Youth in Indian-controlled Kashmir fight for independence with art

Despite a rising art scene across India-controlled Kashmir, a much-touted arts festival was canceled because of popular backlash against possible India government involvement.

After nearly 20 years of conflict, a new sound is emerging in Kashmir, and it’s not the sound of bullets: Young writers, artists, and musicians are emerging across the disputed territory, offering a glimmer of hope in the region.

The Harud (Autumn) Literary Festival, lauded as the first of its kind in Kashmir, was supposed to be held in Srinagar, the capital, in late September. But despite the rising art scene there, the festival was canceled because of popular backlash.

With many Kashmiris still actively seeking justice for disappearances, rapes, and killings of family members they say were suffered at the hands of Indian security forces, the arts festival fell into contention because of its association with the Indian government. The cancellation highlights many Kashmiris' desire for intellectual independence in a disputed region claimed by both India and Pakistan.

“There may well be dozens of excellent literary festivals in India, but in case no one has noticed, there's a firefight going on in Kashmir,” says Sanjay Kak, who recently published a book containing a collection of articles about 2010's summer unrest in Kashmir.

Several writers and academics joined prominent Kashmiri writers who spoke out against the event in an open letter on the Internet. The festival might give a false impression of normalization in the region, they said, expressing wariness about organizers’ ties to the Indian government.

How could a literature festival be held in a state where people are not allowed to freely speak their minds? they asked.

But will it hurt artists?

For writers such as Feroz Rather, a shaggy-haired, reflective young man just beginning to cut his teeth in the literary world, the cancellation of the festival is not likely to slow him down.

Growing up in one of the most violent villages in Kashmir, Mr. Rather continues to grapple with how to write about the disturbing events he witnessed. One of his most recent short stories was about his neighbor who was forced by the Indian Army to lick antiestablishment graffiti off a brick wall.

“After the Army made him lick the wall, bruising his tongue, they beat him severely, and the next day he left for Pakistan to become a militant,” writes Rather.

Though he had few resources growing up in Kashmir during the conflict, he says he found his writing voice through the words of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

“The novel shattered me and made me cry like a little boy,” Rather says, who is now earning a master of fine arts in fiction at California State University, Fresno. “It vindicated my belief that I will cease to exist the moment I subscribe to the grand-national narratives of India or Pakistan.”

Such experiences, he says, have made it easy for many Kashmiri writers to turn away from supporting the Harud Literary Festival.

More exposure for artists

Still, Vijay Dar, the main organizer of the now-canceled festival and former adviser to the prime minister of India in the mid-1980s, insists that the objective of the event was to give young writers and artists like Rather more exposure.

“There are a lot of youngsters who are into writing and the arts, not only in Kashmir but also in neighboring regions like Jammu and Ladakh,” says Mr. Dar, who owns the school where the festival was supposed to be held.

His school is located next to Kashmir’s biggest military base – also a point of contention for many Kashmiris who wondered why the festival was being held in a heavily militarized area. “We thought a literary festival could give them a lot of coverage and maybe become an international festival.”

Born of conflict

As the Monitor reported earlier this year, MC Kash is Kashmir’s first rap singer became popular during the summer of 2010 when more than 100 Kashmiris, mostly young boys, were killed by Indian security forces.

While the conflict may have fueled these young people’s artistic pursuits, the environment in the region and lack of resources make it very challenging for them to move forward with their artistic and literary pursuits. MC Kash does not have a sound mixer and has never ventured outside Kashmir. Other young artists struggle to survive, like self-named Apple Kashmir, one of the few female artists in the disputed territory.

“I have not seen much work by artists, and virtually nothing by female artists in Kashmir,” says Ms. Apple. “Even though the place is really beautiful, it is a really heavy environment for any kind of artist to work here. There really is no space to show your work or any kind of market for people to buy it.”

Apple grew up in a remote village in Kashmir. She moved to Mumbai, where she began working as a model, artist, and singer. She recently moved back to Kashmir and is starting her own brand of hand-designed belts, while trying to sell her paintings to support herself.

On their own terms

These writers, singers, and artists say they would like to have a literary festival in Kashmir and a way to share their work, but they want to do so on their own terms. Mr. Kak, whose book “Until My Freedom Has Come” got its title from a song by MC Kash, thinks that could be possible.

“If a literary festival is what Kashmiris want, surely there will be one. Even if the Harud Literary Festival were to want to reappear from the ashes, I'm certain people would welcome it. Now that the dust has begun to settle, surely its organizers have a better sense of the sensitivities – and the politics – of Kashmir. I'm sure they will not trip over all the wires again, like they did this time around.”

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