March 31, 2019 By King
There is always a bittersweet poignancy associated with Kashmir. Add art to this and the effect is almost haunting. The works of the 14 artists at the Srinagar Biennale, located at TKM Warehouse in Mattancherry, collectively titled A Place for Repose, is intrinsically connected to the conflict that has raged in the area for the past four decades.
With paintings, photography, video and architectural installations, the exhibition that is part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a moving exhibition, which has travelled from Jammu, and gone to Baroda and Delhi.
Kashmiri artist Veer Munshi, who is now settled in Gurgaon, curated the show at which he is showing his work, as well. His main work, a dargah, is a portrayal of the rich Sufi culture which was a meeting ground of “cross sections of society”. But when you step in, you are greeted by the coffins of children, created in the beautiful traditional papier mache craft of the State. It is a grim reminder of the sadness behind the beauty of the region. This is also part of Veer’s project to engage native craftsmen. Around this dargah are the works of the other artists.
“After 15 years, I went back to Kashmir to look for my house in Srinagar, but it wasn’t there,” says Veer. This prompted to him to do a photography project to document the region’s ancient houses, which had been left behind by Pandits.
When he went back to the State in 2010, he was caught in stone pelting and saw many young boys being pulled into the conflict and paying with their lives. Since then, Veer has tried to engage with the community. “I tried to do work with writers and poets in Kashmir and Delhi for a show in Srinagar. I brought back artists who had left Kashmir over the last 30 years and also worked with artists there and held a show to convey how art can bring communities together,” he says. The show with 60 Kashmiri artists was held in an abandoned, 100-year-old factory in June and it brought the invitation to be featured at the Kochi biennale.
“The dargah is a shrine, in which the marginalised could get together over the years. This was one of the places that both the communities would go to and follow common rituals. Now these places are also under conflict. I build this dargah as an architectural piece with traditional, native architecture as a symbol. The 14 other artists, that I have roped in to the exhibition, are either born in conflict, affected by it or have fled because of it, and their voices, videos, photographers, installations and whatever other expressions they use convey the mood of the region,” he adds.
Apart from artistic expressions, there are also photo journalists who have documented the pain of the people affected by the decades of conflict. The work by Sanna Matto is a video of a grave digger and how he addresses the issue of death. “It is a very moving expression because, he speaks about how he buries people, how relatives come to claim the bodies and how he has to open and pack them back,” Veer notes.
The freelance journalist Sanna says that she tries to find subtle ways to document the conflict. “When I go to the field, I always try to find different mediums to convey the message. I like to be subtle, but convey the meaning so that people will understand. The grave digger is an important piece of documentation because soon after I shot it, the grave digger had died,” she says.
Another pensive photo documentary piece is Shaukat Nanda’s black and white photos which show women waiting for their missing children and husbands, who they hope against hope have not been killed.
One the first couple of days of the exhibition, there were two performance artists frisking visitors to show the nature of constant surveillance in the region. “My interest was to show the voices of the place through these expressions and the feelings of what the other artists want to convey about living here or of those who have left the place; of how they lost their identity and culture,” he says.
But Etisham Azhar, whose piece Horrors and Poetics of Nostalgia is a striking work, of sheep skins mounted on the wall, a school chair, and an oxygen cylinder and mask, insists he does not want geopolitical readings to overwhelm his work.
“I don’t think about geopolitics or location when making a work. I feel, itmarks a failure in an artist, if he gets pinned to something. An artist just makes an experience that people should be able to relate to personally. If it needs a reference to being from Kashmir, then I feel my work would be a failure,” says Etisham, who is set to pursue a PhD at the University of Melbourne.
Veer remembers the time Kashmir was culturally thriving and hopes this time can be brought back. “Today, we do not even have cinema halls, but before the 90s it was very forward-looking and rich cultural place. Most Hollywood films would first come to Kashmir. We had a high quality of life, with good tourism and good culture,” he says, adding it is meaningful to bring the exhibition to Kochi as it enables them to “showcase our circumstances, because it is not conveyed correctly through the media”.
He says the purpose of the exhibition is to show how alienation has grown and also to talk about solutions. “Kerala is a multicultural society and we feel how we miss this in Kashmir, which was a great Sufi land, but now it is about conflict and supressed emotions,” he says.
According to Veer, when he first tried to rope Kashmiri artists for the show he was holding in Srinagar, many were reluctant to go. But when they went back, they were overwhelmed by the welcome and were keen to start an artists’ colony there. “We sent the suggestion to the CM and the Governor, but there was no reaction,” he says, sadly.