How Green is My Valley

How Green is My Valley

A bird in flight,dividing a patch of sky trapped between two trees.

Armed with cameras,a handful of Kashmiri girls from an orphanage in Kupwara is looking anew at the world around them

A bird in flight,dividing a patch of sky trapped between two trees. That’s Ishrat’s favourite photograph,one that she took with a camera borrowed from Delhi-based photographer Nitin Upadhye. “Mujhe nahi pata tha kitni khoobsurat hai. (I had no idea how beautiful everything is.) I used to see things but they didn’t register. My village is beautiful. The rivers and the mountains have always been there,but ever since I started clicking,I have begun to look for beauty in everything,” says the 18-year-old.

Peering through the viewfinder,Ishrat trains her camera on the landscape and the people of her village. Daughter of a slain militant in Kashmir,she doesn’t want to dwell on the pain that has come to define her land. Instead,she consciously looks for beauty that is lost on its own people. Her images are part of a book that is being compiled by Upadhye,who came to the orphanage Basera-e-Tabassum (BeT) in Sulkoot village in Kupwara district of Kashmir,and trained nine girls in photography.

The orphanage,started almost a decade ago,houses children who have lost one or both of their parents to accidents or violence in the Valley. Upadhye came to the orphanage a couple of years ago,as the mentor of an initiative undertaken by Pune-based NGO Borderless World Foundation,to help underprivileged kids with supplementary education. He was struck by how lacklustre the girls had become in their response to the world. “Even to simple queries like what should we pick up at the market for dinner,they would remain quiet or just shrug. I wanted to bring them out of this limbo. Given the cultural and religious context,I thought if I could give them cameras,perhaps they would respond to their environment,” he says.


Upadhye started with four girls,Ishrat,Afroza,Sameera and Nuzhat,all in the age group of 11-18 years,giving them digital SLR cameras and a free rein. He let them explore their surroundings on their own,waiting for the questions he hoped would come. The girls would go out,point their cameras at scenes and objects which they thought could portray their lives to strangers,and come back eager to preserve the images.

Of the four,Afroza was the one who took to it first. “She used to be the quietest of the lot,never meeting anyone’s eye and answering in monosyllables. Her father,a trader,had been buried in a landslide while returning from Himachal Pradesh. Her way of looking at the world was unique. She took tilted photographs,with start contrasts,” he says. In one,a photograph of a tray full of red chillies against the blue sky,the colours almost leap out of the photograph. “I love colours. That’s how I want to see the world,” says the 13-year-old,who wants to be a doctor.

Photography for her,says Afroza,is a way to simplify life,and understand the value of things. It’s only when she is looking at the world through her lens that she loses her fears. She points at a photograph of a shepherd with his flock and says,“He is responsible for taking care of them. That’s his story. For me this photo signifies responsibility.”

The girls face a fair amount of criticism from the villagers,but they hold steadfast. “People in my village Kukrosa say it’s a bad thing for a girl to be out in the open,taking photographs. But my mother tells me to follow my heart,” says Ishrat. Her father Ghulam Mohidun was killed in an encounter in 1994,a year after she was born. For her mother,a young widow,it was a struggle to bring up her four children. Ishrat’s younger sister Jameela,who also lived in the orphange,has now moved to Pune to pursue higher education. Ishrat wants to be a professional photographer once she finishes college.

The girls held an exhibition of their photographs in Delhi last year. Now they are busy with the book which will have over 300 images shot by them. It will also have short accounts of their lives written by them. Tentatively titled Basera-e-Tabassum (Abode of Smiles),the book is scheduled for publication in 2012.

Ishrat is already preparing her account. “I want to write about my village,how people live,and I want to start with my family,what happened to us,how we got through,” she says.

Upadhye is happy with the progress the girls have made. He is preparing to go back with more cameras in his next trip. “Because of the camera,they have developed a perspective about life. There is a child-like purity in their images.

They are all about relationships,about co-existence,” he says,adding how each image in the book will talk of one fear overcome and one emotion celebrated.

He recalls asking Ishrat to describe her village to a girl in a foreign land. “My village has a mother,a walnut tree,and a cow,she began. That’s how beauty is born,” he says.