30 Jun

Thank you for visiting. I just returned to the US a week ago and got a brand new laptop to start editing footage with, so please bear with me as I get this site up and running. For now I have a rough cut of a short clip I put together that addresses the transformation of Kashmiri culture from the perspective of two contemporary artists Showkat Kathju, a visual artist, and Malik Sajad, a political cartoonist at Greater Kashmir newspaper. Here is the link:  http://vimeo.com/12703403

Also, I recently published an article on my experience filming and researching in Kashmir in the June issue of Honour Magazine, a Srinagar based publication. It is copied below. Please check back soon for more updates.

“Not to shoot a film in order to illustrate a thesis, or to display men and women confined to their external aspect, but to discover the matter they are made of. To attain that “heart of the heart” which does not let itself be caught by poetry, or by philosophy or by drama.” Robert Bresson “Notes on Cinematography”

For the past two years, I have been using a small camcorder to document what I think is the heart of Kashmir: art and culture.  My interest in Kashmir was first sparked in 2005 in a Kashmiri shop in Dharamsala while listening to cd recordings of Rashid Hafiz, a local Sufiyana Qalam singer. Three years later I arrived in Srinagar with the question: What is the role of art and artists in contemporary Kashmir? Little did I know I was about to observe artists struggle for space in a society enduring two decades of violence and at a time when cultural preservation has become necessary to survival.  Kashmir is a region where daily life is impacted by global politics even in the smallest ways, and where indigenous culture and consumerism fight for space in an already contested space. My objective as a foreign researcher and video-artist is to document the transformation of Kashmir from the viewpoint of local artists within the context of conflict and globalization.

“O Kashmir, Armenia once vanished.”-Agha Shahid Ali

In the architecture of the old city, I felt I found the story of Kashmir’s culture itself: A blend of local, Himalayan, Persian, Central Asian, and Mughal influences being replaced by characterless, drab, concrete modernity.  The ruins of an earlier age lay there like neglected elders reflecting in its arches, lattice window shutters, and woodcarvings the aesthetics and wisdom of Srinagar’s master artisans.  For me, the old city is an expression of a culture where craft is a way of life. Inside the homes are artisans, with skills passed through families for centuries, designing, weaving, carving, painting, and embroidering products that serve as the ambassadors of Kashmir to rest of the world. Artisan culture, it seemed to me as an outsider, formed the crux of something we could call a Kashmiri identity. It is even entrenched in spiritual traditions. Nund Rishi, the patron saint of Kashmir, uses the weaving loom as a metaphor for the mysteries of life and death in his poetry:

The reed enjoins to listen carefully

The shuttle warns not to rely on the world

Shrivel up in the grave does the paddle say

My parents have sent me to learn the craft.[1]

Slowly panning the camera over old buildings made of clay bricks next to new buildings made of mirrors was like following the trajectory of the culture itself.  Although destruction of heritage architecture is an issue all over the sub-continent, in Kashmir it is occurring in a place where expressions of a distinct cultural identity have been driving long-term political processes. The transformation of old town seems to have important ramifications for the future of Kashmir.

“I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to myself”-Agha Shahid Ali

Contemporary artists in Kashmir are in a peculiar position. On one hand there are extraordinary legacies of painting, poetry, folk theater, storytelling, and music but on the other, there is currently a dearth of creative expression in the social space that conspicuously engages the immediate realities of life in Kashmir, nor draws on and innovates local traditions to illuminate the present situation.  A friend who is a painter once told me “You know, I create work and only show it to myself.” And that is the case for most Kashmiri artists. The local art scene is a collection of disparate individuals relating to the situation in his/her own personal way and expressing it in a variety of creative processes, but not showing it on a wide public platform, at least for now.  My challenge as a foreign artist is to interpret visually the disconnect between a ubiquitous artistic heritage and the lack of a contemporary art community and how it reveals the emotional impact of the conflict on the larger society. In some ways, the absence of art in public speaks louder than art itself, especially in a place that produced great figures like Mehjoor, GR Santosh, and Ahkter Mohiuddin.

“Rumors of spring—they last from dawn till dusk. All eyes decipher branches for blossoms”-Agha Shahid Ali.

A local poet recently said to me, “The best art and literature has always been produced in societies experiencing crisis.” Anywhere in the world, artists are always the emotional voices of the larger society. And what is happening here today is only a twenty-first century version of what has been here for centuries, and yet Kashmir has always managed to produce exceptional thinkers and artists.  The difference is in this specific time period Kashmiri artists need to establish a voice within the global art community to maintain and project a distinct cultural identity.  Ireland may have lost its language, but in turn it produced some of the greatest poets and playwrights in English who powerfully reflect the Irish experience. Kashmir’s artists are collecting the ashes of its recent history and forming them into potent pieces of work, but it is necessary to contextualize the Kashmiri experience within the larger story of humanity for it to make an impact.  Afterall in Kashmir, even flowers grow from chopped wood—I’ve seen it while walking in old town.

[1] Nund Rishi. Unity in Diversity. Trans. B.N. Parimoo. Srinagar: J&K Academy of Art, Culture, and Languages, 1984. p. 34.