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‘I have put my pen down’

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on November 16, 2019 Published on November 15, 2019

Colours of despair: A composition from artist Masood Hussain’s Vetasta - The Silent Witness series. In this work, Hussain has tiled two time periods in a single frame. To the left are the silhouettes of Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, and to the right, the River Jhelum — Vetasta in Sanskrit — which has been< a silent witness to the history of Kashmir   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MASOOD HUSSAIN

On lockdown for over 100 days, Kashmir’s plight has crippled its artistes — painters and poets, playwrights and cartoonists. Some are still in shock, while a few are finding solace in creative bursts

The artist sat all day by a window that overlooked a winding road dotted with bakeries and provision stores. The occasional ring of the telephone broke the monotony of the long hours he spent in his Srinagar house trying to comprehend the political development that had stripped Kashmir — and its people — of statehood and an elected government.

Masood Hussain realised something was wrong on August 4. Everywhere he looked, he saw only security personnel, checkpoints and barricades. “I knew something big was about to happen and everyone I spoke with --- neighbours and friends — seemed to agree,” the retired professor of the University of Kashmir’s Institute of Music and Fine Arts says.

His fears came true the next morning, when Union home minister Amit Shah announced the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted a special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). The order, passed by both Parliament and the President of India, came with the imposition of indefinite curfew and the shutdown of mobile and internet services in the new Union Territory (UT) of J&K.

A little over 100 days later, the 65-year-old mixed media artist and short filmmaker recalls how he took to the computer with a vengeance after the order, channelling the anger and disappointment he felt into a series of digital art titled Vetasta - The Silent Witness.

The Sanskrit name for River Jhelum, the Vetasta in Hussain’s recent creations is far from the cheerful and beauteous versions that flowed in his earlier paintings. It is, in the artist’s words, a “silent witness to the history of the last 30 years” — a period riddled with strife, conflict, humanitarian crises, militarisation and seclusion.

He ended the series by tiling two time periods in one composition. To the left of the frame are silhouettes of the two politicians whose names are inextricably linked with the politics in the region after the accession of Kashmir to the Union of India: Sheikh Abdullah, former prime minister of J&K and the founder of National Conference, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. To the right is a riverscape with a solitary country boat. The shades of blue in the river are speckled with strands of saffron — a colour that has come to signify the Hindu right-wing in India.

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Kashmir’s pain has enveloped the state’s artistes — its painters and poets, and playwrights and cartoonists. Some are still in a state of shock, unable to give voice to their emotions. A few — like Hussain — are finding solace in creative bursts.

Hussain’s relationship with despair, anguish and the feeling of isolation goes back to the early days of militancy in Kashmir. “It was the early ’90s when the harmony in our lives began to slowly evaporate,” he says. Killings, explosions, fires and encounters became the norm as insurgents and Indian security forces engaged in a fight that has continued for three decades.

The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley is another development that the artist, like many other Kashmiri Muslims, found hard to accept. “At the University, I had many Pandit colleagues. There was no tension at the workplace; only mutual respect and understanding,” Hussain recalls. But the worsening political situation eventually ruined the social fabric of Kashmir, and this started showing in the paintings that Hussain has been making in the last 30 years.

The russet leaves of the chinar trees, the snow-capped Himalayan peaks, the illuminated places of worship and the tranquillity of the lakes slowly gave way to shards of glass, broken window-frames of abandoned houses, concertina wires, blood-soaked footwear and schoolbags filled with stones used for pelting. In 2016, he grabbed headlines with a black-and-white series of digital art that drew attention to the use of lead pellets by security forces to quell crowds.

Hussain’s artistic interpretation of the current situation in Kashmir is yet to find a place outside the monitor of a computer. The ongoing clampdown on prepaid mobile and internet services in the Valley has frozen channels of communication between members of creative fields and their audiences across India and the world.

As news of midnight patrols, heightened security measures and the extensive use of razor wires in the region trickled in from various sources, social media platforms started buzzing with views in favour and against the move by the Government of India. Billboards and posters denouncing the abrogation of Article 370 and the “occupation of Kashmir” went up in several places across the world, including the Times Square in New York.

It wasn’t just artistes in the Valley who wanted to give expression to the uncertainty. Deeply disturbed by the turn of events in Kashmir, Kolkata-based artist Sumona Chakravarty launched an Instagram series in September, in which she imagined life under 30 days of curfew (#30DaysofCurfew). She set the series in her hometown — using actual names of streets and landmarks. Each illustration, in red and black, had a detailed caption on the moment captured in the frame: From obtaining a curfew pass to being woken up at midnight by a soldier to be wished “Happy Independence Day”. The month-long series culminated in a reading session at a coffee shop in South Kolkata.

From Kolkata, in solidarity: Snapshots from Kolkata-based artist Sumona Chakravarty’s Instagram series in which she imagined life under 30 days of curfew and communication lockdown in her hometown   -  IMAGE COURTESY: INSTAGRAM/SUMONACH

 

News of such acts of resistance, however sporadic, is yet to reach the artistes who continue to live in Kashmir.

The communication blackout — the longest in the Valley since a 53-day-long curfew in 2016 that followed the death of Hizbul Mujahideen operative Burhan Wani — affects the lives of 7 million people in the disputed region.

The only place with internet in Kashmir is a media facilitation centre at the directorate of information and public relations office in Srinagar. Close to 400 journalists and photographers in Srinagar alone depend on the few computers and patchy broadband services here for work, while those based in the smaller towns have been filing stories over the phone or through people travelling outside the new UT.

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Exit mode: Cartoonist Bashir Ahmed Bashir’s take on the Central advisory that led to the departure of tourists from Kashmir before August 5   -  IMAGE COURTESY: FACEBOOK/BAB

The last 100 days have been the most trying in 70-year-old Bashir Ahmad Bashir’s life as a political cartoonist. He has been itching to access his official page on Facebook: BAB (the initials of his name). Hugely popular among the readers of Srinagar Times, an Urdu daily, Bashir also built a fan following among young Kashmiris across the world through his daily posts on social media.

“The last post on my page was made on August 4,” Bashir tells BLink at his residence in Srinagar’s Dalgate area. Sketched in black-and-white — in the characteristic BAB style — the cartoon is the artist’s take on the government advisory, issued on August 2, that led to the speedy departure of tourists and Amarnath pilgrims before the big announcement of August 5. Citing a terror threat, the Central advisory had asked visitors to leave Kashmir. The highlight of the cartoon is a nameplate that hangs on the wall of a government office. It reads ‘Director (No) Tourism’.

The advisory, Bashir stresses, was a clear indicator of things to come. “It rang alarm bells in my head too. But I didn’t think that the government would move so swiftly,” he says. A firm believer in dialogue, the Kashmiri artist says that the cartoon he made on August 5 — in which the UT of J&K is left with only the ‘0’ of Article 370 — was the last one to have made into print.

“We managed to print the edition for August 6, but very few copies got circulated because of the curfew,” he says. “Shutdowns are not new to us, though this one seems really long. We have to keep going and wait for things to return to normal,” Bashir says.

He is not sure what his comeback cartoon will be — “I keep thinking and working in my mind”. He adds that he might be ready with a series to greet the resumption of internet services.

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Shafi Ahmad, a Srinagar-based civil engineer and author, was at the hospital with his ailing wife on August 5 when the news of the revocation of Article 370 reached him. Later in the day, in the absence of public transport, an ambulance driver ferried him home through an unusually heavy security cover.

His mobile — just like every mobile in Kashmir — remained silent for weeks before a partial relief in the restrictions brought postpaid numbers back to life. The call he seemed to miss the most was from the office of Kashmir Uzma, a sister publication of Greater Kashmir. Ahmad’s weekly political satire in the Urdu daily hasn’t been printed since the government order. And there is no clarity on when it’s going to see the light of day again.

Cut off: November 12 marked the 100th day of the shutdown of internet services in Kashmir   -  THE HINDU/NISSAR AHMAD

“The op-ed pages of newspapers in Kashmir are discussing anything but politics these days --- from Franz Kafka to healthcare,” Ahmad tells BLink in Srinagar. “I can’t say if Haz-o-karab [his column] will be resumed. But I am doing some other kind of writing — the kind that focusses on the human cost of a political conflict,” he adds.

The author of Half Widow and Shadows Beyond The Ghost Town, both novels in English, and several radio plays in Urdu and Kashmiri, Ahmad is now adding finishing touches to a short story in English. Titled Nagabal, it celebrates the friendship between a Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandit. The duo, separated by the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in the early ’90s, meets two decades later, at a temple near the hot springs of Nagabal in Anantnag district.

In the intervening years, both have undergone several ups and downs in life. A sense of displacement dogged the Kashmiri Pandit while his friend — who became the self-appointed guardian of the temple — grappled with life in the shadow of insurgency. Their reunion, however momentary, helps them forget their problems and they decide to celebrate the moment with a dip in the hot springs.

Ahmad’s optimism, as expressed in Nagabal, is also the reason behind his involvement with the J&K Fiction Writers Guild, a group of 30 writers that meets every Saturday in its office in Srinagar’s Abi Guzar area. The frequency of the meetings has reduced since August 5.

“There are members who would travel to Srinagar every Saturday for our sessions. But we haven’t seen them in the last three months. Only two meetings were held in the last three weeks, attended by about 10-12 members based in Srinagar,” Ahmad says. The third meeting, scheduled for November 9, was cancelled because of a snowstorm that disrupted water and power supply in Srinagar and several other parts of Kashmir.

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The communication blockade, paired with the danger of self-censorship, has made Saba Shah’s work doubly difficult. It’s been three months since Shah, the editor of J&K Maraaz Kamraaz Academy (JKMKA), an online forum for arts and culture founded in June 2018, has been able to commission a fresh piece of writing.

Shah informs BLink over the phone that she has lost touch with many authors and poets who use prepaid mobile numbers. “And those with postpaid numbers are unable to email their writings. More important, I am unable to upload anything on Instagram, Facebook and WordPress,” she says.

JKMKA, which publishes prose and poetry in Kashmiri, Urdu, Hindi and English, has also not received anything from its regular contributors in neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Shah says that she senses reluctance among writers to comment on or share their interpretation of the recent goings-on.

Until things look up, Shah knows that she can’t publish the first edition of JKMKA’s print newsletter — a project that she has been putting together for the last couple of months. But she is not despairing. “We will keep trying. I am sure the writings will start trickling in again,” she says.

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Waiting for Kashmir: Actor and director MK Raina rues that he has no idea when his theatre-related trips to Kashmir can start again   -  THE HINDU/SANDEEP SAXENA

 

On the morning of August 5, veteran actor and theatre director MK Raina was at the Delhi airport, waiting to board a flight to Srinagar. “I had been invited to deliver the keynote address at a Sahitya Akademi seminar on Kashmiri theatre. But then came the big announcement of the day and I had to turn back and go home instead,” he says. The following week or so was filled with tension as he awaited news of his friends — many of them from the theatre world — in Kashmir.

With each passing day, Raina’s misgivings about the ongoing clampdown increased. “I have been visiting Kashmir frequently since 2008 — not for tourism, but theatre. I have worked with hundreds of artistes and ordinary people across the state. We held workshops and seminars; we performed Shakespeare’s King Lear in the villages; we invited the local artistes to participate in festivals in different parts of the country and we even used theatre to help Kashmiris deal with stress, trauma and personal loss,” Raina says.

One of Raina’s most memorable experiences from Kashmir is that of a workshop he conducted for children. Most of the participants were children of slain police personnel. “Life is difficult for children in Kashmir. They are usually not allowed to be outdoors after 3 or 4 pm; they have to deal with curfews; they see armed soldiers every day. So I took a group of children from Srinagar to Jammu — for a change of scene — along with their mothers and some teachers,” he says. The sessions at the workshop helped the children and the elders laugh, cry, express anger and even form friendships with other participants.

He rues that he has no idea when his theatre-related trips to Kashmir can start again: “Little by little, we were trying to make a difference to the lives of the people there and also keep the love for theatre alive. But August 5 has changed all that.”

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Anger has a name: Bashir Dada’s internal conflict with militancy, militarisation and marginalisation of the Kashmiri voice finds place in his poems, plays and songs   -  IMAGE COURTESY: BASHIR DADA

 

Veteran author, poet, songwriter and playwright Bashir Dada — who calls himself a baaghi (rebel) equals his plight as a Kashmiri to that “of a host who is being asked to leave his house to two overbearing guests”.

Dada’s internal conflict with militancy, militarisation and marginalisation of the Kashmiri voice has tinged his poems, plays and songs with sadness, despair and a sense of helplessness.

The anguish grew deeper when his son Visalat, a young film-maker, couldn’t rent a flat in Mumbai. “Everywhere he went he was refused accommodation for his Kashmiri Muslim identity,” Dada says during an interview in Srinagar. “In the end, a Kashmiri Pandit — a long-time friend of mine — offered to put his name on the lease. But my son refused; he said he doesn’t want anyone else’s name on the agreement. So he packed his bags and returned to Srinagar,” he says.

Dada, infuriated with the ongoing lockdown, has chosen to register his protest in the most un-Dada-like manner. “I have stopped writing. Maine kalam chhod diya hain (I have put my pen down),” he says. As a man who bears the twin tags of being outspoken and fearless, silence doesn’t come easy to Dada. “But I don’t have the words to articulate the humiliation, the anger simmering inside me,” he says.

He, however, is quick to point out that this may not mark the end of his lifelong affair with writing. “The lockdown — both literal and metaphorical — cannot last forever,” he says as he fishes out his smartphone to read an English translation of one of his poems in Urdu: Aur yeh saal bhi aise hi guzar jayega (And this year too shall pass by):

Cuff the dreams of reverie and hope,

For no one will return from those gallows,

Even today that beloved didn’t make it home,

And this year too shall pass by...

For how long will you light up those candles in the dusk

For the one who lost himself in dawn

Neither is he buried, no funeral either,

Our beloved disappeared in a fashion,

That for years after we spent in yearning and loss,

And this year too shall pass by...

Whom will you ask about your innocent beloved?

Leaders?

Don’t ask them for they don’t know pain...

No one will return from those gallows.

And this year too shall pass by.

Published on November 15, 2019
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