Long queues of men stand silent, with their heads bowed and hands raised in supplication. Behind them is the blue Kashmiri sky, and before them, on the ground, dart the shadows of pigeons flying overhead. Elsewhere is an abandoned house, with window frames dangling off its elaborate wooden jharokhas. A silence hangs over both images — one is the silence that follows prayer and the other is of desertion. These images from Kashmir — by photographer Amit Mehra and artist Veer Munshi, respectively — are on display at Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai. The exhibition,“Kashmir:Insider/Outsider”,on till October 19, posits two different perspectives on the state, which was once described as paradise on earth, with Mehra being the titular outsider and Munshi the insider.
Munshi, a Kashmiri Pandit who left his home state in 1990 to get away from the tense environment, returned in 2008 to look for his house. What he found was rubble. The house he had grown up in was falling apart, and it wasn’t the only one. He found other abandoned houses, which were once occupied by Pandit families. Munshi says, “My immediate instinct was to paint. But I decided to photograph these sights, instead. I realised that painting would bring in too much subjectivity and I need an objective record of what I had seen.” For Munshi, an artist by training, the camera presented a way in which he could document the loss of a culture. “I’ve seen what Kashmir once was, when Pandits and Muslims lived together,” he says, pointing to the model of a typical twin house set up that is part of the exhibition. “I grew up in a structure like this, where one half was occupied by a Muslim family and the other by a Pandit family. There would be a bridge connecting the two distinct parts and during celebrations and festivals, the doors would be thrown open and people from both sections would mingle freely. It’s hard to describe how the culture once was, given how polarised life in Kashmir has now become,” he says.
While Munshi’s photographs highlight the pain that comes from the loss of a certain way of life, Mehra’s works show that pain is an inescapable part of its present. The photographer travelled to Kashmir in 2006 on an assignment to shoot the conflict zone. “I spent a few days there, shooting my photographs. But when I returned, I felt that I had left something of myself there,” he says. So he returned a number of times over the following two years, trying to put his finger on the source of his disquiet about Kashmir. But none of his pictures were satisfactory and he trashed most of them. In 2008, Mehra decided he would go back to say goodbye, and wouldn’t take his camera along, instead using a notebook to record his experiences.
As Mehra spoke to people, it occurred to him: even the silences in the strife-torn state were not peaceful. Within a month, he went back with his camera, and set about capturing the images that conveyed his impressions of alienation and claustrophobia. For instance, in many of the images, Mehra shoots his subjects through a barrier — glass, wire or fence — to convey the disconnect that existed between the locals and the photographer, who they saw as an ‘outsider’.
For viewers, it’s the small hints of tragedy that make the deepest impact, such as the concertina wire that peeks out from a corner of the frame or the crumbling house covered in a layer of snow. As both artists point out, most images of Kashmir are either of tourism or conflict, which fail to convey the everyday tragedies of the region. It is this quiet devastation that the exhibition successfully presents.