Deconstructing Kashmir – Part IV: Through The Gilded Windows Of Emperors

The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skins off, all that she violates and starves.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched Of The Earth, Page 51

Like the State, the camera is never neutral. The representations it produces are highly coded, and the power it wields is never its own. As a means of record, it arrives on the scene vested with a particular authority to arrest, to picture and transform daily life…The is not the power of the camera but the power of the apparatuses of the … state which deploy it and guarantee the authority of the images it constructs to stand as evidence or registers of truth.

Tagg, John, The Burden of Representation, Page 64

Paradise on Earth. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir bestowed this phrase on the Valley of Kashmir and forever cursed it.

Though uttered centuries ago, these words even then hid the inequities and miseries of life in the valley. Today they have become the siren song of tawdry mass tourism businesses and false-exotic traveler’s guide books whose glamorous and idealized depictions of the Valley distract visitors from the poverty, sorrow, hopelessness, fear, suspicion, numbness and sheer violent surrender that is life in the valley. To say nothing about the physical degradation and squalor that is Srinagar’s inheritance after decades of conflict.

I pick my way through garbage piled high on the street, eye with trepidation the many large, wild dogs that roam about in the early hours of the morning, I skip over open sewers that drain human excrement into the flowing waters of the once mythical rivers as women wash clothes downstream. I walk past the collapsing hulks of traditional Kashmiri homes, their filigree terrace decorations now largely gone, the wood rotting from neglect and exposure. I greet the many unemployed men standing about on street corners, and work out excuses for the beggars who will inevitably put out a hands for money. I give pre-prepared answer to questions about work visas to Sweden, expressions of compassion when yet another young man wheezes under his breath that he just needs to get out of here and that then all would be better.

But while the Mughal Emperor was bestowing garlands, many of the period’s poets were unable to turn the eyes away from a terrible reality

The path of poverty is evident from the road leading to Kashmir:
Its very first step means the renunciation of the world.
How can one pass this path with ease;
For the very first conditions means relinquishing life
How can a traveler escape this calamity
Except that a slip of the foot may become a cause of his rescue?

(From Zutshi, C Languages of Belonging, Page 31)

Or Wahhab Pare, a Kashmir Pandit, who wrote angrily asking:

How many oppressions of the time can I count?
The authoritarian rulers have stepped the Mulk into chaos.
Anyone who is employed has to pay tax,
The plundering department is called Nakdi Mahal [cash only]
How many oppressions can I count on my fingers?
Every lion here has a hundred or more dogs with him to rip the people apart.

(Zutshi, C. Languages of Belonging, Page 54)

The Mughals, who ruled the Valley from 1586 – 1758, looked out from their terraces and saw only beauty. And as all other rulers since, they preferred not to see those that lived off and struggled through this beauty. Their court poets composed numerous masnavis (narrative poems) in this period for presentation to the Mughal emperors.

This descriptive poetry was dedicated to glorifying the beauty of the Valley, establishing its geographical contours, and describing the gardens and buildings constructed by order of the Mughals. This was the period in which the lush meadows of the Valley, its snow-capped peaks and calm lakes, were immortalized in beautiful verse.

(From Zutshi, Languages of Belonging, page 29).

But the masnavis idealized and exaggerated. Often desperate and obsequious poets simply manufactured. As Aziz Ahmad pointed out in his essay “Epic & Counter-Epic In Medieval India” (Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Sep. – Dec., 1963), pp. 470- 476) that masnavis grew out of the tradition of the qasidas (panegyrics) and reflect an ‘…historical attitude rather than history’. A sentiment echoed by Richard Davis in his work Lives of Indian Images when he cautioned us that:

‘…because of the hyperbolic, and rhetorical character of these masnavis they cannot be viewed as transparent factual accounts.’

Even as Chitralekha Zutshi in her brilliant Languages of Belonging:Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir is incredulous:

The land of Kashmir, as articulated in the works of Kashmir poets of the Mughal period, may have existed for the most part only in the imaginations of the Mughal emperors and their court poets….

(Zutshi, Languages of Belonging, page 31)

It is an imagined Kashmir that is shattered by the likes of a different Mughal poet, Khwaja Mohammad Azam, who begged to an indifferent Emperor in a time of the 1733 famine:

So great is the distress of the people of Kashmir
That it escapes even their own comprehension
When the people were weakened by famine,
Chaos sprang up from town to desert.
No rice or grain can be found anywhere,
Except in the wheat-complexioned beauty of the beloved.
Bellies like ovens are heated to the grilling point,Yearning for a piece of bread.

(From Zutshi, C Languages of Belonging, Page 31)

Mridu Rai has argued in her PhD dissertation that she wrote when at Columbia University that the Mughals epitomized the practice of erasing Kashmiris from depictions of Kashmir.

“Therefore, in Mughal miniatures, Kashmir put an appearance either in the form of humanly manicured gardens or of scenery glimpsed incidentally through a window in what was otherwise predominantly the architecture of the Mughal city. The Kashmiris were barely deemed worth the wastage in paint.”

(Mridu Rai, The Question of Religion in Kashmir: Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Rights 1846 – 1947

from Zutshi, C Languages of Belonging, Page 30)

And it would be just a few decades after the end of Mughal rule that new conquerors would look through new windows and once again not only appropriate the imagery of Kashmir, but inflicted yet another erasure of the people of Kashmir.

∞

In the year 1863 Samuel Bourne, a young photographer from the Shropshire district of Nottingham in England traveled to India to build his career and fulfill his dreams of the perfect photograph. Bourne would create, as Ananya Jahanara Kabir discusses in her book Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir, a body of photographs that would define and influence the language, visual and literary, that would be used to describe the Valley of Kashmir for decades to come.

He would captured Kashmir on a plate of photo-sensitive chemicals. And he would cage it.

Kabir points out that Bourne’s was not a documentary venture, but a creative one. He was in the search of the what he himself said would be

‘… some magnificent autumnal landscape, in which were combined every element of the grand, the picturesque and the sublime, as seen in the bewitching light and soft effulgence of a gorgeous sunset, and in which the wondrous reality of every color, tint, and hue of the grant original was beheld.”

(Kabir, Territory of Desire, page 60)

But despite an initial euphoria at the discovery of such a rich subject, he soon laments that if only

‘…he [a photographer] could … transport English scenery under these exquisite skies, what pictures would he not produce!’.

(Kabir, Territory of Desire, page 63).

Kashmir wasn’t beautiful enough and had to be made so. And that is what he did. He transposed and reconstructed the perfect ‘picturesque’ based on an ideal of the English landscape and imposed its structure and aesthetics onto his photographs of Kashmir. And like the Mughal Emperors before him, he too looked through windows, in his case the viewfinder, and erased the Kashmiris from Kashmir.

In their work Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place, Eleanor M. Hight and Gary David Sampson point out that Bourne’s notebooks are filled with descriptions of his experiences and interactions with the locals. But he carries an arrogant disdain and disregard for them. He criticizes their religious beliefs, judges them as wretched for the squalor of their living conditions, complains about their obstinate refusal to obey his commands. At one point he beats some coolies for their reluctance to go off on a trek with him (Haight & Sampson, Colonialist Photography, page 92). He met them. He spoke to them. He worked with them. He even wrote about them. But he would refuse to allow them to ruin his photographs, so he erased them.

Personal Diary Entry September 10th 2009: His photographs are stark – black and white, blurring, occasionally incomprehensible. The people represented, Kashmiris, are in various throes of sufferings, angst, discomfort and anxiety. Srinagar is enveloped by a death-like darkness. The images reek of danger, fear, anxiety, suffering and misery. The Kashmir portfolio. He talks repeatedly about being bored of photographing the same events, the same elements, but that he keeps returning because that is the story. There is a script somewhere, that he is working against; funerals, stone-pelting, protest marches, half-widows, shrines, mosques, soldiers with guns, the martyr’s graveyard, men praying. But who has written this script and why is it so consistent across so many photographer’s portfolios? The pictures have won awards, and he is pleased. More awards are wished for. Is that what these pictures are – mere stepping stones? Is that what the script is – about a career that has the Kashmir ‘conflict’ as a necessary milestone? A check mark. Been there. Done that?

What he and other colonial photographers created on their photographic plates, and what the consumers in the capital cities of empire most responded to, would be an idea of a pristine ‘paradise’. A ‘paradise’ manufactured to suit the tastes of an English citizenry.

∞

The Kashmiri’s resisted their representation and Bourne was frustrated by this. For him they were

‘…a constant factor of ambivalent regard; annoying for their frequent unwillingness to pose or stay immobile for the duration of an exposure…obstinate in their reluctance to bend to his will when hired to bear his equipment.’

(Haight & Sampson, Colonialist Photography, page 92).

The British faced this ‘lazy’ and ‘reluctant’ native all across an India they were incorporating into their Empire. In a series of lectures on India historiography, published in a book called An Indian Historiography of India: A 19th century Agenda & Its Implications Ranajit Guha points out that:

For the Western observer, whether he was there as a traveler, adventurer, scientist or administrator, regarded the withholding of an indigenous knowledge of any kind invariably as an assertion of ethnic identity, which excluded him, by that very gesture, as an alien. The fear and indeed the sense of humiliation generated by the want of access to what he thought was by his virtue of an undefined racial, cultural or spiritual superiority, or simply by right of conquest, as in the present case, could be compensated by generalizations about native character and society as devoid of all that stood for positive values in the alien’s own society and character….By blaming such inaccessibility on native cunning, secrecy and deception, they merely acknowledged defeat and accept that, as aliens, they would never qualify for initiates. (page 10)

Samuel Bourne was a child of the British colonialism adventure, and as Kabir explicitly points out in Territory of Desire, he arrived in India at a time when Kashmir was being incorporated into the Empire and the ‘great game’ – that struggle with Russia for control of Central Asia. And photography, much like history, became a tool of Empire. As Guha continues, the British, frustrated by the resistance of the native…

…turned to history – to history as ethnology’s surrogate. They realized that the Indian specialist would not share his knowledge with them, and decided therefore to acquire a knowledge of pre-colonial conditions…by a historical investigation of the Indian past. But such a recovery of the past was bound to make for a very different kind of knowledge from the one denied…The British had to historicize the Indian past in order to have access to it. But historicization…could not be achieved except by the operation of metropolitan rules and models on native material…[and it was]…complicit to a project that turned conquest into occupation.

(Guha, R. An Indian Historiography of India, pages 11-13)

And photography, much like history, was yet another weapon to create what could only be a knowledge very different from the one denied. It was a blatant act of power to describe and create, despite realities that pointed elsewhere. The Kashmir that the British would own would be the one they make in their own image. Kabir is vivdly clear about how the work was produced:

The photographers admit to its lanes and houses being fetid, foul, and cramped; its inhabitants are declared poor and unwashed. And yet, in photographs they are rendered dignified and attractive, their dwellings satisfyingly picturesque, a foil to the sublime that is generated by the photographs of the mountains, lakes, valleys, and rivers, and to the antiquity crystallized in Kashmir’s ruins. Kashmir emerges thereby as the perfect aesthetic composite.

(Kabir, A.J. Territory of Desire, page 69-70)

The photographers look past its reality to an imagined ideal, to a perfect, untouched physical and historical landscape that they then weave, through careful photographic cataloging and indexing, into the broader project of control and appropriation. The Kashmir they cannot control, the one that they are unable to find a connection to, is erased and a new, fresh, clean and perfect ‘paradise’ is offered as an object to be claimed.

And later they would simply re-sell this ideal back to the Indian. And tens of thousands would go on killing and dying for it.

∞

Personal Diary Entry April 12th 2009: He shows me his portfolio of photographs, produced over nearly 20 years of covering the situation here. Kashmir. Stark colors, stark actions, blood, grief, anger, tranquility, beauty, striking beauty, protests, policemen, soldiers with guns, bodies on streets, elegant orange saffron fields, shikaras (boats) on the Dal, politicians screaming, sunsets over Himalayan majesty, mothers grieving, bodies being buried, flower vendors against snow-capped mountains, magnificent wooden shrines, exotically dressed girls doing dances. In some way each set of images conforms to my ideas of the region. Each seems to fit nicely into a category that is known and now represented. Nothing jars the eye, nothing surprises the mind. It is all familiar before I have even had a look. I know this Kashmir before I even arrive here. And the photographs in front of me seem to confirm all that I know. There are no surprises, simply aesthetic gymnastics. Each image a cage that holds a well worn story and refuses to allow it to evolve towards something human, concrete and graspable.

The re-sale of the ‘paradise’ of Kashmir would arrive in the shape of colonial education. and along with it the prejudices and perspectives of ‘ownership’, control and appropriation. The post-independence generation, the heirs of the British education system, would continue to see the region, the people, and it’s meaning for India (here I refer to India as  region and include both the nation states of India and Pakistan) in precisely the same way as the previously colonialists had. We would continue the erasures, and maintain the fantasies. That is, the Kashmir ideal we were fighting to own is the same one the British were fighting to own. And the language, politics, tactics and attitudes with which we are doing it are the same as our last colonial masters.

[Education] stood not only for enlightenment but also authority…In other words, it was an ideological effect that made both the propagators and the beneficiaries of education regard the latter as a purely cultural transaction and ignore that aspect of it which related directly to power…At one level the content was culture, and at another, power.

[E]education related to colonial dominance not only as a means of persuasion, but as an arm of its coercive apparatus as well.

Guha, R, An Indian Historiography of India, page 15)

But Guha’s most powerful insight is offered when he wraps the consequences of this education, and the project to catalog and document India’s history back on itself:

What constituted the politics of such [education] was its attempt to persuade Indians to take pride in an event that made for their subjection to a number of Western powers culminating in the establishment of British paramountcy by an act of conquest. To teach Indians to appreciate that discovery as a triumph and an achievement the loss of independence, was clearly a lesson in power meant to educate the colonized to interpret the past not in terms of their own interest, but those of the colonizers. Education in history was thus designed as a servant’s education – an education to conform undeviatingly to the to the master’s gaze in regarding the past. It served the project of imperial dominance by annexing the past in order to preempt its use by the subject people as a site on which to asset their own identity. Any progress made by Indians in the study of this genre of history could only be a measure of the success with which they had been taught to yield to the processes of such colonialist appropriation.

Guha, R, An Indian Historiography of India, page 22)

India’s revolutionary generation – the post-colonial generation was equipped with the intellectual and political tools best designed to construct it’s own subjugation. It confronted the region of Kashmir and its inhabitants at a distance, as an alien presence, and determinedly erased them and their voices in the service of ‘the nation’, and ‘nationalism’. Precisely as they had been educated to do. Beneath their ‘modernity’ and new found sophisticated, remained the germs of a political and intellectual culture principally constructed for subjugation, appropriation and control of ‘the other’.

The process still continues.

Personal Diary Entry September 14th, 2009: Through the day, my cameras in my hands, I remain wary of the large number of military and police personnel patrolling the streets, their encampments and check posts scaring the face of the city and whose challenging stares and fingers on triggers suggest the easy resort to violence. I cringe at the smell of sewage pouring into Dal lake, it’s gray/green waters chocked with garbage and weeds. I struggle with the dismay I feel at the sight of the many ugly constructions that continue unabated the very heart of the lake. Why do people insist on calling it paradise? Do they not see a city and a people crushed, unable to live up to the cliches that they are garlanded with? In those distant mountains, so unthinkingly described as ‘majestic’, are hundreds of villages where thousands of encounters have led to tens of thousands of deaths just since the early 1990s, leaving entire villages cleansed of its men and boys, and tens of thousands of lives forever disrupted and destroyed because of murders, rapes, tortures, and disappearances. Does not, as someone I met in Srinagar said to me, the soil bleed red? Do not these souls, emptied of feeling and conviction, walk about like the dead?

∞

Ham ko ma’luum hai Jannat kii haqiiqat lekin

Dil ke khush rakhne ko Ghalib yih khayaal achchhaa hai

Mirza Ghalib

Ghalib’s timeless lament – The reality of paradise is known to us, but we indulge in fantasies to keep our hearts from sorrow echoes through my mind as I walk the streets of the city’s markets, neighborhoods and squares. Every conversation begins in suspicion and progresses only as far as tolerance. Behind the faces,  smiles, and gestures of hospitality lies another reality that I have read about, and sense but don’t want to know because I can’t alleviate it, absolve it, or share in it. I am the Kashmiri who is not from here. I do not have her sorrows etched onto my soul, skin and future.

There is a slow trickle of tourists returning to the city but its doing little to alleviate the gloom. There is a tinge of violent acquiescence to the demands of the tourists, a desperate tolerance for an important means of income that can be the difference between life and death. The house boats, many in disrepair, are desperately fighting for clients. The shikara oarsmen are bartering for pittances, the hotels are mostly empty, their staff lethargic from inactivity and indifference. The Kashmiri crafts shops go through the formalities of display, but within sit sullen and withdrawn men. A lifeless life, of a people waiting or perhaps simply surrendered.

I had hoped that the cliches would not be true – that the city would not be beautiful. Instead I found something worse; a beauty unrealized and perhaps unrealizable. As I stood on near the Shankaracharya mandir on top of a hill and looked out across the valley, allowing my eye to follow the slow curve of the Jhelum and come to rest on the peaks of the Pir Panjal mountains afar, my heart sank as Ghalib drowned out Jehangir.

Srinagar is not beautiful. It isn’t paradise. Srinagar is a wound – open, festering, and infected. Our view is blocked by gilded windows. Can we find a way to close them and look away?

Further Readings:

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara, Territory of Desire: Representing The Valley of Kashmir

Zutshi, Chitralekha, Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir

Rai, Mridu, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and The History of Kashmir

Tagg, John, Burden Of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories

Brothers, Caroline, War and Photography: A Cultural History

Eleanor M. Hight & Gary D. Sampson (ed), Colonialist Photography; Imag(in)ing Race and Place

Falconer, John, India: Pioneering Photographers 1850 – 1900

Rayner, H (ed), Photographic Journeys in the Himalayas 1863- 1866

Apr 02, 2010 | History, Kashmir, Poets & Poetry

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