Kashmiris turn to art to challenge Indian rule

Kashmiris use art as a form of protest with satire, in particular, being used as a medium of dissent.

DO NOT USE Kashmir art - barbed wire scarf
Cashmere scarfs are usually embroidered with flowers and birds, but artists have designed scarfs with barbed wire and guns [Courtesy of Crafted in Kashmir]

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir  Kashmir has a rich tradition of artisan culture. Intricate woodcarvings, colourful papier-mache and exquisite cashmere scarfs made the Himalayan valley renowned for its fine handcrafts.

Cashmere scarfs are usually embroidered with flowers and birds, but the artists Mahum Shabir and Mir Suhail wanted to challenge conventional representations of Kashmir and its crafts by designing scarfs with barbed wire and guns.

In 2011, the artists founded Crafted in Kashmir, a project aimed at promoting cultural expression and creative resistance by incorporating symbols of violence into traditional Kashmiri textiles.

The combination of flowers and barbed wire embroidered on hand-loomed scarfs might be unsettling for outsiders, but in Kashmir, one of the most militarised regions in the world, it is something most people have grown accustomed to.

In springtime, almond blossoms fill the parks of Kashmir, and in autumn chinar trees spread bright-coloured leaves. But armed soldiers, military checkpoints and barbed wire are there all year round.

Armed uprisings

Kashmir has been a source of dispute for decades, but in 1989 an armed uprising erupted against Indian rule.

Indian military crackdown on rebels turned the Muslim-majority region into a highly militarised area, where roughly 500,000 soldiers are believed to be deployed.

About 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the uprising and ensuing military crackdown.

“We always had art in Kashmir, but recently young people started using it to protest,” said Ali Abbas, who owns Goodfellas, a cafe devoted to promoting arts and exhibiting the works of young Kashmiri artists in Srinagar.

In 2008 and 2010, campaigns of civil disobedience in Kashmir showed a shift in the forms of resistance to Indian rule in the valley, as more Kashmiris turned to non-violent protests.

Stone-throwing in demonstrations became a common form of protest, but many Kashmiris also began using cartoons, music, poetry and graffiti as mediums of dissent.

“Art can go a long way, unlike a stone or a gun. Bloodshed will stay here, but art can travel and reach other parts of the world,” said Abbas.

The art cafe was co-founded with artist Mujtaba Rizvi.

India's Hindu nationalists have staged rallies in defence of an accused in the case of the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in the southern part of the disputed region [Courtesy of Suhail Naqshbandi]
India’s Hindu nationalists have staged rallies in defence of an accused in the case of the rape and murder of a Muslim girl in the southern part of the disputed region [Courtesy of Suhail Naqshbandi]

The lack of spaces for artists to get together and exhibit their works motivated Rizvi to start Kashmir Art Quest, an initiative aimed at supporting artists and art production in the valley.

Apart from the struggle for space in a region scarred by violence, Rizvi points out the issues of lack of freedom of expression, censorship and surveillance.

For the artist and political cartoonist Suhail Naqshbandi, satire is a particularly effective way of finding alternative ways to protest and challenge power.

“Cartoons are about holding a visual brief for the oppressed,” he said.

“In a place like Kashmir artists need to take more subtle routes,” said Naqshbandi, who is the editorial cartoonist at the local newspaper Greater Kashmir.

“With the censorship in place, it becomes difficult to make in-your-face kind of cartoons. So one depends heavily on the power of lampoonery to put the message across.”

Curtailing dissent

The Indian government has several mechanisms to curtail dissent.

The ‘Public Safety Act’, which has been called a “lawless law” by Amnesty International, allows detentions without charge or trial for up to two years.

According to Amnesty, the law has been used to arrest those who challenge Indian authority through political action as well as peaceful dissent.

Restrictions on the access to internet and media have also become common ways to curb protests and social unrest.

 [Courtesy of Greater Kashmir]
 [Courtesy of Greater Kashmir]

According to the UN, there have been at least 31 social media and internet bans in the state of Jammu and Kashmir since 2012.

“Censorship won’t stop me from saying what I have to say”, Naqshbandi told Al Jazeera. “There are always different ways of saying it.”

In a place where dissent is dangerous, the job of cartoonists is not easy.

“You deal with very negative subjects, tragic subjects,” Naqshbandi said.

Coping with pain

Earlier this year, when the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in the Kathua region was followed by demonstrations by Hindu nationalists defending the accused, Naqshbandi depicted the demonstrators being looked at disapprovingly by a disgusted devil.

“What puts me up is the feedback I receive. People tell me I am giving voice to what they have to say,” Naqshbandi said.

For the artist Mir Suhail, cartoons are “a place of safety and a way of coping with pain.”

Suhail has been drawing cartoons for Kashmiri media for more than 10 years. He said he liked Charlie Chaplin’s quote that “to truly laugh you must be able to take your pain and play with it”.

In 2016, he made a series of digital images to raise awareness about the use of pellet shotguns by Indian armed forces against unarmed protesters in Kashmir.

 Pellet guns have blinded hundreds of civilians in Kashmir [Courtesy of Mir Suhail]
 Pellet guns have blinded hundreds of civilians in Kashmir [Courtesy of Mir Suhail]

By digitally adding eye bandages to famous paintings, Suhail hoped to draw attention to the use of pellet guns, which have killed, blinded and severely injured hundreds of people in Kashmir.

The use of these weapons, which fire hundreds of skin-piercing pellets at high velocity, has been condemned by Amnesty International and considered a violation of international standards on the use of force.

Using satire to challenge authority, however, is far from new in the valley. Bhand Pather, Kashmir’s traditional theatre, has been using humour for centuries to defy the most powerful and denounce injustice.

“Kashmir’s theatre has roots in resistance,” said Arshad Mushtaq, theatre director and playwright.

Bhand Pather used to be performed in villages and use satire to highlight social problems and ridicule authority.

“There are very serious messages behind the satirical plays,” Mushtaq said. “Bhand was the theatre of commoners and a form of satirical resistance.”

Although the traditional form of theatre saw a decline in the last century, Mushtaq has been involved in the efforts to revive it.

By adapting contemporary theatre to the Kashmiri context and incorporating elements of Bhand Pather, he has been trying to keep the essence of satirical theatre alive.

“As a teenager I protested by throwing stones, but now my stones are my theatre plays,” Mushtaq told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera