The Kashmir Photo Collective is an attempt at reparation, preserving the everyday, the unremarkable and the forgotten, writes Alisha Sett
“In all narratives about Kashmir there is now only a subtext, no text… Even before we come to solutions, our big challenge is going to be emancipating ourselves from the syndrome called Kashmir. We will have to unsettle so many of our entrenched assumptions, perhaps even feign a naivete, just so that some space opens up for something new… There are too many people trying to change things in Kashmir; too few giving a space of understanding.”—Pratap Bhanu Mehta
You have seen these photographs thousands of times before, because the aesthetic of the family album is universal. People stand together to imprint a moment of cohesion that holds some meaning for them into the compact space of a frame. They are so unextraordinary, so unremarkable, that it is only when they are seen together and marked “Kashmir” that they begin to undermine the generic and mundane narrative that might otherwise be expected to surface from such a quotidian terrain.
Who shares their family albums with strangers? Why would you allow your past lives, your friends and relatives to appear on walls outside your home? We know the intimacy of looking over the shoulder of a grandparent as they thumb through a sheaf of memories, stopping intermittently to recall, growing cognizant of their mortality, pointing wrinkled fingers at cousins, friends, aunts, uncles, lovers. These moments take place in living rooms and bedrooms, within the familiar trusting space of intergenerational exchange, as part of a ritual, a routine of remembering, or when an unexpected visitor gestures to the fading face hanging on the wall and asks: Who is that? Where is that? What happened that day?
When the culture of reciprocity—inherent in family and friendships—that creates room for the organic retelling of stories evaporates, the homegrown recuperation of history that the family photograph has always symbolised comes to a halt. The Kashmir Photo Collective reopens the space for the reparative ritual of storytelling by embodying the role of the unexpected visitor who stumbles upon the forgotten. As we return again and again to the Kashmir Valley in search of collections, large and small groups of photographs, we pave pathways through the archival process that allow us to see Kashmir anew.
Sitting on carpeted or stone-cold floors in the homes of families whose narratives we unravel over months, we must write upon the images that we scan, marking their words like scribes upon plain reprinted copies of their digitised images. Using this anachronistic mode of memory-making means that the agency for contextualising each photo remains with the speaker, the progenitor of the album. In this way, image and text, time and space, remain conjoined.
When we first began explaining the urgency of preserving the visual remnants of over a hundred years of Kashmiri history, the Valley was still suffering from the aftermath of the floods of 2014. The material instability caused by these weeks of unrelenting destruction allowed our message to reverberate: your images are a form of knowledge, and their oldest task is to re-appear that which has disappeared, or in the case of Kashmir, been disappeared.
The Valley has been depopulated in the popular imagination because of its particular photographic history. Beginning with the poetic elevation of its landscape in the colonial era by the likes of Samuel Bourne, in which Kashmiris were made minute against many a mountainous backdrop, the pristine vision promoted by travellers intensified as Kashmir became the most photographed destination in South Asia in the 19th century. These time-worn touristic tropes have ricocheted continuously against the repressive representation of over three decades of militancy and war in the public sphere; a persistently pernicious type of photojournalism that has reduced Kashmiris to bodies caught between barbed wire and bare life since the late 1980s.
The desire to control Kashmir has led to over half a century of military confrontations between India, Pakistan and myriad militant groups, without any possibility of resolution or revolutionary success in sight. Thus, to give a succinct account of the Valley requires writing a version of its nebulous history which emphasises the larger geopolitical game within which the region is embroiled. This type of summation would move us away from embracing the agency of the images before us. To engage with the family album is neither a retreat nor an attempt to turn our gaze away from the ongoing conflict. The act of archiving entangles us within an eclectic community, and a range of artistic and political praxes that acknowledge these images as potent and replete with history. Perhaps it is only through following the trails laid by the fragments found within these facsimiles that we can regain sight of Kashmir.
The Amin Collection contains photographs that trace the intellectual and familial life of Mohamad Amin, a long-time professor of English literature and translator of The Blazing Chinar, the autobiography of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, and Gleanings from Sheikh Ul Alam (99 shruks/poems). Amin presently lives in Rawalpora and continues to be part of the faculty of Kashmir University.
The Mattoo Collection contains photographs from the families of Rajendrakumar and Neerja Mattoo who presently live in Gogji Bagh. Mr Mattoo was the principal chief con- servator of forests for the Jammu & Kashmir government and Mrs Mattoo was the head of the department of literature at Government College (Srinagar). She is also a translator with several collections to her name. The Mattoo family originally came from Rainawari, a neighbourhood in Srinagar where they were recognised as part of the prominent land- owning class. The oldest image in this collection is a hand-painted photograph of Pandit Tarachand Mattoo, who served in the revenue department under Maharaja Pratap Singh.
The Qadri Collection contains photographs donated by Faheem Qadri and Ali Jan Qadri who presently live in Pampore. They focus on the life of Peerzada Ghulam Jeelani (1926- 2016), Faheem’s grandfather and Ali Jan’s father, a freedom fighter who worked shoulder to shoulder with many of the key figures of the Indian independence movement. Apart from playing a role in the ‘land to tiller’ movement, he was also a part of the drafting committee of the Constitution from Kashmir, and served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for four terms.
This essay was published in the Jul-Sep 2019 issue.