There isn’t much by way of an invitation to Avani Rai’s exhibition that begins this week; just an email with the date and a few images that will be on display at Method, the new art gallery in Kala Ghoda, south Mumbai. The 27-year-old photographer-filmmaker looks restless — it is Eid and Kashmir is on her mind. “I’ve been living in Srinagar for four years now. I first went to Kashmir in 2014, when I was making a film about my father Raghu Rai. I went back in 2016 to shoot the second half of the documentary and I stuck around. If people call me a photographer today, it’s because Kashmir gave me the need to pick up the camera,” says Rai. Last week, the government read down Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. Rai’s show, titled ‘Exhibit A’, is a response to that.
She has been working on a book of photographs on the valley for some time now, aiming to publish next year. She hadn’t thought of exhibiting the images so far, but when Method’s Sahil Arora and Emma Sciantarelli reached out to her on Instagram, she was ready. “We’ve put this together in just two days so that we can have a conversation about what is happening in Kashmir at a time when there’s a communication crackdown and the only voices coming out of the interiors are on pen drives, snuck out with utmost caution,” says Rai.
“I don’t believe that violence is the answer to any conflict, but I do think we should examine the reasons why violence has taken place. When I began shooting for the documentary in 2014, I was mostly shooting soldiers of the Indian Army, because they are everywhere. So, I turned my gaze to the people of Kashmir,” she says. In her artist’s note, she writes, “My work is not to do with the politics of the Kashmir conflict, it is to do with the pain and suffering of a people whose voice has been taken away, torn long between borders and uncertain destinies… ‘Exhibit A’ has a single argument — let them speak.”
Rai is showing a total of 20 photographs, several of them are black-and-white, that were made between 2017 and now. “A few are from around the time of the election this year, in Shopian and Pulwama, of men and children. For so many years now, what does the life cycle of the average Kashmiri look like? Election, encounter, funeral, curfew, Eid, and repeat,” she says. Through her viewfinder, she also captures women, inside different spaces, sometimes in a group, some with their children, others gathered at the window. In these frames, the children look older than they are, weary of the world around them, and yet, there’s a glimpse of mischief, a tiny flash of innocence. “The women and children especially go through an unbelievable trauma in one of the most militarised zones in the world. Over the years, they’ve lost their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. They won’t necessarily pick up stones to pelt at soldiers, they just want to be left alone,” she says.
‘Exhibit A’ will be held at Method from August 15-24