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Valley of metaphors

Stone-throwing as a means of protest grabbed headlines, but young Kashmiris are now using the arts to express their anguish like never before.

art and culture Updated: Jan 24, 2012 19:55 IST
Paramita Ghosh

For the past two years, June has been both a prophecy and a promise of the Kashmir street to protest the clampdown with slogans and stones: Khoon ka badla June mein leynge. This June, if the street has been somewhat silent, it has been so for a reason — to mature with metaphors and aphorisms, art and films, music and blogs, a new revival in cultural expression since 2010, the year the Kashmir story became the story of the under-30 generation who seized ‘culture’ as one of the ways to walk the same walk but with new traditions.

The new approach has, however, never made a clean break with its past. Twenty-year-old rap artists still draw on the lyrics of 14th-century mystics like Habba Khatoon and 20th-century angsts penned by poets like Abdul Ahad Azad. But the violent ’90s broke their back. As in the Khalistan movement — radical poet Avtar Singh Paash was killed by militants — many of Kashmir’s writers were assassinated, its poets (Pandits and Muslims) were silenced or forced into exile by both state and non-state players. Kashmiri as a literary language was not even taught in schools. (It was introduced only in 2004 till Class I-VIII in government schools). But as the language of the imagination, it continued to thrive among its people — in day-to-day conversations, in the recitation of poems, by mothers singing in their kitchens or while putting children to bed.

In the ’90s, Kashmir was Khalistan with snow. Since 2010, the struggle has moved beyond armed militancy to mass insurrection. In this renewed movement, its artists have a place. (The publication and success of Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer gave the region its first contemporary ‘star.’ ) Their dissent is discussed and fought for. As film-maker Sanjay Kak, who has edited a new Penguin anthology on Kashmir, Until my Freedom has Come, says, “The first stone thrower is vulnerable. So the first story writer is under scrutiny. With more people writing, it will get easier. The confidence of this new generation is remarkable, they have trained themselves for struggle in quietly embattled ways.” Harper Collins has also just published a Kashmir anthology — Jammu and Kashmir: A Tangled Web.

Hidden treasures
Conflict has given Kashmiris a special vocabulary — acidic, apocalyptic, and imaginative. Its artist-activists work furiously and fast. Their first impulse, it seems, is to record, process and provide a counter narrative, rather than try to be ‘artists’. For example, in 2010, when Bekar Jamat (Union of Idlers), a blogging site, started offering DIYs on how to counter shootouts and effects of tear gas, and were hacked, they changed their name to Hoshiar Jamat (Union of the Vigilant).

Malik Sajad’s documentary-ish but highly accomplished 5-to 15-page graphic novellas, Identity Cards, Terrorism of Peace, Facebooked have been uploaded on the internet as expressions of life under siege. In the works is also a Kashmiri Tin Drum with a boy called Munnu, “who since he was born in suffering,” says Malik, “didn’t know it was abnormal.”

Rap artist Saqib Bhat, struggling under his many influences — he wants to rap like the Afro-Peruvian rapper Immortal Technique and local hero MC Kash, fight like Che Guevara, draw like his artist brother Qamarul Zaman — is working on a comic book based on Kashmiri mythological characters, the Waiwos, who scare children at night. MC Kash tried, and failed, to do rap with dying folk instruments, rabab and sarang, but says will try again. Shahnaz Bashir is working on the final draft of his novel. Short-story writer Arif Ayaz Parrey’s brilliant metaphorical tales, A Prologue to Memory and The Unpredictable Dogs of Aaesmapoor, and journalist Aijaz Husain’s short story, Respected Shobha Rani, on a young and beautiful lady officer whom everyone loves and for whom they are willing to “give up stone pelting” but with a condition — “we will continue demanding azadi” — are all examples of real artistry with politics and tongues firmly in the cheeks.

The silent treatment
This very quality of holding back or leaving things half said is what leaves in the Kashmiri hand one of the last weapons of subversion. From 1959-1997, Rahman Rahi did not publish a line of poetry. “When Kashmir’s leading poet is silent for four decades, you have to ask why,” says Abir Bazaz, writer and film-maker who runs a literary blog www.kunear.com “Rahman Rahi’s silence and Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry are complementary, they connected Kashmir’s past and its future.” This is how, he says, writers who represent Kashmir’s ‘modernity’ learnt to open up the space for ellipsis, to express what is manifest but also what remains hidden in every culture.

These ‘cover-ups’ are also part of the Urdu literary tradition, which the Kashmiri language no doubt was familiar with. “Metaphors evolve out of repression. Ghalib often wrote against the British, but no Britisher would be able to detect that, such was his way with words,” says Parrey.

Kashmir’s artists — in Kashmir and outside — consider themselves part of all its narratives. Its narratives of silence and its narratives of resistance. There are also examples of individual introspection in order to address a collective. Parrey who does a column for Honour, a local magazine, is, for instance, working on a piece that will talk of life of Pandits at refugee camps. “In ’89, Kashmir was silent when many of her (Pandit) neighbours were threatened. I don’t think Kashmir will allow it to happen a second time,” he says. Masood Husain’s landscapes and Vir Munshi’s paintings of exile also evoke the same geography — a land lost in time and space.

2010-2011 has also been a year of ‘firsts.’ Residue by academic-poet-novelist Nitasha Kaul, for example, when published, will probably be the first novel in English by a Kashmiri woman author. The journey of Leon, a Kashmiri Muslim, and Keya, a Kashmiri Hindu is actually a reflection of Kaul’s “testament of memory to come out of a conflicted inheritance” — her relation to Kashmir. “I tried for years not to write about Kashmir,” says Kaul, “forcing myself to avoid Kashmir even when I talked about democracy and identity in other places. Later, I could not bear not to talk about it…. Since 2010, people cannot dismiss the legitimate demands of the Kashmiri people by calling them ‘Islamist’ or ‘foreign-backed.’ The young generation of Kashmir has made their voice heard.”

Siddhartha Gigoo’s Garden of Solitude, is the first — and balanced — Pandit novel in English that is unique in having managed to cheese off everybody. “Some said I had buried the issue of Pandit migration. Panun Kashmir ignored my book. My Kashmiri Muslim friends said I had not been fair to them…It’s just that I am part of all of Kashmir’s stories not just that of exile,” says Gigoo.

Film-maker Iffat Fatima who is working on a film (as yet untitled) on disappearances “that is part of the larger rubric of the rule of impunity that has settled in Kashmir” also advocates the same concept of border-lessness to explain her concept of freedom. “Kashmir is, in fact, a challenge to a narrow concept of nationhood. Azadi means justice, freedom from coercion, freedom of movement primarily. It has not been delivered to us under the Indian government. But has it also been delivered to the Indian people?”

Malik Sajad’s 1 minute 50 second-film, Hopskotch, asks some direct questions. For a few seconds, a hangul, the endangered Kashmiri stag, is seen trying to escape as he gets trapped by barbed wires across the border. The film foregrounds the Kashmiri nostalgia of being part of a borderless world, of a place without LoC, being on the Silk Route and its cultural kinship with Central Asia, Iran — doors that closed since the conflict.

“If a person crosses the border, he is called a terrorist. What do you call an animal trying to do the same?” asks Malik in Delhi while sitting across a table in a cafe.

“A dead animal,” I mumble, and look away.