When the boat became a coffin - by Mufti Islah, Vidya Shivadas Back   Home  
The colours on the canvas has changed — troubled reds have displaced the luminous greens and blues. The sketches of the Dal lake and chinar trees no longer celebrate the beauty of the valley. Today they are morbid metaphors, filled with a sense of foreboding — lotus leaves have become green helmets and the only association painted orchids evoke are of the cemeteries on which they are placed. But what else would one expect after 12 years of pain, violence and tragedy?

Kashmir is not what it used to be. And the artists are only too aware of this reality. Sculptor Shabir Mirza has a way of dealing with the transition — by dividing his works into the pre and post ’90s era. The latter phase transformed him into a ‘‘witness and a victim’’. ‘‘Earlier I made landscapes, mountains and lakes but later my work began to mirror the deteriorating situation,’’ says Mirza, who has been an art teacher at Srinagar’s Institute of Music and Fine Arts (IMFA) from 1977 onwards. His Portrait of a Family series depicts heads of people and soldiers who died in the last 12 years. ‘‘How can I not talk about the terrible times that engulf the people living here,’’ he asks.

But for someone like Veer Munshi, who migrated to Delhi in ’90, it is the long ‘exile’ that conditions his art. ‘‘These works would have never happened if I had stayed on in Kashmir. But to leave my home with the intention of returning in a month and then realise that I could never go back had a profound effect on my psyche. Overnight I became a minority, a refugee,’’ he says, seated in his Chittranjan Park residence.

‘‘I remember trying desperately to make pretty paintings to sell as I needed the money. But they just wouldn’t come. Then I made a painting Terrorist on a Floating Land, and began a two-year long series on Kashmir,’’ he adds.

Eleven years later, the memory is fading away. ‘‘Today I view Kashmir alternatively — as a nostalgic memory and as a problem. But the immediacy has gone away,’’ he admits. What has emerged instead is a deeper understanding of the situation, visible in the installation he made in 2001 — a boat, once a symbol of livelihood for the Kashmiris, had been turned over to become a coffin. On the sides hang 10 garlanded photographs of the artist, each labelled secessionist, refugee, displaced, fundamentalist etc. ‘‘In the last decade, the average Kashmiri has been called so many things. But no one wants to tackle the problem, they only want to kill people,’’ he sighs.

While artists like Munshi and Jammu-based Bhushan Kaul address political issues in their works, a number of other artists continue to subscribe to the long Kashmiri tradition of landscapes and spiritual abstraction promoted by the likes of G R Santosh, Dina Nath Wali and Bansi Parimoo. Sculptors like Gayoor Hassan and Rajinder Tikoo, who have made a name in the contemporary Indian art scene, subscribe to this trajectory.

Delhi-based Faiyaz Dilbar feels this might be because of an inability to take a stand on the issues ‘‘Everything on Kashmir is so polarised. It becomes easier to simply evade the question and turn to landscape which has always been a part of our psyche.’’And others like Zargar Zahoor, who teaches art at the Jamia Milia Islamia, say matter-of-factly, ‘‘I have to go back to Srinagar every year and I don’t want to get into any trouble.’’ His landscapes, however, betray a deep sense of isolation and sadness: ‘‘When I go home, I see the beautiful scenery. But all it conveys to me is a feeling of insecurity and chaos, as if everything is moving away from me.’’ He uses paint as it is done traditionally by the paper-maiche artisans — moving from a black background to white and other lighter colours. On the canvas, at least, people seem to have found a way to transform the darkness into brilliant, luminous colours.

FOR many the choice to hold on to the language of abstraction and landscape is deliberate. Like the late Manohar Kaul, who when asked why he never wanted to refer to the tension and the violence in his paintings replied, ‘‘I would rather show everyone how beautiful Kashmir was. Then they will get the strength to change it.’’ Agrees artist Shabir Santosh, son of the legendary G R Santosh, ‘‘People are obsessed with the political situation, they spend the entire day talking about it. There is no work either. What is the point of talking about the same things in our paintings?’’

‘‘The role of art is to make people see — to show them the fantastic light that hides in our mountains.’’ He talks of his father, a Shia Muslim, who embraced Kashmir Shaivism after visiting Amarnath and embarked on a series of Shiva-Shakti paintings and works that explored the therapeutic value of colours. ‘‘Kashmir, in those days, was so liberal,with our culture of Sufism. We have regressed by 500 years today.’’

The conditions in Kashmir are not exactly conducive to creative growth. Militancy apart, job opportunities and spaces to show works are almost nil. Mehraj-ud-din Dar, a young sculptor, has taken up television production to sustain himself. And like him, most of the IMFA graduates have given up art. Akthar Hussian, who studied applied arts from IMFA in 1999, runs an internet cafe to survive. ‘‘No one wants to take the risk of starting their careers here,’’ says Arshad Salai, another young artist.

But not all have the time to moan over the lack of state patronage. In fact, P N Kachru, who came to the Capital in 1989, doesn’t even think it is worth his while to mope over the loss of his home and studio in Srinagar. ‘‘The only thing that bothers me still is the destruction of my library. It had 7,000 books and years of research,’’ hea dds sadly. ‘‘But let it go, I don’t want all these mundane details of my life to creep into my canvases,’’ says this founder member of the Kashmir progressive artists group that was set up in the late ’40s.

In the deeply spiritual landscape of Kashmir, artists have opted out of finding solutions for people. Those living in the valley are only trying to cope with their circumstances. ‘‘My art cannot escape the times even if I run away from my surroundings,’’ says Mirza. And the ones away from it are trying to exorcise themselves of the nostalgia and the longing to return.

While in strife-torn Sri Lanka, artists are constantly expressing their dissent by making political art in public spaces, Kashmiri artists continue to hold on to the old-fashioned power of beauty — in its power to heal. That and the hope that they will regain the land they once knew. Beyond that, as Kachru says, ‘‘I don’t know what is the need of my paintings. All I can say is that it is me.’’
Published in KashmirLive of IndianExpress