Knots of Resistance in a Beautiful Prison

  • Rollie Mukherjee
  • Publish Date: May 18 2016 7:17AM
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  • Updated Date: May 18 2016 11:02AM
Knots of Resistance in a Beautiful Prison


Pain, agony, repression, torture and resistance are inscribed on the mind and body of Kashmiri people 


 “Time and history have never seen eye to eye. Time laughs at history and time and time and time again. Time traps history in a lie .But we always, somehow, managed to roar history back onstage to take another bow to justify, to sanctify the journey until now.” - James Baldwin

Much of the knowledge about Kashmir in India and around the world even today is imagined and manufactured and not based on reality. This imagination is partly due to the image of Kashmir as a picture postcard scenic beauty reproduced through Bollywood films and national television channels, which reduce the place to just the physical geography, bereft of human stories.

Kashmiris, Muslims in particular, are prisoners of the image constructed by the Indian state and the corporate media. These rumours and images of Kashmir, its people, its problems have created more prejudices and distortions rather than genuine knowledge about the people, place and its history. My works are an enquiry into certain stories which are testimonies of people living and dead who are fighting and assert their right to live as any other being who aspire to be equal, just and free. These works are as much a reflection about the self as it is about the other. My work always tries to probe the very idea of violence, both which is overtly visible and which is kept deliberately opaque.

My father P. C. Mukherjee was an official photographer. After his draughtsman training in the Ministry of Defence, at drawing office unit, he later served in the filling unit (ammunition manufacturing unit) in the ordinance factory of Khamaria, Jabalpur. I would see numerous photographs, brochures, advertisements magazines, pamphlets published by various arms manufacturing companies both by state and private companies in my house. As I dealt with these references, I could slowly grasp the levels of violence these images inherited, nevertheless in a highly aesthetic, visually compelling way, what can be called as the “spectacles of the optic”.

As a painter, this awe and aesthetic visuality intrigued me: how the weapons which inflict destruction and wounds could be made so beautiful for the viewers and readers to consume?  Initially I attempted to juxtapose images of violence and war with everyday life. Here in I started using my father’s photographs. He also took photographs of families in marriage gatherings, award ceremonies and of domestic life. This dichotomy of his life that swung between professional life of an individual documenting weapons of war and a family man taking intimate photographs of ordinary people in mundane life struck me.

The normalisation of the idea of war in the day to day life of the subject was something I started working on. This probing led me to various facets of war which lay hidden in the innocent acts of a subject’s daily life. Works that showed a wife writing letters or a farmer ploughing, children playing – the mundane was simultaneously shown with the heinous and dangerous weapons. Then I started to research further into the specific acts of state violence to understand how the state systematically destroys civilizations and communities in times of peace.

Kashmir is one of the most militarised zones in the world. My engagement with the issues of Kashmir started as an artist with the work titled ‘will o the wisp’ executed in the year 2007. It talks about the cold blooded hegemonic state apparatus which reiterates and ruins our life to nothingness. Yet it fails to suppress our voice. Then from the year 2009 onwards, after my father’s demise, I started working on the very idea of normalcy, how it is state generated, and how certain state orchestrated violence and militarisation is deliberately kept under official carpet cover.

In the year 2013, I did 2 works for a group show remembering the present. One of the works was on disappearance, inspired by reading some of the Kashmiri writers and I always remembered the anecdotes and stories of torture and suppression shared by Kashmiri men who used to visit our home for selling carpets and dresses etc in my childhood in the 90’s. When I read the writings about Kashmir, these memories floated in my mind as fragments.  My works “Unframed Histories” emphatically thrusts on the notion that only remembering can liberate us from our heartlessness and cultural amnesia. In one of the works, a Kashmiri woman with a mike is shown as a speaking agency. Slowly I started engaging more by reading many Kashmiri writers and books on Kashmir.

These writings and testimonies gradually gave me more insight into the way I imagined the place and its people.  By reading these books, poems and writings, I started questioning the Indian narration of the history of Kashmir, and how their demand for self-determination is declared as baseless and everything is distorted to avoid recognition of their nationalist aspirations. Their resistance at day to day basis against this crisis due to military repression is in turn called as terrorism and violence against the state.


Simultaneously, I started reading and engaging with Ambedkarite writers on deconstructing of the Indian state as absolutely Brahmanical and Casteist. I got active guidance from anti-caste writers and activists not just on the inherent character of a violent state but also the specific Brahmanical casteist ways and methodologies the state systematically operates. The very assumption of Kashmiris as potential terrorist and anti-national exposes the Islamophobic nature of Indian society.


For me the body of Kashmiri men and women are the prime site of history. Pain, agony, repression, torture, resistance and revolt are inscribed in their mind and bodies. The Kashmiri woman in most of my works, who has undergone atrocities imaginable and unimaginable, becomes the leitmotif.

If the existence of a community, a distinct nationality, its beliefs, its practices and customs, its histories and the people are at last reduced to rumours and exotic myths and are constructed as real histories, then the consciousness of one’s own identity becomes an act of resistance par excellence.  When you are harassed, prosecuted, tortured, raped and killed for no other reason other than your own identity, one understands, one is living under a fascist system of the worst kind. If the same is a continuous occurrence, I believe we are dealing with not a modern phenomenon but a curious insult from human history. And if this insult is celebrated as the vibrant culture and tradition and if such acts of inhuman violence are committed in the name of satisfying the collective conscience of a country, we can only talk about an age old inhuman barbaric regime called Brahmanism. The story of Kashmir, like the stories of majority of Dalit-Bahujan and other marginalised communities in this Indian subcontinent, is the story of living resistance against the castetist regime.


Violence of any kind affects the women at its worst. I have tried to find ways to counter the masculinity of violence with feminine strength to resist protest and withstand.  Apart from raping and killing women perpetrated by army over the years, the violence infiltrates Kashmiri women’s life in varied shades in the form of abduction, disappearance of men, sons, children, husbands and brothers. This creates deep fissures and breaks the women’s life and pushes her to emptiness. This fragmentation of the being doesn’t heal; it leaves a permanent scar. A half widow, who still doesn’t know whether her husband is alive or not; or the case of disappeared children whose whereabouts are a mystery and their search drags on for years; and people imprisoned on fake charges and long and expensive court trials ruins the families and fractures their existence. As an outsider, when I’m engaging with Kashmir issue, I clearly know it’s also owing to my privilege that I could think of reacting to an issue from outside. I am well aware that I am part of the problem.  It’s this awareness and the ability to critique, owing to the support and guidance and inspiration from the marginalised voices under this hegemonic state that pushes me to subvert the very structures I am part of. The gaps and slips which happen due to my position actually offer a possibility to engage with the people I am connected virtually in different ways.


To see things from a humanitarian perspective, one needs to perceive things in much more complex and living manner by reading, engaging with and comprehending the narratives of oppressed. I understand that a real and honest engagement from the oppressor class/caste is only possible if and only if I critically analyse my own subjective position. This includes my privileges, my comfort, upbringing and conditioning through text books, schools, colleges and our very notion of secularism, democracy and nationalism. Any critique of injustice could happen only when this normative definition of the normal middle class Indian is undertaken at the primary level.


My work is also a critique of the average Indian mind, which accepts and responds selectively to other people’s woes. The jingoistic nationalism defines a place as just a land by dehumanising the people, living there even though it metamorphoses the land as a being invested with life and spirituality. This has lot to do with the cartographic anxiety of the patriots, who try to equate the abstraction of the map to the real physical world with people inhabiting the space. I am also trying to critique these abstractions and boundaries as meaningless. For me these boundaries are the most ruthless architecture humans have devised in history. Might be it’s just a wall or the barbed wire or the abstract line in the paper. It’s an inhuman technology of segregating one from the other by claiming a natural pure status.


In Kashmir the ordinary architecture like the schools, shops, public places like cultural centres, cinema halls, religious places like temples and mosques, guest houses and residence etc have gained an altogether different connotation and meaning post occupation.  The structures are converted into detention centres and torture centres. What happens to the people when the memory attached to these places clash with the reality of what it means in the given present? Further, when these detention and torture centres are converted into tourist guest house, it marks the complete control of the memory of the oppressed people. It becomes like a stamp of victorious group which can alter the meanings and definitions of any place at its will and celebrate the same act by displaying it as a tourist rest house. For the people who are organically connected to these places, these ruptures and cuts on their belongings systematically estrange them from any possible communication with the oppressive community and ends up in echoing resistance in every human modes of expression.


For me any landscape gets its meaning only with human interaction. My landscapes are always infested with people. The natural physical being of the landscapes and the turmoil and human crisis that happens at the foreground define the specific place. The landscape in my work act as a camouflage of death, guns, bullets skeletons, murders. Some of the landscapes are haunting in their malevolent macabre presence of the police. This state frustrates one’s impeccable dream of a peaceful existence. Everything seems to be the shadows of what we cannot see. Kashmir landscape is a memento mori where existence is entrapped in a beautiful prison. The skeletons inscribed bodies sends chills down the spine which shows how human lives are reduced to mere two dimensions. It has drained out all human traits and appears as dead ghosts.


The situation in Kashmir is as they are into the middle of the stories - (in Medias res), their existence seems to be at a pressure cooker point. The absurd theatre of war never ceases and fractures their existence to a paralytic end. The skeletons and fragments which recur in the paintings also undo the eroticism attached to the violence and death which I feel is very masculine in its manifestations. Though I use fragmented body parts, it’s either de-sexualised as a design or through the particular way of rendering, it becomes a sign representing the message of resistance and struggle. The skeletons in the landscapes occupy the same plain of living bodies. This creates a sense of discomfort for we are made aware constantly of the looming d\eath, simultaneously.


My works are mostly based on photographic images.  I use photographs from multiple sources like activist’s writings, testimonies of victim’s reports, and with these images I try to bridge the physical gap from Kashmir.  I have also used popularly available photographs from internet, magazines, newspapers and videos. This helps me to critically read though the problems in these already represented images, so that I can even subvert these images or use these images in a certain way to raise certain problematics about representation itself.


I have also used texts in many works as printed testimonies, or as direct collages from paper cuttings, or the final letter of the martyrs apart from graffiti, slogans and poems by Agha Sahid Ali and other Kashmiri writers. The texts also act as a visual rupture in the works. The serene landscapes and mundane life are broken by the texts which talk about resistance and injustice. It doesn’t allow for an easy consumption of the visuals.


The embroidery works were inspired by the brilliant Kashmiri designs. This was an attempt to translate the designs which I was doing on paper in a more tangible medium. I have used the bed sheets and cut them into small pieces which already had embroidery done over it. For me the bed sheet was more symbolic as it is something which is used very close to the body. As a covering, it can mean warmth, love, security, love, passion, longingness, body…etc. Most of the images which I have done in these embroideries are about women. The thread commonly associated with the feminine acts in many ways in these works. Sometimes they are free floating and talk about themselves in the work. Many times they are elements and connections that build up the figures. They are basically stitches that are done to cover or heal some wounds. They remain as marks/scars on the surface forever. The very act of stitching is both painful with punctures through the needles and the thread sews them or binds the wounds openings together. There is pain but also an attempt of healing. They are contrasted with the already existing beautiful floral designs on the bed sheet. The torso of the mothers depicted here is filled with vast blue which embodies the infinite sorrow deep in her hollowed body.


Falling threads shows open threads tangled all over the cloth. By using different coloured threads, I tried to bring an expressive emotion in the work. Also my intention to keep the work’s border as unstitched also talks about the disintegration of the community which is slowly breaking away and withering due to the various crises under the occupation.


As an artist one can’t be blind to the world around us. However information comes to us through indirect sources and one need to be socially and politically aware of the atrocities of the time.


It is not necessary that artist need to visit the place where wars are happening. Only thing what is required is a connection with the people of the land and respect of their point of view. Some people think the artist’s brush works as fragile, but the truth is that there were artists in history and also writings in contemporary times whose imagination has trespassed the borders and realities of lives. When an artist represents without negating the agency of the people and without suppressing their voice, I think one can depict the reality as closely as possible.


In the work Unbroken, a group of girls with folded hands stand together against the intruding gaze of Indians in the valley. Jacques Lacan, in his book- ‘OF THE GAZE AS OBJET PETIT A’ says “the picture has a gaze of its own which has the unsettling effect of throwing out…”


The overpowering and innumerable images of mothers in the works with the designs all over celebrate the reunion of protesting mothers who are not ready to submit, rather reaffirm their resolve to fight back. The design also talks about Kashmiri’s strong association with nature, it’s spiritualism, culture and art. The use of blot marks on the paper, burnt marks on clothes and stitches on cut clothes and hidden skeletons under the wrap of design carries the grief, lament of the mothers who lost their beloved ones.


My figures scream and yell, seething in anger; their sound is an attempt to tear off the silence of the oppressive force. It’s the absence of real sound in my work that haunts in the emptiness. They are not the victims. They scream and shout and fight. Their sound will haunt us no matter how much and how big a force attempts to suppress their voices.

(Rollie Mukherjee is an artist and art critic based in Baroda, Gujarat. Her works are part of some of the prestigious collections in India and abroad. Rollie has been a regular contributor in various art and poetry journals and is also the research editor of The Baroda pamphlet, a bi-monthly publication on art and culture. This essay is also an artist-statement about her solo show titled “to stories rumored in branches” on display at Conflictorium(museum of conflict), Ahmadabad from 14th April to 30th April 2016)