The silence of images
How two photographers—one exiled, the other an ‘outsider’—captured Kashmir’s internal contradictions
Quietness envelops two aged souls in the standout image from Amit Mehra’s collection of Kashmir photographs. One of the two is a giant chinar stripped of foliage; the other a tired, elderly man pausing against the tree’s exposed roots. Both are in the autumn of their lives, completely oblivious to nature’s hushed dance around them. It is this photograph that remains with you long after you’ve exited Sakshi Gallery’s current exhibition, Kashmir: Insider/Outsider, featuring works by Mehra and artist Veer Munshi.
“That tree is near Pahalgam,” says Mehra in a phone interview. “I used to go and talk to it. It is naked to the world, but it is deeply rooted—just like the tree, Kashmir has shed everything, but it is still holding ground.” The chinar image, along with some 40 others, was first published in his 2012 volume brought out by Penguin Studio, titled Kashmir.
In the book’s foreword, titled The Other Side Of The Bridge, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote referred to the two “regimes of visuality” within which the valley is imaged: the “Arcadian idyll” of the tourist and the strife-riven, lost paradise viewed through the unflinching lens of the documentary photographer. Mehra’s register, according to Hoskote, occupies a third category—that of “everyday” Kashmir.
Shot over 25 visits from 2006-2011, his lens effectively captured several dichotomies, including Kashmir’s obvious beauty and tragedy, and the simultaneous awareness and world-weariness of its inhabitants. “I was taken aback by the beauty and the conflict,” Mehra says of his first visit to the state in 2006. “Kashmir doesn’t allow the photographer to think.”
That’s hardly the impression a viewer draws from his carefully curated set of images, though. Mehra employs Srinagar’s snowy streets, its bare trees hemmed in by concertina wire and military boots, its gorgeous, diffused light filtering through lattice windows, and the weather-beaten faces of its residents, as brushstrokes: The emerging result is a portrait of utter desolation. Melancholy pervades each frame.
This is the approximate effect Mehra had hoped to achieve with this body of work. As a witness and recorder of the valley’s conflict, he began to grow increasingly dissatisfied with his images. “When you get tired of the conflict, you move to the Dal Lake. When you are tired of the beauty, you move downtown to shoot stone-throwing, or a strike, or a funeral procession,” he says, borrowing some of the news photographer’s cynicism. “I was very pissed off with myself.” Eventually, Mehra discarded all the pictures he had shot over 2006 and 2007.
He returned to the valley in 2008, this time as a traveller who had traded his camera for a notebook. He started interacting with the locals, listening to their stories of alienation from the mainland, and experienced the state’s haunting, claustrophobic atmosphere first-hand. “I understood how one’s identity can become a problem in a project like this,” he says. Yet this discomfiture afforded him a fresh perspective and allowed him to get under the skin of his subject.
One of the most moving pictures from the series is of a group of people praying outside Srinagar’s Hazratbal mosque on a sunny day. The road in front of them reflects the shadow of passing pigeons, an allegorical reference to the state’s fleeting moments of uneasy peace.
It’s evident that Mehra fought hard with the question all photographers who set out to capture Kashmir must be faced with: What’s left to say about a place whose stateliness and struggles have been so public in the last two decades? While the results are great for the most part, Mehra is not above literalness when trying to drive home a point—in a photograph, for instance, of a child looking longingly at a clutch of colourful bamboo flutes in a show window, or a high-angle shot of young boys diving into the Nigeen lake.
That’s also a viewer’s quick takeaway from Munshi’s images of facades of decrepit houses. At first impression, the pictures are anodyne. It’s only when you learn that these are images of abandoned Pandit houses that you imbue them with any significance. As a Pandit himself living in exile in Delhi, Munshi is the titular “insider” of the show. “I didn’t choose Kashmir,” he writes in an email interview, “rather, Kashmir chose me.”
Like several other Kashmiri Hindus, Munshi and his family left the valley in 1990, and it wasn’t until 2008 that the artist was able to gather the courage to return to his ancestral house. “I saw it in rubble,” he writes. “That moment was not easy to swallow.” Munshi, whose previous work (also focused on Kashmir) has included painting and installation, had initially planned to paint the houses. But he was hesitant to endow them with his own interpretation, so he chose to approach this like an archival project instead.
Munshi set out with the same sense of purpose as Mehra, determined not to shoot Kashmir “as a picture postcard” but to grasp the silence of the houses “as ruins, monuments and memorials”. “I wanted unembellished shots that allowed the houses to tell their own story,” he says, “these stark skeletal reminders of the life that once thrived in Srinagar”, as well as the districts of Baramulla and Anantnag.
All the homes, shot in subdued light, are in a state of utter disrepair. They might be coming apart at the seams, yet their crumbling grace is an illustration of Kashmir’s syncretic culture: The distinctive window arches, for instance, are remnants of the state’s Persian heritage. Devoid of human presence or markers of habitation, they are shrouded in deathly stillness, unwitting reminders of the nameless, unmarked graves that mark Kashmir. Perhaps this is the real bind for artists and image-makers who wish to depict the place: no matter where you go, you’re never too far from a comparison.
Kashmir: Insider/Outsider is on till 17 October, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Sakshi Gallery, 6/19, Second floor, Grants Building, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai. The works range in price from Rs.25,000 toRs.5 lakh.
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