Drawing the White Curtain

Winters of disquiet in Kashmir

Photographs By Sohrab Hura TEXT BY Tanvi Mishra
01 January, 2020

LAST YEAR, during what locals were touting as the coldest winter in 12 years, I made a visit to Srinagar. Despite it being the tail end of chillai kalan—the period from late December to the end of January, the coldest and harshest part of the season—the city received a fresh fall of snow. Winter in Kashmir has three stages. Chillai kalan gives way to chillai khurd and eventually to chillai bache—bache means “little child”—which is gentler than the previous two and gives way to spring.

As a first-time visitor to Kashmir, I was told by Kashmiri friends that my trip would be incomplete without a foray, even a short one, to Gulmarg—to experience it in peak winter as much as to see the markers of militarisation along the route there and at the destination. As the city roads gave way to the highway, every so often we saw army convoys cross in the opposite direction. Upon reaching Gulmarg, the atmosphere appeared festive. Every few metres, Kashmiris wearing pherans—a traditional garment—ropes slung across their shoulders, pulled enthusiastic Indian tourists down the slopes on makeshift wooden sledges. The scene was heavily reminiscent of the British, during the Raj, being pulled along in hand-drawn carts while perched on cushioned seats; the situation was only somewhat lightened by the comic element of the vacationers’ discomfort as they tried to maintain some poise. There were also more conspicuous echoes of occupation. As we turned a corner, we spotted a couple of skiers resting near a lodge, while a soldier in army fatigues, white snow boots and dark glasses stood guard nearby, holding an assault rifle. The tourists’ excited shouts were interspersed with the whirring of a helicopter that, I was told, was flying to an army base at the top of the hill.

Gulmarg was a reminder of the duality that is Kashmir: a population simmering under a seemingly tranquil surface. While the media represents Kashmir as being ridden with conflict, it is, at the same time, regarded as a “paradise,” its beauty coveted as a backdrop to Bollywood dance sequences. This dichotomy is palpable in the photographer Sohrab Hura’s ongoing work Snow. Photographed over five winters, since 2015, it takes shape across the three stages of winter in Kashmir.

On the surface, the work conforms to the widely held notion that winter, by its sheer severity, slows down all activity in the Kashmir Valley. “People would themselves talk about how winter was always a period of calm, and how, as the season would turn and it would get warmer, the land would also get more volatile,” Hura said. The reality is that the season only conceals the conflict from plain view for outsiders, and brings but a nominal dip in its intensity. The loss suffered by the population, as individuals and collectively, is too large to be erased by a change in season. For the non-Kashmiri, too, once you start looking, there are abundant signs of a society that is seething.

On Hura’s first visit to Kashmir, he went to Srinagar, and then Gulmarg. He had gone as a tourist, to see snowfall, with a friend. Hura recalled that he was overwhelmed by “the generosity and warmth of the people,” and returned having felt humbled. However, by the time he was leaving, he realised that he had been “in a sort of a bubble,” having gone only in search of something as innocuous as snow despite knowing a bit of the troubled history of the place. In his desire to “experience something magical,” he had “conveniently become blind to many realities there.” He realised that he had to uncover more.

Snow’s opening sequence carries a sense of Hura’s first forays into Kashmir. It shows a landscape bathed in white, fresh snow so soft that children are buried in it nearly halfway if they step in. But “the tranquillity and beauty,” Hura said, “is nothing but deception.” He deploys the tranquillity connoted by such scenes, and by snow itself, “as a mask in my work that I have to slowly peel away.”

Hura spoke repeatedly about such figurative masks. Though he momentarily paid disproportionate attention to the beauty of winter in Kashmir, soon the grim everyday reality of the place grew more amplified. He recalled “heavy militarisation and security that was suffocating, the stories of state violence that felt sharper after experiencing the paradise in that place.” The more he “saw, understood and realised, the initial mask of ignorance might have intermittently been replaced by a mask of denial.” But that mask, he added, “has been on all our faces. It is on the face of the person whose first question about Kashmir is if it is a dangerous place.”

He recounted various memories from his childhood “that pushed me into forming impressions of Kashmir from afar,” including the kidnapping of six European tourists in Kashmir in 1995, the Kargil war in 1999 and the militant attack on the Amarnath Yatra in 2002. Hura said that such events, and the mainstream narratives surrounding them—laced with incomplete and distorted information—mould the view of Kashmir among many who have grown up in India. “When a narrative, no matter how absurd, is repeated and amplified to us independent of our scrutiny, its seed is bound to be sown somewhere inside us.” It was only much later, Hura said, “that I’d get to know about the Kunan–Poshpora mass rapes that had taken place in 1991. Along with it, I’d also realise the constant denial of it by people around me.” Each visit brought more realisations to challenge the reality he had earlier been made to believe.

Hura’s work defies preconceived notions about Kashmir and is devoid of familiar markers of conflict in the region. He offers a tender view of the bylanes of small-town Kashmir, inviting us to get to know the place as he did. As an outsider, he said, “I have been very dependent on listening to people’s stories in shaping the way I’ve been ‘looking’ at Kashmir.” Some of those he met were friends, while others were strangers who invited him to their homes for a meal or a cup of tea. Several images—of a young child swinging on an elder’s back, of a clever makeshift wicket dug into the snow for a game of cricket, or of a boy hiding a ball of snow behind his back—seem like photographic anecdotes of his interactions. The takeaways lie in the details. In a photograph of a boy wearing slippers in the snow, his familiarity with the chill, his pheran covering his bare legs just above the ankles, betrays his identity as a Kashmiri.

Hura talked about Kashmiris as “the biggest stakeholders in deciding their own fate”—despite majoritarian Indian sentiment rejecting their right to self-determination. He said he is not interested in adding to the “noise” over Kashmir—one that is typically devoid of Kashmiri voices—that has come with the burgeoning of nationalism. “No matter how much I might have read or researched on the conflict in Kashmir from a distance, I’d still never be able to fathom the complexities that exist there,” he added. “The one thing that is very clear to me is this separation of identities between the Kashmiris and me, an Indian.”

The subtlety in Hura’s work does not disguise Kashmir’s historical struggle for freedom. Rather than directly showing violence, he often chooses to rely on metaphor. An image of a red-tinted stream evokes an ominous mood. It was likely made during Bakr-Id, when “entire streams in villages would run red from the animal sacrifice.” Hura recalled that one of his friends, who grew up in Kashmir during the years of armed struggle in the 1990s, once told him, “Yahan pe khoon ki dariyan behti thiRivers of blood used to flow here. For the friend, those rivers became expressions of the state’s sacrifice of people. “What I had first thought to be a poetic allusion has in fact always been straight-forward reality to the people there,” Hura said.

Hura intersperses such photographs with others showing instances of everyday life. But even seemingly innocuous images carry, given the context, allusions to conflict—to enforced disappearances, to mass graves and torture, to the indiscriminate use of pellet guns by government forces that, since 2010, have at least partially blinded hundreds of Kashmiris. One photograph shows a man making a bed in the privacy of his home. In the 1990s, the army looked out for extra bedding when searching people’s homes; families found to have any could be suspected of secretly sheltering militants, prompting interrogation. Kashmiris claim that similar search operations have begun again since the Indian government effectively abrogated Article 370 last year, and imposed a security clampdown in the aftermath.

As one moves through Hura’s work, the palette of the images shifts from the wash of white to the dusty brown of naked ground and bare chinar trees—chillai kalan moves into chillai khurd. A droplet is suspended from a mud cliff, almost as if pausing before the season turns. Hura said that on his last few visits, “winter calm has felt more like a mirage.” The sentiment has seemed especially true this winter, even to many at a distance from Kashmir, which has been under an internet shutdown and intensified military siege for five months. Snow concludes with the onset of spring, which lifts the cover of snow and brings greater “visibility” to the underlying conflict.

“I cannot afford to remain stuck in the silence of snowfall,” Hura said. “This silence becomes a precursor to my recognising a reality that is loud and impossible to not acknowledge.” He added that, “in a way, this silence was also a time for listening, for me… I think we are living in a time when the need to listen is urgent.”