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Nafeesa Syeed: Kashmiri Youth Take Up Arts Amid Conflict

April 2, 2011

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By **Nafeesa Syeed**

Uzma Falak is an accidental artist.

After hearing reports last summer of a boy being gunned down at a playground and a woman killed while adjusting a curtain in a window at her home in Indian-controlled Kashmir, the 21-year-old Falak says she was compelled to pick up a pen. Her blank-verse poem, “The Year of Blood Rain!” came flowing out.

“Comrades in teens and twenties/challenged the Rain/Fists held together/high amid the dreadful Rain/Drenched! The comrades moved/Only to share a grave!” reads one stanza.

Falak is among a growing group of Kashmiri youth turning to the arts to express themselves in this restive valley. For some, it’s just a personal vent, for others, it’s a means of resistance against what they call an invasive occupation by Indian security forces. They range from dabblers to serious amateurs taking up painting, photography, theater, writing, film, and even hip hop to channel their diverse views.

Here, there is an underlying current of discontent, which can be suddenly electrified. There have been youth uprisings and military crackdowns each summer for the past three years, including last year when masses of youth were either in the streets pelting stones or stuck at home for months during curfews and strikes.

Now as the snow melts from mountaintops, already separatists have called for strikes, and local media report authorities arresting youth to curb further revolt. In addition, Amnesty International released a report last week, alleging that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is detaining hundreds of people under the Public Safety Act without charge or prosecution. The Indian government has also appointed three interlocutors who have visited the valley and made recommendations on how to handle the situation.

This context, locals say, can be the caldron for chaos as well as creativity.

“You never know when it starts getting registered in your brain and it comes out in a subconscious way like this,” Falak says of the conflict triggering innovation.

Spheres of Expression

At the exclusive lakeside convention center in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, framed paintings and photographs are mounted onto easels and walls. Poems, some handwritten, are posted on boards.

One painting shows a soaring dove trailed by an endless chain. In a photograph, village women walk with metal waterpots atop their heads. There are multiple images of Kashmir’s natural beauty.

It’s all the work of young Kashmiris as part of an exhibit during One Young Kashmir, a youth-led summit that ended last Sunday. In addition to the display, hundreds of youngsters spent days listening to experts and tackling issues such as culture, rights, and the economy in small-group discussions during the event, which organizers claim was the “first of its kind.”

Mir Muneeb, an aspiring photographer, points to “Set Me Free,” his snap of an orange, maple-shaped leaf caught upside-down in a chain-link fence. The leaf comes from the chinar, an imposing tree found throughout Kashmir. Muneeb, 22, likens it to the position in which Kashmiris find themselves.

“I can’t express myself personally with my words,” he says. “So my pictures are words for me.”

Conference attendees—teens and 20-somethings dressed in jeans or salwar kameez—line up before a courtyard door, as a handful at a time are allowed outside where scrolls of white banners are unfurled on the pavement and surrounding walls. They shake aerosol cans filled with red, black, and yellow paint and try their hand at graffiti, spray-painting messages such as “Give Peace a Chance” and “Let’s Build Kashmir Better” and “Save Kashmir.” (The phrases contrast with slogans such as “Go India, Go Back” that were scrawled across Srinagar last summer and which have since been painted over.)

According to Mercy Corps, the international development agency that mentored the youth organizing the conference, some 66 percent of the Kashmir valley’s population is under 30 years old. (The figure is based on census numbers and the NGO’s own research.) For those born since the outbreak of the armed militancy in 1989, they have come of age amid turmoil.

“It’s a generation that has come to believe that conflict stands in the way of their future prosperity,” says Usmaan Ahmad, Mercy Corps’ Kashmir director.

“Stone-pelting will not help; violence will never help,” she says. “I think we should be pre-planned. We should think of ways that will not harm us and will give us some output.”

Ahmad says the “children of conflict” seek out mediums in which they can have a voice. “It’s not just cathartic for them,” he says. “There’s also a desire and a hope that someone will hear what they have to say.”

But some youth complain of parents who discourage the arts and they say there are few resources, such as training centers, to help them pursue their interests.

Adil Abbas, 22, has taken matters into his own hands. Abbas and three other youth partnered to create Kashmir Art Quest. He says with no galleries for artists to showcase or sell their work, his group launched an art show last year with more than 40 participants, ranging from sculptors to stain-glass artists who hailed from cities and far-flung villages.

“There wasn’t a proper platform for the artists of Kashmir,” he says. This week, his group held an online exhibition of artwork that drew 30,000 visitors to their site. A second art show is planned in Srinagar for June or July.

Besides the fine arts, many youth are articulating themselves through the written word, whether it’s fiction, poetry, or narrative nonfiction. Yusra Khan and Rifat Mohidin, both 19, attend a weekly creative writing workshop to hone their craft. The women, petite and clad in headscarves, speak assertively as they describe their aims of chronicling Kashmiri voices in their prose.

Khan says when she writes, there’s no one to clamp down on her thoughts.

“If you’re living in a conflict zone…you can’t express your views like any other place,” she says. “It’s only writing through which we can express our views.”

Some youth are afraid of repercussions for speaking out, but Mohidin says she expresses her opinions freely in her writing, even though elders have warned her about pushing the envelope too far. The use of creative expression is also more constructive than other methods of airing frustration, she said.

“Stone-pelting will not help; violence will never help,” she says. “I think we should be pre-planned. We should think of ways that will not harm us and will give us some output.”

Beyond the Conflict

Although political themes figure prominently in several artists’ work, some also say they want to highlight other aspects of life in the valley.

Adnan Qureshi, 23, says he likes to capture the “tiny little things” one misses in daily life through his photography. Nature is his chief subject, in an attempt, he says, to show that Kashmir remains a captivating place. In one of his landscapes, a fiery sunset is juxtaposed with the darkened mountain below. A ray of light reaches for the peak—that, he says, represents the “gradient of hope,” which is also the title of the piece.

“We’re seeing only one side of the story, that’s conflict,” he says. “But there is something else.”

Some youth complain of parents who discourage the arts and they say there are few resources, such as training centers, to help them pursue their interests.

The prolific cartoonist Malik Sajad says there’s danger in Kashmiri artists falling into the trap of “victimhood.” The bespectacled Sajad says that while he and other artists engage current struggles, they shouldn’t be defined by those issues. He says it’s easy to “romanticize” their experience and merely produce “reactive” art.

As artists here evolve, the 23-year-old says he hopes they can look both backward and forward—tapping into their culture’s long tradition of handicrafts, music and the performing arts, as well as conveying narratives aside from the conflict.

“When you move beyond the conflict, then your voice becomes unique,” says Sajad, who’s working on a graphic novel about Kashmir. “You can incorporate your community, your culture, your tradition, your history…and that voice will stand out of thousands of voices around you.”

Breaking Convention

As the situation in Kashmir remains unresolved and unpredictable, youth say they will continue to search far and wide for creative outlets.

Breaking from familiar forms, the rapper MC Kash blazed onto Srinagar’s nascent contemporary music scene last summer with his track, “I Protest.” He’s a sharp-tongued lyricist, who’s a business administration student named Roushan Illahi when he’s not in the recording studio.

Illahi, 20, has adopted the swagger and swearing of the rappers he grew up admiring—from Eminem and Tupac Shakur to Immortal Technique. He’s even got the getup down, with his hoodies and baggy jeans sagging from his thin frame.

He says his rhymes have gradually become more political since he began rapping four years ago. Videos of his songs on YouTube and the playlist on his website are popular with youth.

“I want to be a voice for Kashmir,” Illahi says in his surprisingly low, raspy voice. “You’re representing something, you’re representing your people.”

This week marked his first live performance, with the release of his latest song, “One Young Kashmir,” at the youth conference. In the set, he spits some lines in his mother tongue and other voices recite verses from old Kashmiri poets. In the background, heritage instruments such as the rubab and sarangi, mix with hip-hop samples.

“Fear no evil little seed, just fight for your rights/Pierce through infernal darkness and become that sunlight,” he raps.

lllahi shrugs at the suggestion that he’s a pioneer and shakes off criticism that he’s embraced an alien art form.

“It’s all about expressing yourself and hip hop, is like, you’re not afraid,” he says. “I’m not afraid of anybody. I can say whatever I want to say.”

In these March 24, 2011 photos, young Kashmiris spray-paint graffiti messages on banners at the convention center in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India, as part of the One Young Kashmir youth summit. A growing number of youth are turning to the arts amid the conflict in this Himalayan valley. (Photos by Nafeesa Syeed)

Copyright 2011 Nafeesa Syeed

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Nafeesa Syeed is an American journalist based in Delhi. She is a former staff writer for The Associated Press and has also written for USA Today, The Austin-American Statesman, The Indianapolis Star and Popular Anthropology magazine.

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