War, art, and the artist: ‘You look around, and there is only violence as a muse’


Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth – Pablo Picasso.


Art, and thus, an artist, born anywhere in the world, in war-torn countries — contextualises the given circumstances, to make sense of the world. Without a moment’s hesitation, one would accept that war has led to a deep and lasting impact on people’s psyche, but it is here, that an artist looks at the monstrous humanitarian crisis and presents it as a drumbeat of questions, unanswered, unaccounted.

Kashmir, one of the war-torn regions in the subcontinent, has been a hotspot of widespread bloodshed since 1989, which has led to the loss of thousands of lives.

But the artists say, as a caterpillar suffers silently in a cocoon to become a butterfly, so has the pain inflicted by circumstances in the valley transformed people’s thought, and art.

From illustrating pain in the form of poetry, to studios where colours fight for existence on canvases, and paintings which address the depths of emotions, artists in Kashmir are producing it all.

From capturing memories, recording events of the past and present sufferings through words in their books, or through visuals in sketches, and paintings, emotions are finding ways.

One such emotion found its vent through Zameer Ahmad Sheikh, who lives in the Old Town area of North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, an area famous for lush green meadows, and mass-graves.

Zameer, 40, has been pouring out memories, shaping them on the blank canvas since his school days.

He says that his work aims to ‘demystify’ the experiences of people in Kashmir.

But the artist is not separate from his art. At the age of 28, tragedy struck the family, when his father was shot dead right outside his home.

Hameed Ahmad Sheikh, a renowned artist from Baramulla, was killed on July 9, 1992, while on his way home with Zameer, then a child, near the banks of river Jhelum.

“This river holds the capacity to wring one’s heart. Over the years, people, and the river have witnessed an emotional churn. The river has seen all the bloodshed, the hopelessness, and the soul-shattering events that have taken place over the last few decades,” Zameer recalls agonisingly.

This Northern part of Kashmir was one of the hotbeds in the 90s, when the people of Kashmir launched an armed rebellion against the Indian state. What followed, was a brutal and crushing assault by the state.

It was here, that on October 22, 1947, the Pashtun Tribal Militias entered Kashmir as a response to the slaughter of Muslims by Hindu extremists in Jammu, after the Muslim regiments rebelled against Hari Singh.

The militias captured large swathes of land, before being restricted by the Indian army, to what is now known as the Line of Control (LoC). The areas of Kashmir under the administration of Pakistan share its borders here, in Baramulla. The cross LoC exchange artillery, and death, is an everyday affair.

It is in this context, and background, that Zameer produces his art. And its effects on his work, are more than visible.

His father, Late Hameed Ahmad, before being shot dead, worked at the ‘Uri Civil Project’, a hydroelectricity project in North Kashmir that powers a large area of Kashmir. For more than a decade Zameer too worked there.

His father’s death brought along longing, and loss. Incredulous in a way, the incident paved a way for him to channelise his approach of working with colours.

Through one of his art pieces, a man carrying a little boy on his shoulders, he exhibits an autobiographical account of the days he spent with his father.

John Ruskin, an English art critic, in a commencement speech to cadets graduating from the Royal Military Academy in 1865 ‘War gives birth to art,’ had said: “…that though you must have a war to produce art, you must also have much more than war.”

The much more, is all too visible in Kashmir. Medicine defines it as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But has the trauma ended for it to be post-traumatic?

The artists in conflict challenges this notion of a condition used to describe the soldiers of war, after they came back home.

The artist, through his art says, there is no way to go back home, the war hasn’t ended, and it is the home itself that is a battleground.

Those who left home, exiles, have produced subtle, yet disturbing political nuances of protest through their art that is reminiscent of an inescapable sense of nostalgia and helplessness.

Agha Shahid Ali, the well-known Kashmiri-American poet, and also an exile, had been intensely engaged with the tragic circumstances of his motherland. The essence of his poetry lies in its combination of aesthetic and political. The tension between the personal and the historical generates new literary paradigms in Agha Shahid’s poetry. It is here that he takes the tradition to a new manifestation where his poetry can be studied as actively engaging in the historical process of struggle against oppression and injustice, and a right to determine its political destiny.

One of Zameer’s creations is linked to Agha Shahid Ali’s imagination, in which a Shikaare Woal is sitting in his Shikare with no tourists to take around.

Agha said, “so that someone, on the shores, waits… I see the long wait, from sunrise to sunset, of the shikara walas, who return home disappointed every day as there are no tourists to take around or sell bouquets to. The shikaras parked on the shores of Dal Lake seem to suggest a cruel irony of some calm in a world that has long been burning.”

“I make an effort to showcase history in the form of paintings so that our generation gets a fair glimpse of events that shaped Kashmir. A scathing criticism awaits the artists if the canvas is ruled by little instruments of violence,” Zameer says, talking about the motivation behind his work.

“Nevertheless, Kashmir has produced artists with wild dreams. From Poets like Agha Shahid Ali, Habba Khatoon to young singers cum songwriters like Yawar Abdal, Alif Saffudin and Mohammad Muneem, behind The Band Alif. They all serve as a source of inspiration,” Zameer says.

“As an artist, when you look around for inspiration; this otherwise ‘heaven on earth’ provides only violence as a muse,” Zameer adds.


Aaqib Fayaz is a media student at Jamie Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His work has appeared in publications across South Asia. 


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