houses that belonged to Kashmiri Pandits. 

The art itself that is a testimony to what they call "the lost paradise" and although heaven is an imposition in itself, art can't be a casualty to the war, which seems an eternal one. More than 25 years and violence is still a part of everyday life.

I remember Munshi staring at the golden sunset at Zero Bridge. This was his city until the exodus. 

When he left, he carried nothing with him but the idea of home. The first painting he made in Delhi was not a landscape but a terrorist on floating land.

The waters of the Dal had been painted in red. "I was naive and thought terrorism won't stay," he said.

He painted men and women in a queue at the refugee camp in Jammu. He drew those he had known. He became a human rights painter of sorts. He painted the absence of human dignity from the point of view of a Kashmiri and an exiled minority.

He had been ousted from paradise. 

He told me he had bought a piece of land in Kashmir to stage his own return.

Once the artists in the Valley had painted landscapes and the blue waters of Dal. Then, the waters turned red on canvas for Munshi, who left like many others but keeps coming back.

veer-munshi-coffin-c_012519083200.jpg(Photo: Chinki Sinha)

***

Inside the wooden shrine built by Munshi at the KMB, there is an installation of little vials and a map of Anantnag by a young woman called Khytul Abyad. The vials contain the water from many springs in the region, which is among the most volatile regions in the Valley. For the artist, it is about memory that water contains.

Abyad and I met at Kashmir University in 2016 and I insisted one day I would drop her to her home, not knowing that Anantnag was locally referred at as Old Islamabad. It was Friday and on the way to her town, we crossed beautiful fields. She spoke little. By the time we reached Anantnag, dusk had fallen. 

She told me how her town was a place of springs. Her work for Kochi emerged from her undergraduate thesis, which was about springs in Anantnag, which, back then, was just a social campaign "Save the Springs of Anantnag" — but, as time passed, she says she started looking at the whole thing differently.  

“There were many more layers to these waterbodies including the social and political contexts they hold. Back in 2011, I was looking at the term Anantnag, which came from the springs that were located in the town. The name itself has been problematic. It was a multilayered work where I was trying for it to have a unique experience for each kind of viewer. When I made it for Srinagar show, I had the Kashmir non-artist audience in mind. For them, it would probably be something displaced from its original context which I believed could act as a reminder or help them look at something very familiar differently,” she says.

For her, water is a whole. When she bottles them up by giving these springs names, she is trying to divide this water. “It won’t stay separate for too long. It will evaporate and become one,” she says. 

Anantnag — which means a place of eternal and infinite springs — is a place of conflict and Abyad sees these sprigs as evidence of the history of her town. These springs contain a multitude of memories of her people. 

“They can tell more stories than anything else can. Of women sitting around them, singing, of men making wudu before going to the mosque. I don't know if it makes sense but I believe water remembers. It's fluid, so it absorbs, and holds in it all that was once wandering around; the memories, the visuals, the shadows, the dust off people's clothes, the sweat off their faces, it's all gathered in there,” she says.

Because most of the springs are in the main town, they have been witness to the war, to life and to loss.

And she believes that water remembers everything.

“Should we not listen just because it cannot speak? Is a memory that's not remembered not a memory?

veer-2-copy_012519083303.jpg(Photo: Chinki Sinha)

It has seen all those faces, heard them talk, seen them sit calm, and I know I can trust places and things more than people. People struggle to remember, and then memory becomes just another struggle,”’she says. It has been three years since we met. But we have kept in touch. Not regularly but I know she is out there. 

She had shown me her sketchbooks, her drawings for a graphic book she was working on when we first met. She is on the fringes as a young woman in the Valley, and she sees the war from the feminine perspective of what it does to the family and the individual. 

And if damage has to be arrested, it must have to do something with the objects of everyday life and with storytelling. Redemption is not a milestone. It is the journey. Mourning is a verb. Losses compound until they are just numbers in this doomed struggle. 

Everyone is struggling for intimacy here. Everyone is being pulled apart, she said. We were in touch until we lost touch. The second encounter after that night in her house would be at Kochi’s Srinagar Biennale project three years later.

She calls the installation Anantnag — and not Islamabad, as she first introduced her town to me. 

An artist shaped by war, by patriarchy, by loss, Abyad’s works are an ode to memory. 

***

This isn't a postcard series. The imposition of heaven is what they resist. There is that familiar rain. And that familiarity of loss. 

That phrase “murder of crows” has remained with me. To confront the paradox of this paradise is to witness a sadness of infinite proportion. At Kochi, when you walk into the hall, you are transported to the Valley. You remember how they told you about your sadness.

All a writer can do is to write again about them, so that we don’t commit the sin of forgetting the pain of loss. Because all art is a reminder of our acts of omission and commission. To find a shrine in Kochi is the artist thing to tell us what we are about to lose. 

And maybe I will return to untie the knots in the Valley. I am waiting. And so are they. And years go by in this lost paradise. 

Also read: Understanding the paradox of art

Writer

Chinki Sinha Chinki Sinha @chinkis

Rover in the driftless area of the outcastes. Writing is a way of deleting.

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