Music The Audio The Visual

How Artists Are Voicing and Painting the State Crackdown in Kashmir

Amid the tension in Kashmir, musicians, artists, and poets are capturing the effects of life under state crackdown.

It’s daunting to portray a region that has been under a state-mandated crackdown for over 145 days and under conflict for three generations. As one holds the brush and gazes at the canvas or adjusts the microphone as the record reels, several images could fly past one’s mind: the traumas of separated friends and family and a plundered childhood, all amid constant conflict between the state and an instinctive desire to remain independent. To that end, the voices, images, and artworks that have emerged from Kashmir have much to say about the effects of the region’s ongoing crisis on its people.


What’s happening in Jammu and Kashmir?

Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority region to join India after its partition in 1947, has seen an ongoing internet shutdown for over 145 days after the Indian government announced the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A on August 5, 2019. Article 370 and 35A gave Jammu and Kashmir a special autonomous status where it could have its own constitution and a flag. Now, as the Indian government tries to “restore normalcy” to the region, it remains anything but normal.

In Kashmir, the markets are barren. The shops largely have their shutters down except in the mornings, when the food and other necessities can be stocked. Only recently have some of them been reported to open for full days. Along with the internet, prepaid connections remain shut, and journalists are having a hard time trying to file their stories under rationed internet access. SMS services, along with broadband services in hospitals, were only recently restored on January 1, 2020.

Amid the tension and the dire need to get life back on track, voices have been raised and pictures have been painted through art that looks at how the political structures at play affect the lives of individuals and their relationships with others — and their relationship with the Valley, the name for the region of Indian-administered Kashmir which lies between the greater and the lesser Himalayas.

Among these voices is the new generation of musicians, artists, and poets who shape their anguish into colors and words that ultimately look at the perils of living in a home long lost to military conflict, separatist militancy, surveillance, and insecurity.

Singing songs for the Valley

Ahmer Javed is a 23-year-old rapper signed under Azadi Records. Kashmir is his home.

According to a report from Scroll, Javed did not want to perform in New Delhi when the news from home arrived about the abrogation of Article 370. There were orders to stock up the rations, and tourists were being flown out of the Valley. Javed had a feeling that something terrible might happen. His manager told him that he should speak. “I thought I’ll perform,” Javed is quoted as saying. “If something bad happens, this will be my farewell gig.”

His debut album Little Kid, Big Dreams was released earlier this year. In one song, “Kasheer,” Javed raps about the censored sentiments of the people of Kashmir: “Crack down as manz zaamit, curfew manz maraan… Bunker yeti gharan manz, bha qabrah khanaan (We’re born in crackdowns, we die in curfews… They turned our homes into bunkers, and I’m digging graves).”

In interpreting the song, Javed says he aims to bring out the unheard and ignored stories of what the people around him have been through, their struggles, and how they have been “controlled by this cruel regime.” Through “Kasheer,” which means Kashmir, Ahmer wanted people to know that nothing much has changed in Kashmir, and that the people are still being controlled.

“I see army bunkers, I see guns and I see forces and that’s what I talk about, I see beauty but there’s no peace, depression is in the air, people don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, you never know,” he writes. “It got to me, all the lying — that there is normalcy, there are no casualties.”

There are new artists like Javed, and then there are the old ones — the ones who have been writing and composing for the Valley before the ongoing crackdown and the abrogation of Article 370. Ali Saifuddin is an artist who sings for Kashmir. For his song “Mayi Chani,” an old Kashmiri folk song written by a Sufi saint known as Nyame Seab, he writes: “I dedicate this song to every Kashmiri who is ready to give his nights and days for the love of his motherland, our beloved Kashmir.”

“Hairee Wanakh Na Tootsi (O little bird would you say it to this aged creature)
Kya Alaag Kare Na Mootsi (What cure can there be for death )
Chatnum Shrun Dar Par Zaroo (It is trying to break this rattling cage)
B Karyoo Yueer Waloo (I want to embrace you with my love)
Mayi Chani Rawam Raat Dooh (In your love I have lost my days and nights)
B Karyoo Yueer Waloo (I want to embrace you with my love)”

“Maayi” in Kashmiri stands for affection. True to the song’s title, “Mayi Chani” takes a more romanticised approach to Kashmir, unlike Javed’s fiery take. It talks about the love with the soil, and all the compromises and conflicts that come with love. You can read the full translation of the song here.

Artwork and photojournalism

Others are taking to poetry to reveal how the lives of people are affected by the curfews and lockdowns that have been normalized in the Valley.

Alleyson.kashmir is an Instagram account that curates poetry and other pieces from people writing about Kashmir. As days merge into nights, it highlights the people in the Valley that have seen shrunken communication, limited to postpaid mobile connections and a general sense of restlessness. Poems talk about how the military picks up young men for interrogation in the middle of the night.

Other poems talk about a general freedom of expression and how it is affected by “barbed wires,” such as Asiya Zahoor’s “Lightness of Being in a Heavily Militarised Zone,” which was published in July earlier this year, weeks before the internet shutdown took place.

The images that Asiya paints with her poems highlight how the traumas are not new, but share a common past — the same past shared by Javed and the many youths that grew up in it and around it.

Other pages use digital art to talk about Kashmir, its language and culture, and everything else that the region finds its relevance in. kashmirdictionary is an Instagram page that posts images of words, a lot of which are synonymous to the ongoing crackdown. They post Kashmiri words with English translations and use the color red — the color of protest. The words that they choose to translate are often a narrative of the general atmosphere in the Valley — from the arrival of winter and the Valley turning white, to a certain milestone in the internet shutdown, such as the hundredth day.

Photographs are used to capture images of the ongoing crisis. Several curated pages on Instagram post pictures and perspectives on the daily lives of Kashmiri people as they are pulled away from modern necessities such as internet, and even electricity.

One such page is standwkashmir. The images on the page show how the lockdown has affected basic communication, and how the voices of numerous people are being suppressed by official dialogues stating that everything is normal, or slowly returning to normal in the Valley.

In another post highlighting the internet lockdown reaching its 130th day, the caption reads: “Kashmir will never give up. India, give us our homeland back. Leave our people, leave what’s not yours. Kashmir belongs to Kashmiris.”

Self-expression and art without internet

The Kashmiris are the ones who suffer as communication falls apart. There have been talks about restoring the internet to the Valley, but it comes as a cost. The government has asked network operators to make sure that social media platforms are barred on the network, so even if the internet comes, it cannot work in a way that can help people share their thoughts and opinions on the proceedings in the Valley. Thoughts are being curbed, and voices are being dismissed.

Without those voices coming out of Kashmir, it can be hard to find sources that speak from within the community, of the community, and for the community. While the purpose of art, of expression, is not defeated altogether, it is certainly barred. Photojournalists go to the valley, go offline, and come back with a fresh images that showcase what has been going on and how it has been affecting the life in the valley. The challenge for these artists and musicians working from Kashmir is to find a suitable medium through which they can upload their pictures to social media. There’s nothing that can be done while they are in the Valley.

The paradigms at which the decree of internet shutdown and the sense of normalcy operate is vast — from students finding it hard to apply for examinations to businesses falling apart. At the same time, people are still creating art, and all of these voices could be heard again once the internet returns — whenever it happens. The narrative after the abrogation of Article 370 has morphed into one long lull. Not much is being heard from the people of Kashmir, except those who are recording and sharing from outside the valley or traveling in and out of the shutdown.

The art which comes out of Kashmir conflict only highlights this pain and elaborates on it further. What does normalcy mean in the context of the Valley? Is it a mere resignation to the fate where they have learnt to live without internet, with a constant eye guarding every move? The Union Home minister Amit Shah keeps on referring that everything in “normal” in the valley. Another minister from the government — the information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javedkar — says that people are happy. But as one voice says in a Twitter thread, “If all Kashmiris are happy, why then do you not want to hear their voice? Why then do people go out on the streets to protest and risk blindness and death? Why not just stay home and be happily not-impoverished?”

Header image by KennyOMG – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0