Middle-aged men break away from their personal conversations to invite passers-by into their shops of pashminas and Kashmiri trinkets, their accents changing according to the appearance of their targeted customers. The scene is from and around the Kashmiri shops in Jew Town – a primarily touristic section of Kochi. A few hundred metres from Jew Town, a short on-foot journey takes one to VKL Warehouse – an establishment with a tiny blink-and-miss door accentuated with a banner that reads Students’ Biennale.
The last room of this warehouse-turned-gallery is divided from the open space by a thick dark curtain. A constant humming sound from a certain video installation leaks out of the room inviting the audience into the experiential space.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale concluded earlier this month after offering four months of relentless and expansive artworks for local and international visitors alike. One of the Biennale’s most celebrated verticals, Students’ Biennale, facilitated hundreds of art college students from all over the country to present works developed at their early career stage. The artworks were sprawled across four old warehouses remodelled as exhibition spaces.
The works by Kashmiri students were exhibited independently by the artists without a curator, unlike the rest of the Students’ Biennale which was put together with a team of seven curators. Their exhibits included three video installations along with the physical display of the main props used by the artists in the videos and resultant, in their creative processes.
With the physical exhibits, the artists left a significant piece of their artistic journey at the exhibition to be observed and absorbed by viewers.
The exhibiting artists explored ideas that, to an extent, borrow from their personal experiences. Housing nationally and internationally marginalised voices through the artworks exhibited, the Biennale raised necessary and overlapping questions about representation, identity, censorship, and other political crises of being an artist. It is a concern that one can rightfully explore through the contemporary art industry at large and also in its divisions at global, subcontinental, and national levels.
The presence of Kashmiri’s voice in the contemporary arts brings one to the question of how much of a priority art holds in a space that is struggling with issues that are more immediate and foundational. It is in times such as these that we put our trust in educational and creative organisations to carry artistic narratives whilst protecting such ideas from the heat of political turmoil. The questions of representation remain at the heart of the contemporary art scene and what entails is a discourse on the frequency or ambiguity of said representation.
Malik Irtiza, one of the student artists from Kashmir, was rewarded with the National Award under the Tata Trusts Students’ Biennale for her work ‘In Search of Apples, Almonds, and Cherries’. Her video work is an allusion to the character Shokpaseen which was the name of the protagonist nightingale of her family’s ancestral story. The allegories of a tongue and the character Shokpaseen come together to create a moment where these gaps in narrative become apparent thereby providing one with an attempt to identify the breakdown of language in storytelling.
For her exhibit, Aurooj Nasir collaborated with artist Sadaf Sawlath to create a video installation titled ‘Kafan-Doz’ which poignantly pronounces the erasure of innocence and childhood in the lives of women. Through the recollection of childhood games that involved a play of looped actions, the artwork captures the social and existential repetitions that women step into leaving their childhood behind. Aurooj, from the University of Kashmir, speaks of her time at the Biennale as a chance to engage with diverse forms of artwork that exist beyond the artistic conventions of realism. With a tender optimism, she hopes to witness enhanced Kashmiri representation within the national and global contemporary art scene.
Her and other exhibiting artists’ experiences at the Biennale revolve around the ideas of learning. Hence, the next evident facility of representation becomes arts education and hands-on learning. Beyond finding a home for their talents, an artist in today’s day and age seeks acclimatisation to the contemporary art industry and the logistical challenges its partaker organisations face. Moreover, the intrinsic and extrinsic gains of being an artist are something that should not fall into the worldly demarcations of who is at the centre and who has been pushed to the periphery. It is the provision of this fairness that is expected out of the arts and its institutes.
Nasir Hassan, a student at the University of Kashmir, translated his nearly year-long creative practice into a video installation. For his project, Nasir carried a lit lantern in public spaces of Kashmir and the Indian cities that he travelled to. In his work titled ‘Do Not Speak Ill of Others’, he uses his poetry and the symbolism facilitated by the lantern to raise personal questions on safety, fear, obscurity, and other philosophical entanglements.
Nasir, with the support of other exhibiting Kashmiri artists, also carried out an immersive performance at the main Biennale venue in early January. Whilst he recited his poetry written in his mother tongue, the Kashmiri artists and audience drifted in and out of the performance space applying blobs of henna on the white pheran that the artist donned. Speaking of how the body gets employed as a language, Nasir says “There are conversations that happen beyond a language.” This idea stands as a possible explanation of the audience’s active participation as a marker of successful communication although the audience consisted of close to zero Kashmiri speakers.
In addition to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale being a space for young artists to learn and emerge, the artists pleasantly stumbled upon an accidental familiarity around Fort Kochi and Jew Town where the streets were laden with Kashmiri-owned souvenir shops. The frequency of these shops nearly imitates the ethnic authenticity of the commercial streets of Srinagar.
In his book Kochiites, Bony Thomas explores the Kashmiri population within Fort Kochi and traces the journey of an overall Kashmiri sentiment in Kochi from initial fear to the current sense of security. The proliferation of Kashmiri traders has been linked to the largely secular and inclusive population of Kochi in addition to a present market for artefacts given the rising popularity of art exhibition spaces and the presence of gallery-going tourists.
Kashmiri art scene has stayed true to its tradition through the years of technological developments, political unrest, and economic policy shifts. In the corners of Kashmir, the handicraft and carpet industries witness unparalleled skill and artistic talent. Artisans of Baramulla, mostly women, have mastered the needlework to make intricate and beautiful traditional patterns on carpets.
The kind of carpets that can easily pass off as mechanised are the specialty of Baramulla’s culture. The district of Budgam is famous for the silk rugs that are handcrafted by local artisans. Similarly, nearly every district of Kashmir has a specialty in handicrafts that varies in forms of papier-mâché, ornaments, garments, etc.
Borrowing from the traditional economy of Kashmir, which was mainly asserted by artisans, the artisanal nature, approach, and philosophy of Kashmiris have migrated with them. Their craft and its transferability in entrepreneurial venues have enabled the Kashmiri traders to establish their creative presence across India and especially contribute to the local economy of Kochi.
Tanveer is one of the tireless Kashmiri entrepreneurs of Fort Kochi who is at ease with his residential identity as much as his origins. Using the trajectory of his own life over the past 23 years in Fort Kochi, he speaks of the migration of Kashmiri traders to the vicinity over the past three decades. When faced with the question of why his community chose to move more than 3500 kilometres away from home instead of more geographically accessible Northern parts of the country, Mr Tanveer responds, “Once a Kashmiri leaves his home, there is no place which is too far. Be it Delhi or Kochi, it’s the same distance when you step out of home (Kashmir).”
As an owner and manager of nine outlets around Fort Kochi and Jew Town, he finds it nearly impossible to take a break. Although appreciative of the footfall that the Biennale brought to his establishments, Tanveer cites his busy schedule as a reason which held him back from visiting the exhibition venues. Recalling his only attendance at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, he speaks applaudingly of Kashmiri musician Ahmad Parvez’s performance from early March.
Under the Music of Muziris programme of the Biennale, Ahmad performed his musical rendition of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s verses along with other songs in Kashmiri and Urdu. Artworks and pictures clicked by Kashmiri homegrown photographers and artists ran in the background as Ahmad performed songs written by emerging Kashmiri poets and writers. With the mention of the Kashmiri artists whose works were roped into his performance, Ahmad conjured up the community of the Kashmiri art fraternity on stage through his one-man show. In addition to his musical prowess, it was the uninhibited display of solidarity that made the audience listen to the musician’s voice beyond his music.
The South Asian contemporary art industry is witnessing an accelerated elimination of the Kashmiri voice. Within the creative space, the conflicts of artistic representation are mirroring those of geographical land. Platforms like the Students’ Biennale are enabling young Kashmiri artists to make necessary proclamations in self-sustaining and self-curatorial ways. This sliver of representation is suggestive of a possible future where the art industry is fuller with conversations, ideologies, and narratives instead of being complicit in muting them.