ART, DESIRE, DEFIANCE
A memoir from Kashmir
by Syed Mujtaba Rizvi
4th of August 2019. It was one of those usual unusual days. Rumours abuzz, awaiting the worst, and yet out and about running the errands of life. I had left home in the morning for work at Rajbagh, Srinagar - where I manage a restaurant (or used to) situated on the banks of River Jhelum with mesmerising views of the Shankaracharya temple atop a hill of the Zabarwan mountain range. That’s also where my studio is located - or was!
I entered the studio, which has windows facing three sides - One overlooking the river Jhelum; other towards the Abdullah bridge which is always overflowing with traffic – especially after the government chopped off several centuries-old Chinar trees and encroached upon a historic park to construct a monstrosity called the grade-separator in its efforts to reduce traffic congestion. The third window looks at the historic old Zero Bridge, and in its backdrop are the restricted hills behind the Badami Bagh cantonment area – probably the largest military garrison in Kashmir. One cannot see the warnings painted all over the several kilometres long walls of the cantonment from the window, but a large Indian flag can be seen fluttering on top of one of the hills. Large dense clouds can always be seen emerging from behind the hill where civilian access is restricted. One of my friends even has a theory that a HAARP-like experimental device is installed there which is capable of altering and weaponizing the weather – I think that may be a bit too far stretched.
On that day there was panic and rumours and whatnot. And we could smell something in the air. I guess, somewhere we knew what was coming. I guess Kashmiris have developed some sort of sixth sense, and we can almost smell trouble in the air. Trifurcation of the state, war with Pakistan, army taking over police stations; a genocide? All speculations were in the air. One friend even joked that what if they are going to announce Azaadi tomorrow! How optimistic is he?!
It was a slow business day that day and the restaurant was almost deserted since most people were busy stockpiling essentials. My mother asked me to do the same and I had refused thinking that we could utilise the abundant stock at the restaurant in a worst-case scenario. I tried working on a painting that I had started some weeks ago, but the unfolding drama kept me away from the canvas.
By the time I reached home that night - tourists, outstation students, non-local workers and Amarnath Yatris had been evacuated; roads were sealed; curfew was imposed, the internet and phone lines were barred, cable TV was shut down, and the last news I saw on TV was of ex-chief ministers, Mehbooba and Omar, being put under house arrest. Hundreds of other religious and political leaders across the spectrum had already been jailed in the preceding six-seven months. The Governor kept reassuring the politicians huddling at the gates of Rajbhawan not to pay heed to any rumours. People were asked to stay calm as this was all being done to avert a possible terror attack. I went to sleep, expecting the worst but still hoping for the best.
I woke up late the next day - really late. My father, who is a doctor and on emergency duty, came back home around 2:00 pm and told me what had happened. I don't know what got into me, I started laughing. I couldn't stop laughing. I don't know why I was laughing. My mother had to raise her voice to make me stop laughing. I wanted to go out and run. Run to nowhere. I wanted to chase something. Instead, I froze and went back and laid down in my bed. A couple of hours later some of my friends and their friends who live close to my neighbourhood came knocking at the door. They had dropped in as if expecting me to do something about the situation. We exchanged silent greetings as my father let them in. Honestly, I was a bit amused at the whole scene. Everyone sat silently for 5 minutes. I wanted to laugh at the whole situation, again. It was pathetic really. But I think they had come because they too had had their mad laughter at their homes. They had come running. They were chasing something. And just like me, they didn't know what either. Mom made tea and served some cookies that no one had.
I think in that room - in that silence, whether we knew each other or not, few words were spoken, and a sense of expected loss and betrayal was shared - In that room, we were not mourning what had happened that day, I think we were mainly all ashamed of ourselves. Ashamed of not doing enough. Ashamed of not knowing what could have been done. Ashamed of not having been able to reach some sort of a consensus. And ashamed of having discredited each other time and again. While at the same time in acknowledgement of our helplessness. It was as much a moment of confusion, as it was of clarity.
Over the next few weeks I spent long-long hours, days and nights, in my studio at home. Since there were apprehensions of a long shutdown, I had recently ordered new art materials, paints and canvases and stuff - thinking I will have a lot of time to spend in the studio. My mind went blank each time I entered the studio. I would however still spend a lot of time there. Not doing anything. Not listening to music or reading a book. Not watching pre-downloaded movies or playing any offline games on the phone. Not making art. Just sitting and staring at things. I made absolutely nothing for at least the first 30 days. After that, I had to force myself into doing something, for the sake of my own sanity. Eventually, I ended up making two small paintings on canvas and two drawings on paper, which led to more frustration. I was stuck in my own home and in my own mind. And obviously, because of the restrictions, I couldn’t reach the restaurant to fetch that stock I was planning to consume when my mother had told me to buy essentials. Eventually they rotted away.
'Normalcy in the shrine' is the title I gave to my other painting in reference to all the propaganda around 'normalcy' in Kashmir in the Indian mainstream media and from statements emerging out of the chambers of the Indian Parliament. It is a painting of one of the minarets of the historic Jamia Masjid in Srinagar, where people have been barred from praying - not just during the last 6 months of the lockdown, but quite often in the past decade. I made the painting using a heavy application of acrylic paint, layer after layer, and then kept cutting into the paint with surgical equipment while it was drying, forming textures, whirls, wounds, and subtle references to bleeding across the surface. Acrylic paint dries in an interesting way, starting with the top layer, forming sort of a 'crust' on top. In heavy application of acrylic paint, the top layer solidifies completely, the underlying layers never completely dry. Cutting into the paint slowly with surgical equipment was almost an act of violence. Not letting the paint settle, squeezing all the moisture out of it. I had probably assumed the role of a tyrant. Shaping the 'territory' by thousands of violent yet precise and measured attacks. It is almost sculptural. Almost a performance. A performance that nobody saw. The painting that emerged is seemingly that of a silent evening. But you really need to get close, probe, inspect, maybe even touch the painting to get a real sense of the event at sight.
One would think that in times like these, when physical and mental activity is severely restricted - on top of a near-complete communications blackout - our body may have evolved to put itself to sleep for extra hours in order to compensate for the extreme boredom and lack of critical and creative stimuli. But instead, anxiety takes over and you can hardly put yourself to rest even when laying on your bed for hours. At home, I would switch on the TV in my bedroom, which I have rarely used ever since I bought it 3 years ago. But around this time, the television was rendered useless even if I wanted to use it because there was no way to recharge the satellite TV services (and cable service was still banned). One of my friends who went to New Delhi, cutting short his post-wedding stay due to the situation, got my services resumed. There was no way for me make sure if the recharge was done because there was no way to communicate with him once he had left Kashmir. I would switch on the TV to check, and did that for a week, until eventually it started working. After nearly a month I had access to the news, i.e. if the show put on by drama queens in Delhi and Mumbai based studios can still be called as such.
I immediately realised this was a mistake. The entertainment shows seemed superficial and unrelatable, and the news channels were panic inducing. The anxiety got worse and I ended up spending most hours of the night sitting at the window with my legs dangerously dangling out and staring into the far abyss of darkness – the TV still switched on, but audio muted, playing the channel run by one particularly notorious anchor known to scream at his guests and lower the volume on the microphones of those who opposed his views. Muting the TV was my act of resistance. Shutting his voice down, and completely ignoring their propagandist rant. Or so I thought!
One of these nights, at around 2:00 a.m., staring out the window watching a flag flutter on top of the nearby Imambargah, I could hear some desperate screaming coming through a loudspeaker from a far distance. “Wake up! Wake up every one! They have come to loot us!” the voice screamed. Then some frantic screaming which was hardly decipherable. Then some moments later noises of commotion and sloganeering. Some bangs. And then suddenly dead silence again. I wanted to jump out and run towards the screams. What was happening? Who was looting whom? We will never know for sure. I walked around the room frantically. And just to divert myself and for the sake of my own sanity started drawing.
^The black drawing is an imaginary map of the newly 'divided land' with barbed wires, and bridges that lead to nowhere. With people being 'searched' near the new 'bunkers' coming up in the city, and there is a desolate city seen from afar. There is a divide and disconnect. And we don’t really know what’s going on between the lines and the scribbles.
I have often been asked, especially by journalists trying to write about art and artists in Kashmir, “What happens to art in a conflict zone?” This always seems more like a provocation than a question. And while the answer pertains too many things, almost all the journalistic writing on art in Kashmir is construed and written from a political standpoint. So much so that many artists now prefer not speaking with journalists. It tends to create a skewed narrative. But what does happen to art in a conflict zone? This question either comes out of ignorance or from just being lazy to ask enough questions that might get us thinking in the right direction. Like, what happens to art production; what happens to the art-market or the institutions or the patronage for the arts; what happens to the art after being produced; what kind of art is produced; who are the people engaging in 'artistic' endeavours and why; how does conflict influence the form or the medium or ideas or themes? When we talk about the politics of art, what kind of politics are we talking about? These questions are all matters of long scholarly research and dissertations that cannot be encompassed herein. But if I were to oversimplify and speak primarily in the context of 'art production' by the artists, then: Art thrives. And If I were to speak in the context of public access, then: Art dies. But the thing about art is, it never dies. It manages to permeate. It changes language or form or medium, but it continues to exist and comment on or even challenge the contemporary situation.
Art challenges us and pushes us to think beyond our preconceived notions. Art makes the mundane relevant and something seemingly exciting as irrelevant. Art is an archive of our memories and shared histories and of contemporary events. It is an act of human expression or of resistance, but also sometimes of conformity and reinforcing ideas. In any case art becomes a catalyst for dialogue, for change. It is proven to influence our social, cultural, economic and aesthetic evolution. It is in our DNA to be intrigued by art. And at the end of it all, as an artist, art is not something you do, it is something that you are. If not anything, it changes us as individuals. And that is primarily what makes art important and relevant at all times.
As we enter the new year and a new decade, it is important to look back at what we have done over the past 10 years. Perhaps it will help us rethink our desires and defiance and provide us with answers to how we must behave in the future.
Gallerie One, a centre for contemporary arts and research, which I started in 2015, was vandalized and shut down by tourism officials just a few months after its opening. In March 2015 – soon after that vandalism, we did a major fundraiser show in New Delhi. After that show, I went back to Kashmir, once again to try a stir up some energy in myself and the community that I was a part of. I started an arts and entertainment cafe called Goodfellas which I ran and promoted for over a year. It was a big hit and set the trend for cafes as creative and cultural spaces in Kashmir. I am particularly proud of it because that idea sustained and even managed to take off through other ventures by other people. There were no spaces for artists in Kashmir so that was important. Now there are some. And hopefully, there will be more. But spaces for visual artists are still seriously lacking. Gallerie One was the first-ever centre for contemporary arts in Kashmir and had evolved after 5 years of work though Kashmir Art Quest. Nothing has come up after that either. After Goodfellas cafe, I joined ZeroBridge Fine-Dine, essentially replicating the Goodfellas cultural model on a larger scale. Other than that, I have continued to organise our annual contemporary art shows and other projects through Kashmir Art Quest, a contemporary arts foundation that I started over 10 years ago. I organised some workshops, and a number of other events at ZeroBridge Fine-Dine. We did a historic show in June 2018 wherein we got together 60 Kashmiri artists of different communities from around the world together for the first time in 66 years. I had also started a consulting company and had quite a few projects from early on.
But everything seems to have changed now. 2019 is over. and it took away from us most of what we had been working towards in the past decade. Last year would have been our 10th annual contemporary art show. However, it is for the first time since we did our first show in 2010 that we have not be able to do the exhibition. It crushes my heart even to think about it. The restaurant is shut down, the local economy has collapsed and there are no logical signs of revival in near future. The consulting company is dead. And for now, I have decided to leave Kashmir.
Is this the end of everything?
NO! Art, desire and defiance never ends.