SRINAGAR, India -- At times it was enough just to stay alive, or to keep from breaking down when friends were dying and soldiers came knocking. Ugliness replaced beauty, and the finer things -- art, music, poetry -- seemed unbearable luxuries, like a rich dessert on an empty stomach.
But after nearly two decades of devastating conflict, of violence made more horrific by the achingly lovely natural surroundings, times are better now in Kashmir, the Himalayan region fought over by India and Pakistan. The two countries are engaged in a peace process, and the arts here are slowly coming back to life.
Over the last two or three years, Kashmiri painters, sculptors, filmmakers, poets and playwrights have again started plowing ground that had lain fallow for so long. Their cautious reemergence comes at a time when civil society as a whole is beginning to reclaim the space formerly monopolized by the Indian army and Pakistani-backed militants, whose confrontations have left more than 60,000 people dead since 1989.
"People have started to come out of their fear," filmmaker Akmal Hanan said as he sipped a cappuccino at a hip cafe here in Srinagar, the summer capital of the portion of Kashmir controlled by India. "I see a lot of potential."
Last year, a documentary Hanan shot about the travails of traditional Kashmiri potters screened at Srinagar's first festival of documentary, animated and short films. The year before that, an audience of hundreds gave a standing ovation to the premiere of the first digital feature film in the Kashmiri language, a story of star-crossed love set in the 19th century, directed by Aarshad Mushtaq.
Both men's films touched on themes of traditional Kashmiri culture, which bears more affinities with the Islamic culture of Central Asian nations to the west, such as Iran and Afghanistan, than with traditional Indian civilization to the south. Though fiercely proud of their heritage, the people here have struggled to preserve their identity under Indian rule and amid the same globalizing trends that have put indigenous cultures under pressure the world over.
When he was a teenager, Hanan, now 35, was an avid moviegoer who would sometimes buy tickets on the black market for the Hollywood and Bollywood extravaganzas that were screened in one of several cinemas around Srinagar.
But one by one, the theaters closed their doors, done in by damage during the violent clashes of the bad years, intimidation from conservative Muslim groups that branded movie-watching a sin and the dwindling number of customers who were willing to venture outside amid grenade attacks, kidnappings and other dangers. Only one or two movie houses are still operating, an obvious challenge for filmmakers.
In fact, a lack of venues to display their work handicaps most artists in Kashmir, whatever their medium. There is no state-sponsored arts center or a single art gallery in Srinagar. The city has only one decent auditorium for plays and concerts; it was occupied by security forces for several years and is under renovation.
A bastion of the arts
The only place to see a collection of contemporary artwork is on the walls of the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, where 120 students pursue disciplines such as painting, sculpture, applied arts, graphic design and classical music.
The school survived a riot during the '90s, when a mob stormed in and destroyed some paintings and sculptures. But the institute's cramped and slightly down-at-heel quarters, near Srinagar's historic downtown, are a reflection, professors say, of the low priority and funding assigned to the arts by the government of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
"We are caught between these bureaucrats. They really don't understand the meaning of art," said Masood Hussain, a sculptor who teaches at the school. "We have been working for the last 40 years in a rented building. . . .
"Our students have potential to work and they prove themselves outside the state," he added. But in Kashmir itself, "we have faced a lot of problems."
Last fall, in collaboration with a New Delhi-based arts association, Hussain was able to organize an artists' conference similar to ones that were regularly held here before the political and military turmoil put the arts into a deep freeze. Artists from Britain, Mozambique, Nepal and a few other countries spent two weeks discussing installation art and other trends.
The event helped inject some energy back into Kashmir's arts community, which had suffered not just from the exhausting external realities of violence and bloodshed but also the psychological scars the situation had inflicted on the artists themselves.
"An artist usually paints what he sees around him, whether landscape, people, culture. When there are frequent curfews, crackdowns, massacres, killings, naturally you feel so much disturbed," said Hussain, who is at work on a series of sculptures with forms based on Islamic calligraphy, including one 30-foot-tall, curvy stone creation, "Allah," that was installed in a public garden earlier this year.
Transforming the agony
With the atmosphere generally less charged these days, some of the terrifying experiences of the past are being incorporated into the works that Kashmiri artists are producing.
Malik Sajad, a talented 20-year-old who has been drawing a daily editorial cartoon for the Greater Kashmir newspaper since he was 15, is about to publish a graphic novel describing his encounter with an elderly man whose son was allegedly killed and subsequently falsely identified as a terrorist by the Indian army.
Such violence and abuse was the reality with which Sajad was raised.
"It's part of me, my art," said the reedy, bespectacled youth. "You see landscapes; you draw landscapes. I saw guns; I draw guns. This is part of my surroundings. It's a normal part of my life."
His novel also recounts a run-in he had two years ago with local security forces that had stopped him at a checkpoint -- a typical experience for young Kashmiri men -- as he made his way home from work one evening. The police refused to believe he was a cartoonist, despite his company ID card, until he whipped out a pen and drew a caricature of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his hand.
The indignities, cruelties and misshapen moral values wrought by nearly 20 years of armed conflict also surface in the work of local playwright M. Amin Bhatt.
His dramas examine the pernicious effects of government-issued identification cards, the moral dilemmas facing the state security forces and the politics of power. He insists on writing in the Kashmiri language, which "is a very important dimension of our identity. It's a very rich language. It has a tradition of centuries, particularly of poetry," Bhatt said.
He tries to push the envelope in his plays but admits to holding back somewhat, worried about censorship or some kind of backlash from the powers that be.
"Whenever you are objective and honest in your analysis, you must offend somebody," Bhatt said. "If you don't offend, then you should understand you have not been that honest."
The arts, he said, ought to hold up a mirror to society. More than that, they can inspire both introspection and dialogue and serve as a vehicle for people to vent their thoughts and feelings without recourse to the guns and bombs that until recently passed for tools of discourse in Kashmir.
That is an emotional outlet that this land, after a long journey through dark times, desperately needs.
"I'm providing a space of expression which is away from violence," Bhatt said. "And it may ultimately lead us to a situation where we can sit together and find a solution without violent means."