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The artist Nilima Sheikh grew up in Delhi and is married to a Gujarati, but Kashmir has always had a special place in her heart. “I spent a lot of my growing-up years in Kashmir and like most north Indians have a vexed relationship with it," she says. The inner turmoil she felt after the Gujarat riots of 2002 spurred her to commence a long-planned art project on Kashmir. The poetry of the late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali—“beautiful and full of pain"—was her guide.

Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, her second show inspired by Kashmir, was on view earlier this month at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi. Eight years in the making, it almost didn’t happen. As the opening date for the show approached, the Kashmir Valley unexpectedly exploded in violence. Sheikh wanted to cancel the show. “What meaning does it have, given the reality?" Ram Rahman, photographer and founder member of Sahmat, recalls her asking him.

Rahman and others prevailed on her to continue with the show. Emphasizing the complex and varied history that has shaped Kashmir, Sheikh says, “The turmoil there is due to our lack of understanding as Indians." For instance, while most are aware of Kashmir’s Hindu and Islamic heritage, few know about the deep imprint of Buddhism there. The role of the artist then is to bear witness, to the past and present: “All that an artist can do is make visible," she says.

Violence-inspired: (clockwise from top) Detail from an installation in Shrapnel by Munshi. Courtesy Veer Munshi; Going Away by Sheikh. Courtesy Chemould Prescott Road; and a scene from King Lear. Photograph: Anant Raina.

Sheikh’s predicament prompted Rahman to organize a seminar under the aegis of Sahmat—a trust that, among other things, combats communalism—on the role of the artist in the face of the turmoil in Kashmir. Among those who participated were actor and director M.K. Raina, and artists Veer Munshi and Inder Salim. All three belong to the Kashmiri Pandit community which was exiled en masse from the Valley in 1990. They all grew up in Kashmir and, along with their extended families, are now part of the Kashmiri diaspora.

“In the 1990s, terrorism was at its peak and no one dared perform. Cinemas, auditoriums, bars and restaurants were closed," says Raina, who studied theatre at the National School of Drama in Delhi and has acted most recently in the film Aisha. He first went back to Kashmir in 1999 and since then has been instrumental in reviving theatre there, including the traditional folk theatre Bhand Pather. Over the years, Raina has organized many theatre workshops for schoolchildren, orphans, youth and folk actors.

To revive the Bhand Pather tradition, he introduced works such as Shakespeare’s King Lear into their repertoire. “I worked with village actors and all of us translated (the text) together (into Kashmiri)," he says. Other plays include those written by Brecht, Camus and Dario Fo. These are not as far removed from the folk tradition as one might assume. “Traditional Bhand Pather is about radical humour and subversive, hard-hitting satire," Raina points out. For children and adults brutalized by conflict, the theatre workshops have been as much about healing and an exchange of ideas as about acting.

Munshi echoes Raina’s concerns about cultural impoverishment in the Valley. “For 20 years, the new generation…(has) not known any creative activity," he says. “The gun dictated everything." After graduating in Fine Arts from MS University in Baroda, Munshi worked as an artist for six years in his hometown Anantnag, until he had to leave in 1990.

He feels that the biggest target and casualty of the conflict has been Kashmir’s composite Sufi culture. Like most of his work over the last 20 years, the theme of conflict and loss in Kashmir dominates Shrapnel, his travelling solo show that was recently on view at the Birla Academy of Art and Culture in Kolkata. The show features archival documentation of abandoned medieval houses in Kashmir, installations and video works. “My show is about architectural decay which reflects cultural decay," Munshi says. The double projection video work, Leaves like Hands of Flame, features an animated video of a burning house and shows him walking through lanes as the seasons change—he is trampling on red Chinar leaves in autumn and, a little later, treading through thick winter snow. Munshi says he is “anti-right wing" by political persuasion. “I have lived as a minority (in Kashmir)," he says. “So I can relate to minorities, whether at the time of Babri (masjid demolition) or in Gujarat."

Inder Salim, known chiefly for his provocative performance art, says he has taken the nom de plume of “Salim" to reflect Kashmir’s Sufi culture and the intimacy of its Hindu and Islamic heritage. He too laments the dearth of art in the Valley: “No visual artist in Kashmir can dare express himself because they might be booked for treason and their body discovered in the river…India doesn’t tolerate any dissent in Kashmir."

This, he feels, is unfortunate as given a chance, the young will pick up acting or photography over guns or stones. One of the stops of Art Caravan—a touring troupe of artists organized by Salim, held earlier this year—was Srinagar. Activities there included theatre workshops attended by enthusiastic school students, performance by a music band and a skit on Kashmir based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “It ended with Ophelia lying on a boat in Dal Lake with the Indian flag painted on one palm and the Pakistani flag on the other," he says.

The artists’ presentations at the Sahmat seminar underscored Kashmir’s suffering, but also held out hope in the form of art’s capacity to heal, redeem and uplift. “(As an artist) you are not addressing the immediate issue," admits Sheikh. “You are not being politically useful." She adds that her works depict violence but they are not all about mourning. “There are openings," she says.

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