Each time Gowher Nabi Gora, 44, stops to admire a few stones by the side of the road in his hometown Srinagar, he is met with curious stares. Once he picks up a select few and puts them in his car, the eyes only get wider as they try to get a better look at his face and possibly, a glimpse of the number plate.

“It’s why I always keep photographs of my artwork on phone, so that I can show them what I do with the stones in case I am questioned. Luckily, I haven’t had any trouble yet," Gora says, smiling.

When it comes to the Kashmir Valley, most associate stones with stone-pelting since unrest broke out in the early 1990s. For folks like Gora, who were just about getting out of their teens during those early days of turbulence, it’s a time that they’re still coming to terms with.

“Whenever someone asks me my age, I tell them to simply remove 25 years from my life, because that’s what youngsters like me went through. When there are killings and disturbances everywhere, it takes an immense toll on the human psyche," he says.

Right through his growing days, Gora had an interest in collecting stones—he was fascinated by their shape, size and pattern. Whether it was gathering some from around his home, or scouting for one in the many streams that merge into the sluggish Jhelum river, it was a pastime that thrilled him. Gora does not have any formal training in art.

It wasn’t until a trip to Ladakh in 2012 that he was inspired to work with his stones, which otherwise gathered dust on the side table. One of the first artworks that he created was titled Mouj Kashmir (Mother Kashmir). It depicts a bleeding Kashmir stuck in the tussle between two behemoths, India and Pakistan.

“After all these years, we’re still being squeezed into an issue between India and Pakistan like mere guinea pigs. It was never like this back in the day—people had livelihoods and enjoyed a good standard of living in Kashmir," he says.

“I just started putting together some stones, creating patterns and sending out a message through them. It’s about expression—some convey it through writing, others photography and painting. I do it with my stones and pebbles," he adds.

Gora is also a practising veterinarian at Lal Chowk in Srinagar, which is at the heart of many stone-throwing skirmishes that the city has seen. While tending to animals around town, it wasn’t unusual for him to see schoolchildren fling a few stones at an army camp and flee, even as bystanders simply walked past them, oblivious to their actions.

“Nobody stops them, not even their parents. It’s just pent-up anger within the people—they don’t mean to physically harm anybody," he says.

The situation was further aggravated when in 2016, life came to a standstill after Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen militant, was killed. When the Armed Forces started using pellet guns to disperse mobs, it gave his art a new dimension and his works started depicting the plight of the victims.

“I know exactly what I’m going to do with a pebble once I pick it up. Sometimes, there are natural features that I include in the artwork," he says.

His first creation narrated the story of Insha Mushtaq, one of the youngest (14 at the time of injury) victims of the pellet attacks. In his work, titled Insha, he shows her being cradled by her mother in an attempt to comfort her.

“One moment, she was sitting at home and simply looking out of the window. Moments later, she had been blinded in both eyes. The stone that I used has natural holes in them, which represent her wounded eyes," Gora says.

As more news of other victims emerged, Gora pulled out his surgical veterinary instruments to patiently chisel stone surfaces in order to represent the visuals he had seen. Using crayons, markers and paints, each pebble was transformed into an impression of an impaired eye, depicting the brutality and pain experienced by ordinary Kashmiris.

“What I’m trying to represent is suffering and a human tragedy that has unfolded in Kashmir—I don’t care much about politics, since I’m an artist. When it comes to activism, I am happier helping hurt animals," he says.

When he steals some time at work, Gora is busy crafting his stones, much to the amusement of his colleagues, who can hardly suppress their laughter when the collection by his desk draws surreptitious exchanges among visitors.

“I don’t think many people understand it. A stone for me is an art piece, even if it means a weapon for someone else. Over these years, I’ve earned the label of an “art thrower", rather than a stone thrower for the impact it has had on people," he says.

“For me, satisfaction comes from the fact that people are left awestruck with what they see. If it touches their heart, I must be doing something right," he adds.

The lack of formal training doesn’t harm Gora, having carved his identity after mastering the technique over the years. What is missing though is a platform to showcase his work and that of like-minded artists. But that hasn’t discouraged the people who founded Heal Kashmir With Art, a platform for Kashmiri artists to get together and discuss art after the turmoil in 2010 when Srinagar was under curfew for a few months due to protestors piling out on the streets.

“We had a lot of youngsters come up to us and though we didn’t have any avenues to promote them, we still took them under our wing so that they wouldn’t trail off in a wrong direction," Gora says.

Gora continues to work on his pet project, while also exploring other art forms with stone. For any friend of his, picking up a gift is a no-brainer these days.

“I am presented with stones all the time and it’s a delight each time I receive one. It’s also a major activity for me during holidays. Climbing up a hill or wading across a river, I’ll go anywhere to retrieve a stone I like," Gora says.

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