Hina Arif is sitting on a boat, sailing on the Dal Lake during dusk. Humming ‘Roshay’ by Habba Khatoon – a song that many of us associate with Kashmir and its beauty – she speaks of a time in the past when people would walk by each other, smiling and witnessing life go on. “'If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.’ I don’t think this line suits Kashmir anymore. There is so much beauty here, but it’s the most dangerous place, because it’s the most militarised zone… It is a paradise that has been set ablaze,” she declares.

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The abrogation of Article 370 and 35A on 5 August and the curfew that preceded and succeeded it has inflicted new wounds on a people that were recovering from old ones. Mukti Krishan and Niyantha Shekar’s documentary Raqs-e-Inquilab (‘Art in a time of Conflict’), made before the abrogation of laws concerning Jammu & Kashmir, studies how those old wounds – some festering for as long as three decades – have manifested in the art made by painters and poets.

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The director-duo came across an article about Hina, who was drawing and sharing images of the conflict on Instagram, and got in touch with her. “Initially, we thought we would make a short profile documentary on Hina, but as we met more artists in Kashmir, we felt that we could actually make a larger piece incorporating multiple voices on what it means to make art in the most militarised region in the world,” says Niyantha.

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As Hina goes about silently drawing in her room, reminders of the violence in Kashmir abound on the walls. She used to paint landscapes and portraits. After she witnessed an incident of tear-gas shelling and gun shots when she was in high school and found herself frozen in a street, she has been making art about strife. “I have developed as a person in conflict,” she says in the documentary. Among the many paintings she has made is a portrait of Tufail Mattoo, a 17-year-old student whose death in 2010 triggered unrest; he reportedly died when a teargas shell hit his head.

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Stories of childhoods marked by curfew, military presence and disappearances are the rule, not the exception in the Valley. Conflict has permeated their lives to such an extent that it has become an inevitable part of their artworks.

Mujtaba Rizvi remembers the first day he returned to Kashmir from Iran at the age of five: It was a curfew day and an army man came into their bus and began frisking people. Niyantha notes that the drawings Mujtaba made as a child featured images of soldiers.

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“This truth further hit home for us when we filmed an art camp that Hina led at a school in Srinagar, and the majority of images that the children drew represented the signs and consequences of conflict: a bloody chinar leaf, a young girl with tears in her eyes, someone injecting themselves with drugs, a cry for ‘HELP!’, a map drawn with a barbed wire border, a colourful, beautiful bird caged, and so on,” Niyantha says.

One of the key questions for the directors when they began their research was what art means to these artists from the Valley. Is it a source of catharsis? A mode of self-expression?

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“We quickly understood that there was no one answer to this. For instance, Hina Arif sees in art the power to heal and wants to organise art therapy camps across Kashmir. For Mujtaba Rizvi, making art has been a way for him to engage with and better understand the trauma of those who have lost family members in the conflict. Renowned painter Masood Hussain feels that his role as an artist is to witness and record history (a critical role when there is a constant threat of erasure of one’s identity and land),” says Niyantha.

Poet Zeeshan Jaipuri talks about how he considers it his duty to write about the conflict in Kashmir; that it feels natural, that he is compelled to act. As someone who has witnessed violence in his own neighbourhood, he says not writing about the conflict is not an option; that he cannot contain the feeling for very long even if he chooses to not ponder over it for a while. “I can’t escape my reality, I can’t run away from it. I mean, I travel through these very alleys every day,” he says.

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“Whose motherhoods have been stolen? / Whose young are these that flood the streets? / What kind of rivers are these that flow with blood? / What sort of bazaars are these that billow with smoke?” he recites in Raqs-e-Inquilab. He asserts that the need of the hour is revolution, that there is no other way: “Ek inquilab chahiye iss zamaane mein.”

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The interest in art and art-related activities is increasing in the Valley, but one or two events are not enough to draw the conclusion that there is an impact, says Mukti. This is amplified by the fact that the art market never took off in Kashmir and that there are close to zero galleries. “Most activities in the field of art are directly or indirectly dependent upon the government. Either these activities take place from government-owned platforms or are sponsored by the State. Only if the art promotes and favours state policies can it exist, so genuine art cannot flourish,” she explains.

In such a scenario, the works of these artists are critical both in terms of portraying the truth and as tools of dissent. “By bringing to light the stories of the oppressed through their work, they are questioning the status quo and the preconceived notions of people who hold opinions on Kashmir without fully engaging with its history or the human rights violations that have occurred,” Niyantha says.

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Hina Arif talks about how she is labelled an ‘anti-national’ or ‘traitor’, about how she is merely portraying what she has been witness to, so that others can know through her art. In conversations with the directors and during her Instagram Live sessions, she has spoken about the trolling and opposition she faces for creating and sharing art that puts forth her views on Kashmir. “A few years ago, an exhibition space called Gallerie One that Mujtaba ran got vandalised by tourism officials,” Niyantha adds.

But there are stories of support too, within the artist community itself. “Of the artists we filmed with, Mujtaba has done work as an organiser to bring together artists through his Kashmir Art Quest initiative. Last year, he organised Concourse, an exhibition that brought together the work of 60 Kashmiri artists, including many from the estranged Pandit community,” Niyantha says.

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At the time when the documentary was being shot, Mujtaba Rizvi was painting a portrait of Parveena Ahanger, who is referred to as the Iron Lady of Kashmir. She heads the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons; her son is missing. “Being some sort of an icon herself does not resolve her own crisis,” Mujtaba notes.

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When he met her, she remarked that he looked like her son. Consequently, he created an artwork that juxtaposed the face of her son with his own; she carried this artwork to a protest. She’d tell people, “This is my son who has disappeared; this is my son who is still here” – an illustrative example of how art is capable of touching people’s lives and empowering them. What binds Mujtaba and Parveena – and indeed many in the Valley – together is a sense of shared suffering; Mujtaba notes that he too could suffer the same fate.

“The memories, the trauma, they carry with them makes them the sensitive, spiritual and resilient people they are,” says Mukti. The conflict’s toll on the mental health of Kashmiris has been immense. Niyantha says that as per an MSF survey in 2016, nearly 1.8 million adults (45 percent of the population) in Kashmir show significant symptoms of mental distress. “And the topic of mental health is in fact the thesis of the second documentary film that Mukti and I are making on the conflict situation in Kashmir,” he adds.

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Painter Masood Hussain lost his life’s works in a fire that broke out at the start of the militancy and turmoil in 1989. Over the years, he has seen several incidents of violence – including the death of militants – because his house is located on the main road. When Niyantha and Mukti asked if he would ever consider leaving Kashmir, he said to them, “Kashmir is home… When you look around, every inch is a subject for an artist… Whatever it is, there is no place like Kashmir… There is hope, we are waiting for better things to come.” He has been waiting for 27 years; he even makes sure to make at least one painting on hope, to keep the sentiment alive.

Photographs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9 by Anirudh Ganapathy | Photographs 6, 8 by Azaan Shah | Photograph 7 by Mukti Krishan

Watch Raqs-e-Inquilab here:

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