The picture of a grandfather holding his granddaughter in his arms and the young one joyously cradling his face with her chubby hands is familiar to us all. It exemplifies the secure and continuing circle of life that binds us – across communities, across societies.
As with individual lives so too with nations; we are familiar with the iconic image of Gandhi as the father of the nation, holding out the promise of a rightful place of belonging to each and every child of India. Namely, a nation built on the bedrock of inclusiveness, co-existence and collaboration.
But what if, at a certain historical juncture, these familiar pictures become unfamiliar, shredded by the fierce velocity of pellets? When eyes blinded by the hubris of power think nothing of blinding young eyes as a self-righteous offering to a deity called ‘national interest’. Then, in the hands of an artist like Srinagar-based Masood Hussain, those familiar images take on dark tones, layered by a texture of loss that is at once personal and collective.
The ebony face that stares out of 63-year-old Masood’s latest digital work is of Gandhi, shrouded in melancholy, his eyes receded into darkness. His face is pitted, covered with indentations. The pellet-gored hands of a child reaching up to his face are reminiscent of wounded birds. As the boy’s hands tentatively trace the contours of Gandhi’s face – now the indentations on his face somehow seem like the Braille script – he seems to be asking, is this your India that we are living in?
As one keeps looking at the digital work, one notices something else – such is the trauma of the violence sprayed by lead pellets that the mere touch of the child’s finger seems to have burnt Gandhi’s face to a cinder, covering it with scars.
Is this the nayi taleem of 2016 that the state wants to impart to Kashmiri children – telling them they are special to be at the receiving end of pellets and not real bullets, for real bullets kill; pellets only tear into the eyes and tear up the insides, turning childhood into a dark abyss that swallows up the hopes of all generations. Underpinning this taleem is the lesson that when it comes to ‘the other’ there are no innocents any more. The broader the brush, the better.
A deep sorrow seeps out of the image. It is the realisation that the rest of India has not cared to express sympathy for what happened when the paramilitary forces fired close to a million lead pellets on crowds of young in the Valley, finding targets in children as young as five years old. A child’s death, which inverts the natural order, always brings people together to console the parents and grandparents. Isn’t that the basic civilisational salve across cultures?
Apparently not; what Gandhi’s receded eyes and the little fractured hands seem to indicate is that a state set on a triumphal course to ‘greatness’ by marching to the beat of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has iron in its soul and lead pellets in its arsenal. See, in just one shot a pellet gun releases more than 300 high velocity metal ball bearings that can mangle bodies and minds.
The despair that saturates the image is such that it draws you into its black and grey core. These digital images mark a new turn in the artist’s oeuvre. He simply says that being confined to the home in a state of lockdown in the Valley made him think of new ways of being a witness to his times. It is easy to be immobilised by grief, for the mind to shut down, but a chronicler needs to channelise that grief into creating new forms of artistic expression that can be shared widely. Given Masood’s restlessness and openness to experimenting with new mediums, digital art created on the computer was an obvious choice.
For more than 25 years, Hussain has chronicled the everyday existence of the ordinary Kashmiri trapped between intransigent stances in his luminous multimedia works, oil paintings and watercolours. What drives him is the immense desire to somehow bridge distances, to capture the life-affirming rhythms, colours, seasons and activities that have for long patterned the Kashmiri way of life, creating a mesh of collective memories of coexistence. However sombre the subject – ‘Those who disappeared’ or ‘Exodus’ – his work always had an underpinning of some common aspect of Kashmiri life, be it the latticework motif of vernacular architecture or papier mache frames. The artist felt anchored in these aspects of Kashmiri culture.
However, the series of digital images that he has created since July 2016 have no such references. It is as if the artist feels that he needs a new set of references for an entirely new juncture. A sense of urgency is visible in the digital art medium that the artist has chosen, working with photographs to create images of unfathomable grief and loss: a boy with a pellet-marked face wearing an outsize pair of sunglasses to cover his blindness; a girl with two eyeless dolls; two eyes drawn by the artist on the face of a boy made blind, his eyebrows drawn into a painful grimace….
Many of these images have a sharp sense of movement, like a sharp jab of pain or somewhat blurred faces, as if the features have been obliterated by the velocity of the pellet. The blurriness of the faces also draws attention to the fleeting presence of childhood in an entire generation that has grown up in the midst of conflict in the Valley. The agitation of the artist is clearly visible in these photographs, which were created following a visit to the Srinagar hospital where many of the blinded and injured children and youths were admitted for treatment.
But the image of the child’s hands moving over Gandhi’s face is different. The agitation has been replaced by a deep-seated sense of desolation, for this digital image mirrors an idea of India that is the exact opposite of Gandhi’s inclusive nation. It is a time of leaden skies and leaden silences.