“It is a paradise that has been set ablaze.”
That is how Masood Hussain, a renowned Kashmiri artist, describes his homeland. The transmogrification is reflected in his paintings. While Hussain once painted the idyllic rural landscapes of his childhood, his artwork now depicts the reality of Kashmir—a place of perpetual conflict, where normal life has been upended by death, forced disappearances, and the omnipresence of armed forces. The decades-long struggle between India and separatist militants has transformed Kashmir into the most militarized zone in the world. Gone are the flowing rivers and Himalayan mountains of Hussain’s early art; a recent piece portrays a child with no eyes, invoking the victims of the Indian army’s pellet-gun attacks last year.
Hussain is one of four artists profiled in Niyantha Shekar and Mukti Krishan’s short documentary, Art in the Time of Conflict. The film, which premieres on The Atlantic today, also introduces Hina Arif, Zeeshan Jaipuri, and Mujtaba Rizvi—young Kashmiri creatives whose artistic development was deeply influenced by the trauma of growing up in a war zone. Through their stories and art, they convey the human cost of the enduring conflict.
“We were inspired by these artists’ courage to resist, inform, and use the power of art to help deal with the trauma of living in a conflict zone,” Shekar told me.
Their art, Krishan added, “is a powerful way to resist social and political injustice,” as well as a tool to witness and record history amid the constant threat of erasure.
Over the course of four years, the filmmakers followed their subjects to meaningful places in the Kashmir Valley and observed them at work in their studios. “While we kept a low profile, we were still stopped and questioned by the armed forces three different times during our filming,” Shekar said, “so our film’s visual language, in part, was influenced by this difficulty of filming in the presence of armed forces.” The directors resorted to filming the military from inside a moving auto-rickshaw so as to not be seen with the camera. “Almost every day of this project surprised us in how ever-present the symbols and memories of conflict are in the graveyards, streets, places of worship, and homes of Kashmir,” Shekar said.
Shekar and Krishan would not be able to make a film like Art in the Time of Conflict today. Following the Indian government’s recent abrogation of Article 370, which revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, there has been an unprecedented lockdown in the region. Beyond the thousands of people who have already lost their lives or suffered acutely as a result of the conflict, what’s at stake now is further destabilization that could ripple beyond the region—and, in a more abstract sense, the very definition of democracy.
“Kashmir is the most dangerous and volatile place in the world,” Krishan said. “By revoking the special status of Kashmir, India is courting conflict with Pakistan … If the neighbors attacked each other with a significant proportion of their growing nuclear arsenals, an estimated 125 million people could [be] killed.”
Recently, Krishan spoke with one of the crew members who helped film Art in the Time of Conflict. The young photographer, who still lives in Kashmir, sounded defeated. “There was a resignation in his voice,” Krishan said. “He was fed up, and that he lost all motivation to create anything—it wasn’t worth it. He expressed skepticism at art’s ability to bring peace.”
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