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Memory as resistance

Majid Maqbool | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 17, 2016
Branches of pain: ‘Wounded Sky’ by Rollie Mukherjee. Photo: Conflictorium, Ahmedabad

Branches of pain: ‘Wounded Sky’ by Rollie Mukherjee. Photo: Conflictorium, Ahmedabad

Rollie Mukherjee has created a remarkable series of Kashmir-centric artworks — despite never having visited Kashmir

Tell us how your show came to be. Having never visited Kashmir, how did you come to engage with the place and the issues people face there?

My show focuses on the notion of female agency, memory and remembrance as resistance in the context of Kashmir. I wanted my works to question the meta-narratives that try to silence the voices of Kashmiri people. I wanted to de-centralise the Indian point of view by highlighting the viewpoint of Kashmiris.

I have never visited Kashmir, but I met a few Kashmiri people in the ’90s. They used to come frequently to our house for selling warm dresses and carpets. They used to share their problems and talk about the crisis in Kashmir at that time. That stayed with me. On Facebook, I came across the writings of many Kashmiri writers, activists, lawyers, film-makers and so on, which had an impact on my consciousness. More than art history books, I started engaging with political history. My first painting on Kashmir was titled ‘willo’ and was part of a show in 2007. It talked about the cold-blooded hegemonic State apparatus that ruins people’s lives.

How and why did you choose to display your works in the Conflictorium museum?

My intention was not to display in a typical gallery setup, because gallery spaces neutralise certain positions and, sometimes, disenfranchise viewers by locating them in some transcendental sphere resulting from solitary contemplation. My paintings demanded more cultural, social, emotional and politically layered readings. The Conflictorium, a museum of conflict, has a history of documenting caste- and religion-based riots in Gujarat. The encouragement from its director, Avni Sethi, and her openness to discuss conflicts through art helped me in exhibiting my works without inhibition. Also, my works deal with abandoned buildings in Kashmir — schools, temples, mosques, Sufi shrines, guesthouses and so on. These structures have lost their functional meaning and have metamorphosed into bunkers, detention centres and torture centres. I felt that the images of Kashmiri people in a crisis displayed on the peeled-off, un-plastered wall of an old building, would generate a haunting feeling of absence and presence.

Do you think the average Indian is willing to hear the dissenting Kashmiri voices that have been suppressed by the State ? Can common people in India raise their voices against the injustices committed in Kashmir?

Over the past few months, the voices of Indian youth against the State have been getting louder. But this visibility of (only) certain privileged spaces is also a problem. There is a plethora of dissenting voices questioning the legitimacy of the Indian State’s violence in Kashmir and elsewhere. Efforts have been made by media and the State to make these voices appear anti-national.

Different, dissenting voices are coming from Dalits, Muslims, tribals and other minorities. Dr BR Ambedkar pointed out that India is yet to be a nation and is only a conglomeration of castes fighting for their position within the graded hierarchy. Anti-caste intellectuals have been pointing out that the caste system can be broken jointly by these dissenting nationalities and groups.

Then the question of national security, if one understands it clearly, becomes the question of the security of certain privileged castes. I often remember what Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. “People are always with the government and media plays an important role in this conspiracy... to get International attention, the war has to be exceptional”. I wonder how many more deaths Kashmir needs to witness to shake the numbness of Indian people.

How did young people, especially those who have never visited Kashmir, respond to what you had depicted in your artworks on Kashmir?

Some viewers were interrogative, others were appreciative and some curious. Some people told me that everything is normal now in Kashmir and that it’s not like the ’90s. Also there were questions and concerns about the Kashmiri Pandits, the normalisation of everyday realities and, of course, the role of the Indian army in maintaining peace and security. I feel there is also a sense of guilt when one comes to know ground realities. I understand now that this stems from the lack of knowledge about the place and also the unwillingness to probe the stories being propagated by the State and the media. I feel social media has done a lot to inform people, especially young people, about the ground realities. I hope my work helps in prompting people to rethink Kashmir.

The real change, however, would be people from this country accepting a Kashmiri artist who produces works like these. Until that happens, these are half-hearted efforts, and not really a ground-breaking shift in mindset.

M ajid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and writer

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Published on June 17, 2016
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