‘As an Artist in Kashmir I Became a Witness to My Times’


Some weeks ago when The Wire received eminent sociologist T.N. Madan’s article on the relationship between Pandits and Muslims which was once woven into the fabric of Kashmir, home to him, we asked the renowned Srinagar-based artist Masood Hussain if we could use the images of some of his works to complement the reflective mood of the article. Masood, whose luminous mixed media works and watercolours evoke textures of a shared world lost to an unyielding present, promptly obliged, his ‘Exodus’ marking the flight of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. Further, after reading Prof Madan’s article (‘Old Memories and Recent Encounters from a Kashmir we have Irretrievably Lost’, he expressed a desire to share the memories triggered by the article in his mind.

A couple of years ago, I painted a series of 200 watercolours capturing the familiar sights of Srinagar through the ebb and swell of seasons and uploaded their images on Facebook. The translucent quality of the watercolour medium was perfect for capturing the sensations that exemplify Kashmiri life and culture — the sheen of fresh snow, the autumn rust of chinars, the glide of oar on water, and the hum of life in bazaars, shrines, downtown localities and rural areas.

When I uploaded the images of the sketches I had an unspoken thought in my mind – to create a space, however virtual and fleeting, where Kashmiris, Muslims and Hindus, could recognise familiar landmarks and through them revive the memories of connectedness that was once a way of life in the Valley. I wondered if the images would give rise to tentative conversations across a chasm that had widened in more than two decades of political turmoil.

The response was overwhelming, especially from Kashmiri Pandits from across the world, many of whom identified places connected to their childhood. Some said their houses had been burnt down; others made poetry the voice of their sorrow. Some old links were revived, some new friendships were formed. I too gained a new Pandit friend, Autar Mota, from Jammu.

Many conversations were tinged with bitterness and anger as well, which is understandable. To this I would add that we are all dispossessed – has anybody emerged unscathed by the grim realities of Kashmir? The ordinary Kashmiri Muslim living a claustrophobic existence has also been dispossessed of the riches of a shared culture.

And just as many Kashmiris remembered their childhood through my watercolour sketches, T.N. Madan’s article, ‘Old Memories and Recent Encounters from a Kashmir we have Irretrievably Lost’, took me back to my childhood in the downtown locality of Babapora in Srinagar, near the then densely populated area of Habbakadal where I was born and raised.

We lived in a large joint family headed by my grandmother. Her four sons stayed under the same roof in a huge three-storied house built by our ancestors. The house was built in the Kashmiri vernacular style common to the Muslims and Pandits, with a façade of hand-made maharaji bricks and many lattice windows. It was a mixed neighbourhood with both Pandit and Muslim families, their roofs almost touching each other, separated by narrow lanes and joined by acts of sharing each other’s joys and sorrows. Together we flew kites, played cricket and studied, celebrated Shivratri and Nauroze, the traditional Iranian festival of spring celebrated by Shia Muslims.

My grandmother never saw the inside of a school; taught by a teacher at home she knew Kashmiri, Urdu, Arabic and Persian. She also kept a treasured collection of old books, mostly in Persian, in an old wooden cupboard.  Every evening the Muslim and Pandit children of the neighbourhood would gather around her. With great care she would select a book from the cupboard and read out stories to us in Persian, simultaneously translating them into Kashmiri. It is from her that we first heard the adventures of Hatim Tai and Alibaba and the 40 thieves.

When I was five, in 1958, I saw my mother cry for the first time. One morning we were woken up by the sound of thundering hooves in the courtyard; the peasants working on our land had come to give us our share of the rice harvest, packed in jute bags, from our ancestral village of Sumbal Naugam in north Kashmir, on the road leading to Baramulla. (Our share was one-third of the harvest from the land that was left with us; most of it was given up under the law of land to the tiller brought into force by Sheikh Abdullah’s government.)

The sound of the hooves and the speed with which the men arrived triggered something in my mother’s memory, and she started crying. She had remembered a traumatic incident from October 1947 when Kabailies (tribesmen) from the North West Frontier Province across the border launched a series of attacks across Kashmir, coming up to the outskirts of Srinagar, killing and looting all along the way.

The women of the family — my mother and aunt were newly-wed brides — were packed off to our village along with their jewellery and other valuables. Little did they know that the villagers would guide the invaders to our home and join in the looting! With great difficulty, aided by the quick thinking of one of my uncles, the women managed to escape by boat. They were dressed in the tattered clothes of the farm hands and had smeared themselves with mud to avoid being noticed.

The years went by. Our ancestral house was sold off and each family went its own way.  I went to Mumbai to study art (1971-1977) and upon my return took up a teaching position at the local fine arts college in Srinagar. Then in a decade’s time the political landscape of Kashmir changed beyond recognition, rupturing civilisational rhythms of existence. The Kashmir that one had known simply vanished: the Pandits’ exodus from the Valley took place, and the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim was trapped in an unimaginably claustrophobic existence, caught in the crossfire of hardened stances and cycles of violence. The human cost of conflict was irreparable.

As an artist I did what artists do best. I became a witness to my times, chronicling the daily events of a society traumatised by conflict. Each of my works in the 1990s in the series ‘Agony in the Gardens of Paradise’  referred to one or other incident that had made a deep gash in individual lives and in the collective psyche of society. Thus one of the main motifs of ‘Exodus’ was the jewellery so typical of married Pandit women; in ‘Lonely Sharika’ I captured the desolation of a once vibrant temple on Hari Parbat through the sole presence of a soldier’s helmet with agarbatti stuck in it.

The daily ordeals of the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim also found expression in several works:  ‘Missing Identity’ echoed the daily terror of identification parades that Kashmiris were faced with. A broken blue cup in ‘Bullet for the Host’ alluded to an incident where a stray bullet caused the death of a man in the act of pouring kehva for a guest. A head split open with metal parts boring into it in ‘Aftermath of Equilibrium’ was a comment on the rising incidence of psychiatric problems among Kashmiris living in strife-torn times.

And then there were works like ‘Epitaph’, ‘Stained Window’ and ‘Missing Link’ which articulated the pain of loss of a universe of co-existence. I made papier mache frames evoking Kashmir’s vernacular architecture to hold these works — my way of mourning the passing of a Kashmiri way of life that had framed our lives for so long.

The memories of my childhood lay buried under the weight of a contentious present. Then, in 2010, an occasion was created for me to visit my ancestral house. Well-known Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Barmahani who was working on a documentary on the impact of enforced disappearances on the lives of women in Kashmir, met me with a request: he wanted me to chronicle three lives across generations — Mugli, whose son went missing in 1990 and who went on to become a towering inspiration for mothers in Kashmir; Rafiqa, a middle-aged ‘half-widow’ who had no idea if her husband, missing since 1997, was alive or not; and a young girl wondering what her future would be.  (Titled Look behind the Canvas, the film was entered in the 10th Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in 2014.)

It was a subject I had dwelt upon in earlier works; for an artist living in Kashmir it would be impossible not to do so. In ‘Those who disappeared’, a work that was preceded by intense reflection, I showed a dark shadow in an empty frame, with similar empty frames lying on the ground. After some initial hesitation I agreed to Barmahani’s proposal, and we started shooting in 2010. Around that time a series of protests, led by stone-throwing teenagers, shook the Valley. Confrontations between the crowds and security forces resulted in the deaths of 112 teenagers, among them an 11-year-old boy. Frequent curfews made it difficult for us to move around. It was a stressful and emotionally harrowing period.

One of my first shoots for the film involved going to Mugli’s house, close to my old neighbourhood in Babapora (Mugli, also known as Mughal Masi or aunt, had passed away a year before after a 20-year futile wait for her son’s return, and Mohsen had been fortunate to capture her on film in his earlier shoots). When Mohsen picked me up from my Jawahar Nagar residence, I asked the taxi driver to briefly stop at the Babe Demb ghat near Babapora which had been one of our regular childhood haunts with its large steps of devri stone leading down to the water channel. The Babe Demb channel linked our neighbourhood to the main canal known as Nallah Mar, built about 500 years ago on the orders of the popular King Bud Shah to regulate the Dal Lake’s waters as a preventive against floods and to provide a means of trade and transport. We would watch the Dal dwellers steer their boats to the ghat to sell their fresh produce of vegetable and fruits; moreover, going on a shikara to the Dal was our favourite outing. The ghat used to be lined with picturesque houses belonging to Muslims and Pandits. These were the memories going through my mind as I neared our neighbourhood.

What met my eyes was a sore sight. The beautiful waterway of my childhood was gone; in its place was a road that had been built in the years when I was away studying in Mumbai, and I had never come this way after my return. The deserted Pandit houses near the ghat were a ghostly presence. My neighbourhood too felt unfamiliar, lost in time, for most of the original inhabitants had left long ago. When I made my way to the house in which I was born, my first visit in 42 years, the truth hit me forcefully – the childhood warmth of our house that I was seeking had equally been a reflection of the spirit of the Kashmiri way of life. In the absence of the latter, the home was merely a structure.

Meanwhile, there was the film to think about — how to chronicle the three lives on canvas. I decided to portray them as figures with their own individuality and at the same time so closely placed as to be connected to each other by an overarching reality of long years of violent conflict. To explore how a young girl perceived her present and her future in Kashmir, the filmmaker had settled on my younger daughter Mahvash as the third protagonist in his documentary.

While I was trying to fashion my canvas in a way that it resembled the present-day fabric of society, Srinagar was on the boil. And as the atmosphere became more and more tense due to the confrontation between teenagers and the security forces, I was overcome with dejection. As an artist one has the power to create new ways of seeing, but all I felt at that moment was the futility of my exercise, for the youngest protagonist seemed to be looking out of the canvas at nothing but a bleak future. In one such moment I slashed the painting with my razor.

The artist’s instinct, however, did not take long to resurface. When I looked at the canvas again the slash across the canvas seemed an essential element of the work. I added a few more elements such as a clock and a needle and thread to the work — an artist wondering when the time would come for Kashmir’s wounds to be stitched up and healed.

The canvas remains thus to this day, suspended between the long diagonal tear and the threaded needle, pointing to the larger than life presence of absence in our lives – the loss of a Kashmiri way of life. I do not paint beautiful images; my attempt is to create images that could somehow trigger tactile memories of a shared sky under which the Valley once breathed. Who knows, these memories might unfurl into tentative gestures that reach out across the chasm.


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