Reclaiming the Self
The body of a Kashmir woman, in the foreground and the landscape in the background, both are liberated from the clutches of official cultural production. The works de-fetishise what has been rendered exotic by the colonial gaze and represents a Kashmir woman, not as a spectator or a victim, but a mediator, witness and narrator of people’s histories.
How does one begin a fragmented lingering story? Perhaps from the fragment which refuses to erode? Perhaps from a banal declaration, a scream, or a desire which keeps us alive? Let me begin from the cliché then, the one I inherited from my ancestors – Hum Kya Chatey? Azaadi (What do we want? Freedom).
Stand upright like Aleph, the first letter of Azaadi. Sing fearlessly. Do not exorcise us out of songs. Our songs are not just our protest songs. These are our birth songs. Our death songs. Our wedding songs. Our funeral songs. Our lullabies. Our mourning. Our celebration. Our screams. Our silence. Our malady. Our panacea. Our unwritten history. Our militant memory.
Zoi se Zaalim: Topography of Oppression
The works represent the various configurations of a police state and its intersection with the everyday, deploying symmetrical patterns and repetition as visual strategies.
Memory resides in the emptiness of our stoic stares
in the gaze of their blood-shot eyes
in the restraint of our legs
in weight of their ‘sovereign’ torsos
in the prayer on our lips
in the stench of their breaths
in the restlessness of our feet
in the sound of their boots and barrels
in our screams piercing the heavens
in the stink of blood and pain
in our torn hems and scarves
in the creases of their uniforms, shining insignia,
certifying carte blanche
Memory is an autumn of massacres and resilience
a winter of torture, rape, disappearances and resilience
a spring of siege by 600,000 outlanders and resilience
a summer of trampling jackboots and resilience
Memory is the unsettling dust of our beings
Memory is opposite of time,
an antonym of their ‘preamble’
Memory is a synonym of our history.
The Embellished Museum of Annihilation
The works use ‘guesthouse’ as a common motif alluding to Kashmir’s various torture centers, the visible markers of a military occupation, which have been rendered invisible by the state by repressive metamorphosis into guesthouses and residences for state politicians and bureaucracy.
You may embrace our poems. Sing our songs. But do not asphyxiate them like bodies in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek. Like tear gas smoke choking our uteri. Do not disfigure our elegies like the pellet-ridden faces and backs of our boys. Like barrels shoved into our wombs. Do not electrocute our beats like our bodies in Papa II, Hari Niwas. Do not torture them by strappado. Do not crush them under roller, waterboard them, sear them in secret torture chambers. Do not violate our rhythms like vanguards of your peace violate our landscapes. Do not lay siege on them like our cities. Do not our desecrate poems like you desecrate our dead.
Chokh-lad Jaame (The Bloodied Apparel)
The cloth has been treated as a wounded body – site of pain and memory and healing. The pink colour of the fabric, in Mukherjee’s words, evokes twilight – a moment of transition. The edges of the cloth are not hemmed portraying erosion and disintegration. These works also depict love and strength in times of pain.
Memory is made of loss
Body is a memory of a thousand selves—
tortured, maimed, raped, mutilated,
Memory is not a victim but a survivor
like grandmothers, daughters, fathers, brothers
women, men and children of
Kunan and Poshpur, Shopian, Handwor
Dardpur, Kopwor, Uri, Srinagar, Kishtwar...
Memory is a festering wound:
...February 23, February 24, May 30, October 28, November 7...
...1700s, 1800s, 1900s, 2000s...
Wound is our memory, our witness,
our free country.
Qurbani Henz Sozini Kari (The Tapestry of Sacrifice)
An old bedsheet has been used in these portraits of courage and hope. The bed sheet as a material is conceived of as a storehouse of memory, presence and absence, and testimony in itself.
Who would have dreamt of coloured shrouds in war?
Sewn by pale but promising hands and autumnal eyes blinking to
Wait, witness and dream
Seamstress sat all day at her window and in their embrace
they became one –
Who would have dreamt of remembrance in war?
She did, for she knew what forgetting meant
When she died near her window,
a thousand memories
lay trembling on her body –
a rainy memorial
embraced in moss and wild berries
she stole as a child in one long summer
She lay there, amid rain, needing no tombstone
enwombing a promise, a prayer,
a nostalgia for future, when children running
barefoot towards her would cry –
To the Seamstress who stitched our dream!
The Graveyard of Paradise
The works depict war weaponry germinating from the earth and as casting shadows from the sky, dislodging the mainstream notions of peace and beauty.
I hear the army truck grumbling
Its engine howling
Dogs on the streets now silent
I am lonely, suddenly
I think of the gasoline rainbow the truck may have left in the puddle
Image in the puddle is of a massacre
Night doesn’t end
I and the lamb sob
When I looked up
Sky became paper
I began writing images
With my eyes
Rain fell in unknown villages on numbered graves
1, 40, 100
“And it is He who sends down rain after you have lost all hope, and unfolds His grace…”
Will you paint us again?
Memories surface from the deepest rubbles
like the promise of resurrection
My mind is a trellis
the ivy grows
Ro Rahe Hai Yeh Zameen, Ro Raha Hai Asmaan
The landscapes in these works are inscribed with memories and take the urgent role of witnessing; sky, earth, clouds, trees all become witnesses.
Nameless trees stand intimately,
rooted but almost paralytic, embracing each other
in all seasons
waiting for the bugle
for a final march against tyranny of time
a grand march for flow.
Flowing, flow, flowed.
Waiting to Testify
The works shows men and women testifying and waiting for their disappeared kin. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night which he painted at an asylum, forms the background of two of the works superimposed by testimonies of Afzal Guru and his wife Tabassum, giving way to conversations within these works, across time and space. Moon, Sun, Reflections as elements endow these images with poetry.
Your face is etched on my being –
that quivering moment
before your existence
slipped between presence and absence.
I grapple with your presence, my absence, your absence, my presence –
all boundaries blurry.
Tiniest specks in my eyes carry you
like multiple reflections in broken mirrors
I wear your last kiss on my forehead as a badge
and hold your only photograph as a placard
(I know how much you hated getting photographed)
testifying your presence, absence
I wait and witness with other mothers, wives, fathers, children
their stories tied to them
like explosives tied to a suicide-bomber
embracing photographs of their ‘disappeared’ beloved
as they last existed uncontested.
I have conquered time
fought with the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the sky
My womb is a mausoleum
My feet – rivers
Your absence has seeped into my skin
The crimson of my blood is your presence
I grapple with your presence, my absence, your absence, my presence—
all boundaries blurry.
And when people ask me what do I remember of you my son
I only laugh hysterically!
Fellowship of Pain and Resistance
These works depict a reunion and congregation of protesting women. The movement for the disappeared has emerged as a vibrant space of dissent, mobilisation, expression of solidarity and sisterhood of pain and resistance. These gatherings are units of strength, support and solidarity giving way to new friendships and bonds.
We know the pain of erasure. We, the poets of persistence. We, who outran our destiny. We, who cradle the ache of an unsung longing, a lingering history. We, who bear the burden of outliving our children. We, who survived a genocide of colours, a massacre of language. We, who enwomb within us evanescence. We, who have tricked forgetting.
We, within whom, flows a dark river of impossible love. We, the wandering minstrels of hope. We the balladeers of dawn. We the elegists of night. We the bards of loss.
We hear you. Do you?
Mourning is Loving
In these works everything is in a state of mourning – people, landscape, homes; emanating from and touching the deepest realms of pain. Mourning is an act of love, remembering, and resistance.
World is an exile,
there is no home, no homeland
no faraway, no closure
Then why don’t we mourn or
are we mourning by living?
Every night death thaws in our embrace
homes burn in our dreams
hope screams, desires
become memories – redundant
We cradle the ache through all seasons...
We must be prepared to mourn
in all seasons
A fish never forgets the sea
Isn’t it time, we mourn the undying blue in eyes of a dead fish?
The world has forgotten how to mourn
Isn’t it time to remember the act of mourning
to beat our chests in grace, sing elegies
and convulse in each other’s embrace?
Mourning is loving
mourn me, love me
when all is quiet
hold my hand and we will walk home.
Language of Longing
In these works, martyrdom is evoked as an articulatation of longing and its culmination. In one work, Afzal Guru’s last letter appears in conversation with a woman going on about her everyday activities in an occupied terrain. The other work is Afzal Guru’s portrait as a martyr, embroidered along with stars and paisleys.
Winter of my eyes took flight
Did you see?
These are not the same eyes
colors of which you would patiently decipher
sitting under the sun for hours
gray dreams refusing to dissolve in waters of Lethe.
My hands clutch autumn now
My feet feel nostalgic
Spring in my veins crawls back
My eyes hid that one dream
in the rubble of countless others
I had to.
Didn’t you see how they gazed?
They, who trampled our fields of saffron?
They who murdered the colour
and smeared it on their foreheads.
We carry gallows around our necks
Do you hear the sound of fetters?
I may not write to you again
I need to find the key
I know you saw me
carrying my heart in my eyes
I heard the rain rattling against my window
You thought I wouldn’t know
What can I say?
I still carry you in my each sigh
But for now my love
I need to go
to carve epitaphs
with delicacy and precision
the other is born
They only give us numbers
but poets hate numbers
and in our country we are all poets
History has no time to repeat
It is unfinished where we live
Like you and me in that moment
when near the creaking door
that lead to orchards,
my hem torn
and those apples we gathered
in my ‘halam’,
your feet covered with leaves and ash
I asked you, What will become of us?
You said, I love the winter in your eyes.
Razed Homes, Raised Fists
A binding theme in these works is the portrayal of the crumbling border between home and the street. Home, conceived of as a safe space, becomes the very center of oppression in a place like Kashmir and streets provide opportunities of mobilisation and togetherness.
Memory is a room invaded
and turned into a battlefield
memory is the battlefield...
Let the roads carry us barefoot
till reason loses its
last battle with madness
till Empire crumbles
and body becomes a ruin
an epitaph –
resistance to shame and silence
The witness is dead, the dead will speak someday
Till then the roads carry her.
Ferrying Memory Across Lethe
Water represents time and flow. Time attempts forgetting but memory is an antonym of time. People of Kashmir carry the burden of memory across the river of forgetting.
Tonight the crescent is a boat
sailing into the heart of overcast skies
the homeless, the dreamless
the shoe-less, the sleepless
the wounded, the hungry
the runaways, the prisoners
the workers, the fighters
the lovers, the non-citizens
where airplanes don’t fly
and missiles don’t reach
where birds need no wings
and rain un-becomes
where gravity surrenders
and fall is immortalised
ferried by the waning moon
we sail through
a sea of dust of
but united fates
with no place to reach
this journey is our home
Stay put, sing a song
the boatwoman says,
night is long.
To view a collection of Rollie Mukherjee’s work, please CLICK HERE.
~ Uzma Falak is a native of Kashmir. Her poetry has been featured in Gossamer: An Anthology of Contemporary World Poetry, What the Jaguar Knows, We Cannot Know, The Electronic Intifada, The Palestinian Chronicle, Cultural Anthropology, Kindle Magazine, Kafila, Cerebration and Kashmir Lit. Integrating creative practice and research, she is currently pursuing her practice-based PhD in New Delhi. She also blogs for Oxford-based New Internationalist.