A symptom of despair is an absolute lack of longing – Geoff Dyer
Pain is a radical. It resists both language and silence. Away from the familiar home of language, pain lives in exile. Yet, as theorists of pain note, it also demands expression. Pain exists both as a site of destruction and invention of language. Screams, shrieks, grunts, cries are all utterances of pain as well as a revolt against language caged in grammar. Pain evokes metaphors; a body in pain is an artist and in its attempt towards articulation, it experiments with forms, experiences, senses. It fathoms the enormous and the minuscule. Yet, at the same time, the body (in pain) itself is an articulation of pain.
In Koshur – the Kashmiri language – the metaphors of pain invoke sky, earth, mountains, fire, sounds, textures, smells, colours, erasure, departure, and objects like knife, axe, saw, nails. Artist Rollie Mukherjee’s work is a home to these metaphors. Through her paintings she evokes the geography, the body, the edifices of pain. Her work is not only pain in translation but the body in pain itself. Pain exists as a paradox: it is ephemeral yet it renders everything else insignificant. It is irretrievable yet it leaves a trace. But like pain itself, its trace is equally enigmatic. It finds a home in memory even though, as scientists now debate, memory itself doesn’t have a home. The question is do we enter the sovereign territory of pain or is it the pain that enters us? If the latter is true, then isn’t the familiar expression I am in pain, a betrayal of our sensorial experience, the pain is in me? In Koshur, pain is borne or possessed as is observable in the expression mei cha dagh (a literal rough translation would be: “I have pain”), or dagh lalnawaan (cradling/bearing the ache or pain). Pain asserts its sovereignty over the body but simultaneously evokes a longing in the body, for freedom. It may appear otherwise but a body in pain is undeniably alive; pain is a sign of life.
Mukherjee’s work gives way to these transactions, conversations, interactions and relationships between body, longing, language and pain.
Frida Kahlo – the woman in pain, throughout her life painted intense self-portraits, which carried with them “the message of pain”. The self-portraits of her body in pain became rivers which let her navigate through her wounds as she battled the effects of pain and painkillers. In 1925, Kahlo and her friend were in a bus in Mexico City when an electric trolley car rammed into it. She transgressed, possibly, all thresholds of pain. A metal handrail pierced through her body. The accident dislodged her shoulder permanently, left her spine, pelvis and ribs broken, and, her leg suffered multiple fractures.
Her clothes shredded, she lay there bare, her body scarred, disfigured, in blood and wreckage. But covered with gold dust. A housepainter onboard was carrying powdered gold which spilled over her. She lay there broken, in pain and gold. In his introduction to The Diary of Frida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes describes this as a terrible and beautiful portrait. In Mukherjee’s paintings, Kashmir is this body in pain – fractured and wounded, but covered in the gold dust of her imagination. Her work renders Kashmir beautiful because unlike the state’s perverse imagination, she doesn’t conceal its fractures and wounds but lays them bare.
Pain renders the body strange and unfamiliar. Translating pain, telling and retelling it, then, is an act of reclaiming the body and making it familiar once again. Mukherjee’s work is an attempt towards healing, reclaiming and rendering the unfamiliar as familiar.
Our lives have two versions. We live in two contested worlds – the one we breathe, see, taste, feel, hear, smell and the one which settles on our skin like a fragile layer of dust. A world born out of the Indian state’s violent cartographic act through which it claims Kashmir to be its atoot aangh, integral part; a world characterised by the absence of our histories and stories. Mukherjee’s work undoes this cartography. She attempts to scrape the fragile layer of dust off our selves to unearth the resilient wounded body, knowledge, and history. Mukherjee’s father was an official photographer at an Ordinance Factory in Jabalpur Madhya Pradesh who took photographs of artillery and ammunition and designed catalogues for the Indian army. At the same time he loved shooting weddings, taking photographs of family gatherings, landscapes, and people. His life torn between being the documentarian of war weaponry and a photographer of life and love, struck her as extraordinary. Although Mukherjee first brought Kashmir to life on her canvas in 2007, her father’s death in 2009 propelled her to deeply immerse herself into his life, torn between the two worlds. She began to engage deeply with the state-orchestrated notions of normalcy. She skimmed through numerous photographs, brochure and magazines of various arms manufacturing companies; she was intrigued by the aesthetics of war for consumption.
In the mid-90s, some of Kashmir’s artisans and traders who travelled out of the Valley with silken rugs, intricate carpets, warm pherans and delicate shawls and their stories also frequented Mukherjee’s home in Jabalpur. New friendships emerged from these meetings. Her home and memory were gradually filled with the beautiful crafts and stories from Kashmir. Branching out from a repository of memory and postmemory – memories or experiences that one has not experienced directly but which one ‘remembers’ or knows by means of stories and other media, allowing later generations to bear witness to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of others. Mukherjee’s meaningful engagement with Kashmir is also informed by a repertory of radical memory-work coming out of Kashmir, which counters repressive hegemonies, and is aimed towards using an indigenous lens of meaning-making.
Mukherjee is the ‘outsider’ the Indian state doesn’t want in Kashmir. Her logic is dialectic to state logic. Through her imagination and its manifestation in her work, she renders absent what the state claims to be present and renders present thatwhose absence favours the regimes of power. She defies the tourist the state wants her to be. She instead chooses to be a traveller in search of the forgotten and camouflaged valley, the buried and strategically silenced body, the plundered landscapes, the grassroots’ history, the peoples’ memory. Mukherjee, the potential target of Indian state’s propaganda machinery, represents the very failure of it. She rejects Kashmir as exotic and as a paradisiacal setting of romance and fantasy. Coupled with cinepatriotism, these pigeonholed notions have been at the heart of the state’s ideological project of portraying Kashmir as ‘happy’, ‘beautiful’, ‘peaceful’, ‘normal’, resulting in a systematic masking and erasure of people’s histories.
Painting Kashmir as a landscape of oppression and indomitable resilience, she reclaims the landscape of Kashmir from the official cultural producers’ consumerist circuit of photography, cinema and tourism, which works in tandem with the state’s larger repressive political project claiming Kashmir to be India’s integral part.
We live in times of dangerous globalisation driven by the violent logic of erasure, selective remembering and forgetting. Time and space are altered according to a well-calculated algorithm aimed at rendering everything palatable for consumption. It, then, becomes important to shun the global, to be sceptic of the meta narratives, to inverse the process of dehumanisation, to bring to life the buried being, and excavate the localised, intimate and indigenous narratives, which this dangerous stampede of homogeneity is trampling.
The Indian state in Kashmir resorts to repressive erasure and institutionalised amnesia through its various ideological projects permeating the cultural practices, pedagogy, architecture, economy, social relationships – the everyday. The state fears people’s memory and togetherness. Mukherjee’s work is an initiative towards memorialisation which opens a space for resonance, and questions the official history and historiography. She attempts to form linkages to various nodes of, what I call, the indigenous subversive memory. This forms an intimate community of shared experience fostering a critical fellowship of pain and resistance.
Her work also initiates subversive mourning that challenges the monopoly that regimes of power have in deeming which lives are grievable. Mourning practice in Kashmir is elaborate and in many ways celebratory. In Kashmir’s vernacular, mourn my death properly is often the wish expressed by the living. Mourning rituals, especially for the martyrs, are marked by showering almonds, flowers, sweets, singing elegies and wanwun (Kashmir’s traditional antiphonal singing performed by women). Mourning is an act of love and at the heart of all struggles for truth and justice is love. The efforts towards understanding loss and articulating it could also give birth to a yearning to rebuild re-gather and reclaim. It is only natural (at least in a sphere governed by the laws of gravity) for a fall to culminate, to seek its own end.
But how does one look at images and representations of loss in times of increased mediatisation of death and tragedy, and their oversaturation? How does one overcome the consequences of the ‘crisis of representation’ of modern media technologies, drowned in hyperreality? Rollie’s work offers a reassuring possibility even though it may seem inadequate given the intensity of crisis. Her work is aimed at critiquing such representation itself, to seek freedom from the consequences of oversaturation. Using figures and elements in free association, her work consciously oscillates between dream and reality and in this sense the ‘familiar’ is subjected to interrogation.
At the heart of her political-aesthetic enquiry is to subvert the idea of normalcy orchestrated by the state and to inquire how occupational structures intersect, fracture the everyday and render it fragmented, and to understand how this fragmented self talks back to the power. She treats the body as a site of history and memory and evokes a process of unerasable inscription on the body. Symmetry, uniformity and repetition have been used as formal choices in the visual treatment of the oppressive apparatus, playing up the notions of the order and power associated with militaristic machinery. By contrast, people and their worlds appear fragmented and visceral. The living and the dead are located in the same plane. As opposed to the hegemonic representation, she relocates people back into the landscapes, fraught with loss, pain, visible markers of a robust military occupation and people’s stories. She interweaves Kashmir’s cultural and political history, occupation and resilience, the extraordinary and the everyday into her work and humanises the dehumanised. In her work, people are seen protesting, mourning, standing together, testifying, confronting the occupational structures or immersed in their everyday lives, and as an extension her work itself, becomes an act of mourning, a memorial, a testimony, a protest, an everyday act of survival.
Her choice of materials like cloth, embroidery, printed words, acrylic and glitter paint, complements the elements in her work. The forms, what they evoke and material handling exist in a synergic relationship. She uses printed words to forbid easy consumption of the image and punctuates the visual harmony or disharmony. She treats cloth as a human body –as a site of pain and memory; the threads and stitches take a life of their own. The native embroiderer’s beautiful motifs which encapsulate in them a history of pain and struggle are not just design elements or a methodological tool but inherent to the mode of inquiry. Within individual works, the materials and the elements are in a conversation across time and space and beyond the boundaries of life and death. Colours evoke emotions and moods, time, history, and interiority. Mukherjee’s poignant visual work has a distinct auditory component too. One hears sounds rooted in Kashmir’s history, emanating from the canvas.
She embraces subjectivity with open arms and makes no pretensions to be objective. She recognises her position and privileges as an ‘outsider’ and doesn’t conceal it. For example in one of the paintings she juxtaposes a holiday photograph of her parents with the image of protesting mothers of the movement for the disappeared in Kashmir. Mukherjee’s creation is a work in counter-memory and memorialisation, counter-history, counter-landscapes, counter-imagination and counter-representation, a re-representation.
I have arranged her works into 13 groups and used certain phrases as epigraphs to the categorisations. I employ my poetry to respond to the 13 visual arrangements. Poetry, as John Berger notes, defies separation and is a continual labour of reassembling what has been scattered. My response through excerpts of my published and unpublished poems or poetic work, aims to scatter the assembled and is an attempt towards gathering the scattered; to create and bridge separation. I reveal my fractured self through these poems and it also becomes a means to open up to fragmentation. I have dismembered and ruptured my poems to respond to Mukherjee’s work as a way to give way to a dialogue between various fragmentary experiences, multilayered conversations within two distinct yet overlapping modes of memorialising, a dialogue between the ‘insider’ and the outsider, and a space for resonance and nuanced inter-subjectivity.
Mukherjee has not visited Kashmir but Kashmir has visited her. She perhaps carries the burden of memory she has never had. As one sinks into her imagination surfacing from her work, it is hard to fathom that she has not travelled to Kashmir. She thinks, this is not a limitation as long as she and her brush respect her subjectivity and that of people she paints. What will happen when she traverses Kashmir’s landscape fraught with pain, love and struggle? What will it mean for her to feel and hear the restless wind blowing over Kashmir’s restless landscapes? What will it mean for her to meet the people she has embroidered, to touch the wounds she has stitched? Perhaps an intimate moment awaits her.
Kashmir is in pain, not in despair. It is abounding in longing and Mukherjee’s work is an attempt towards evocation of this longing. When she meets Kashmir in Kashmir, perhaps the birth of many possibilities, longing and ‘intolerable love’ is inevitable.
To view a collection of Rollie Mukherjee’s work, and read Uzma Falak’s poetry please click here.
~ Uzma Falak is a native of Kashmir. Her narratives and essays have been published in the Caravan, Jadaliyya, Of Occupation and Resistance (Westland/Tranquebar, 2013), Paper Txt Messages from Kashmir and others. Integrating creative practice and research, she is currently pursuing her practice-based PhD in New Delhi. She also blogs for Oxford-based New Internationalist.