Avani Rai, 27, recounts a visit to the Adkhara village in the Imam Sahab area of Shopian in south Kashmir, a few months ago. She tells me about visiting a burnt-down house in one of the most violence-ridden areas in this region, where pro-Pakistani outfit Hizbul Mujahideen’s militant, Lateef Tiger, was gunned down by Indian security forces in May this year.
There, she bumped into a bunch of boys who, upon spotting her, animatedly started telling her about what ammunition was used and how, and what effect a particular weapon has. “These were seven- to ten-year-old boys who understand guns, explosions and violence, better than you or I at our ages," she tells VICE. "When I picked up my camera to take their photos, these boys lifted their hands and made gun gestures at the bullet holes in the wall. What do you think they will grow up to be?”
Through this recollection, Rai evokes a powerful image of a conflict zone that’s currently in the news for being under a never-seen-before communication blackout after the Indian government decided to scrap Article 370 of the Constitution earlier this month, thereby revoking the special status and autonomy the state previously had. The immediate impact, according to various reports, is curfews, restrictions on movements and incidents of violence.
In this atmosphere, where reports from the region differ in their narratives (some say there’s peace, while organisations like the BBC and Al Jazeera report violence) and rumours abound because of communication blockade, Rai’s work comes as an apt pause. Her words above are neatly captured in the photo she eventually took of the boys—a raw black-and-white visual of a decrepit wall with several bullet holes, and tiny, delicate hands with gun gestures pointing at them. That moment is one of the many poignant stories of Kashmiris in the most politically and militarily volatile region in India right now.
Rai, who has been a photographer for four years now, says her career as a photographer had in fact started from Kashmir and its people. On Independence Day last week, the artist—who shuttles between Kashmir and Mumbai (spending around eight months in Kashmir alone, every year)—opened an exhibition titled Exhibit A at the Method Contemporary Gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, of her work that comes out of the region. The ongoing exhibition, in her own words, is concerned with “the long-drawn pain and suffering of a people whose voices have been muted, caught between borders and uncertain destinies.”
Rai’s work, be it at the exhibition or on her Instagram (where she frequently documents her observations and visuals from the Valley), is resilient, silent and poetic in its execution, and captures, mostly in monochromes, an alternate visual narrative of the region. While our televisions and news screens are inundated with visuals of conflict, hers is a perspective that draws heavily from the daily lives of civilians who’re in the middle of this siege. “I feel like Kashmir is misinterpreted and misunderstood so much, and there's this narrative that Kashmir is 'ours'. The conflict has been nationalised and not humanised to such an extent that it's not about the individuals themselves who’re from the region,” says Rai, who is also the daughter of Magnum photographer Raghu Rai, known for, among other extensive coverages, his work during the Bhopal Gas Tragedy in 1984.
In fact, Rai’s first visit to Kashmir was because of the film she was making on her father, parts of which she shot in Kashmir. “After that, I just had to go back. Today, when I tell people I need to ‘go back’, I mostly mean Kashmir, rather than Mumbai, where I live too. I’ve travelled so extensively in Kashmir that I’m familiar with its geography more than any other place I’ve grown up in,” she says.
The exhibition (which continues till August 24) toys with the communication blackout in Kashmir in a rather interesting way, tugging at the fact that Kashmiri people’s voices and movements are off the nation’s radar right now. In her note for the exhibition too, Rai writes, in a meta way, “Let [the Kashmiri people] speak.” In fact, ‘Exhibit A’ as the title draws from its direct meaning: “(noun) something or someone regarded or presented as primary evidence in support of an argument or proposition”.
“The fact that the Indian and international media is not allowed to move freely and report from Kashmir is because we don’t want this ‘evidence’ of our history to be recorded. My work is like evidence, in that sense, of the people, and their pain,” she says. Amid national and international reporters and photographers continuing to report on Kashmir despite the shutdowns, Rai’s humanitarian lens spells out how conflict eventually and really plays out: one person at a time.
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