“Someone like me in the ’90s would have picked up a gun; 20 years later I picked up a guitar with the same ideology — to resist,” says Ali Saiffudin, 24, a guitarist.
“My art is an emotional release. A lot of things get accumulated inside. To balance that, you need art,” says 26-year-old Ovais Ahmad, another musician. Both of them, along with a handful of other students, are part of a short film called ‘In The Shade of Fallen Chinar’, a take on how students in Kashmir University are telling their stories, through art, music and photography, in the conflicted Valley.
Directed by Fazil NC and Shawn Sebastian, the 16-minute film shows Kashmir as it was, before Burhan Muzzafar Wani’s death. Wani, a militant commander of Kashmir‘s Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in an encounter with security forces on July 8 last year. The incident sparked widespread violent protests resulting in high casualties.
Along with the length and breadth of Kashmir that was then affected, Kashmir University was closed and Mizraab, the college journal, was discontinued after two editions in June.
“We wanted Mizraab to be a platform for people to write about what they wished,” Saba Muzzafer Nazki, a university student, told indianexpress.com. Nazki, the founding editor, along with associate editor Sadiya Ayaz, had started the fortnightly in June 2016. Mizraab means a plectrum device that strikes the strings of a musical instrument known as Rabaab. And just like how a plectrum is used to stir notes of music, the fortnightly was started with the aim to stir the young, creative minds of Kashmir. The aim was to not depend on the state’s constrained press, but to have a space that allowed them the fundamental right of ‘freedom of speech and expression.’
Nazki, pursuing English literature from KU, was among the students who used to gather around the fallen chinar tree in the university’s Naseem Bagh. For her, the film reflects how different people from different walks were coming together to fight the same battle. Brought together by the language of art, literature and music they use to communicate their resistance, these students gathered to conspire a riot — not one of violence the Valley was otherwise used to, but a more riveting one — that of their powerful voices, beautifully woven words, soulful music and vivid art.
Sebastian, one of the directors of the film, says most of the students they met during the making of the film spoke of art as an avenue to vent their accumulated anger of several years. “While a section of the youth expresses through stone pelting, another section uses art to show their resistance. This film is about them,” he says.
For Qazi Khytul Abyad, a 23-year-old fine arts student, gathering around the chinar was not planned. “It just happened to be a place near our department where we’d go to have lunch,” she recounts. But that it was the only fallen tree among other 600-odd chinars was what fascinated them about what she calls “an unusual space”. Some people working in the University used to live in a hut near the tree. In 2016, the hut happened to catch fire one day, after which the place was left stranded, Abyad says.
So as to not let the place seem abandoned, Abyad and other students from the nearby Faculty of Visual and Performing Arts were among the first who started gathering around the tree to paint on its log and install murals. Other students in the University followed suit. “Artistes gathered around the tree to sing, write and draw, and get to know each other,” she says.
She shared one of her paintings.
Abyad thinks art is a universal language for everyone — irrespective of religion, language, race and nationality. Back when the University was open, she remembers seeing these young students — put together by their poignant hurt and love for art, gather near the Chinar — giving her immense happiness and hope, that maybe, their amalgamation could bring in a change that decades of uprisings have failed to.
According to Sebastian, the artists featured in the film grew up when the conflicts in the Valley were at its peak. They try to portray their anguish through art, mostly unknowingly so. Sample how Mosam, a 24-year-old rap musician thinks out loud in the film:
“Nobody believed in me,
“Nobody to trust me,
It feels like every single cop is
Here to bust me
What were you thinking?
I’d Say Come Here and Arrest Me?
I am not freaking doing that
Go ahead you can test me.”
Sebastian maintains that this is not a political film. “We are only trying to picturise a small movement that is arising in the University, keeping the Chinar as the central aspect to weave the story around,” he says.
Although the standard route taken, after completing a short film, is to start showcasing them at film festivals, Sebastian said the film was uploaded online in August, 2016, after the turn of events in the Valley. “Film festivals limit the audience watching the movie. Uploading it online ensured everybody got to watch it,” he says. The film has won many accolades, including the Special Jury Award at Signs 2016 Documentary and Short Film Festival at Kochi.
The students’ dissent is probably not as striking as that of the ones resorting to violence. Theirs is probably just an informal, disorderly set, and from what it seems, their outbursts, their sketches or the lyrics of their songs may not be as obvious as the pellet guns or stones the others wield, but in the countless pages of history that the unrests in Kashmir has seen, theirs might make for the more vivid ones.