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Art and resistance

July 27, 2011

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I DON’T really remember what I was doing in December 2009, but I doubt I was thinking about India-administered Kashmir.

Like many others I missed the news of the ban imposed by the Indian government on text messaging in the Valley. Merrily ignorant, I probably sent tens or even hundreds of texts.

As is the case in most communities steeped in conflict, the burden of the (now lifted) ban fell on the nameless shoulders of the ordinary; it is their plight that has been captured in a unique participatory art project called Paper text messages from Kashmir.

The brainchild of a visiting Australian art student, the project distributed pieces of paper among Kashmiris affected by the ban on which they were invited to write what they could no longer text. The ‘paper text’ could then be sent to the intended recipient or to an address in Delhi where artist Alana Hunt compiled them into an electronic book profiled in an article published in the Times of India.

The e-book, Paper Texts from Kashmir, now available for free download on the project’s website, tells the story of an old conflict in the thwarted missives of those enduring its latest indignity. The result is a poignant, inventive and heart-breaking look at the interruptions wrought by the ban on people caught between two countries, two militaries and hundreds of millions of nationalism-fed egos.

The 150 messages takes us, well-meaning web voyeurs, into the inner rooms of the Kashmiri limbo: one tongue-in-cheek letter addressed to ‘Mr Chidambaram’ asks for a similar ban on cars and buses to make going to work also impossible; in another, flirty lines to a beloved offer on paper the apology that would have arrived earlier via text. Contained in them is the story of Kashmir, the frustrations of insisting on self-determination in a world of limited choices, the injustice of an aging conflict in a world daily giving birth to new ones.

The refrain of art as resistance is not a new one in post 9/11 Pakistan. The threatening mediaeval barbarism of the Taliban at one end and the weight of militaristic oppression at the other have left mainstream Pakistani artistic expression reduced to the utterly predictable and dismally parochial.

The consequence: the effusiveness over truck art and the positioning of folk singers next to jeans-clad songstresses as expressions of liberal ideological resistance, our solutions to the clash of civilisations, cultures and classes.

Against these tired iterations, a project like Paper Texts presents a free and public art form that goes beyond easy tropes, its central medium revealing the deep penetration of modern technologies into Kashmiri culture, the sometimes fickle content showing that worries about being late for dinner do not quite dissipate in war zones.

Through it we see that Kashmiris speak English and Urdu, complain about family relationships and the Indian government and always worry about being forgotten. In the variety of its compilation, the Paper Texts project is able to present Kashmiris as living humans with modern problems, no longer the lingering ghosts of Partition.

Undoubtedly, art has the ability to rescue a people, render them human and make their pain real. These are all projects Pakistan and Pakistanis need desperately at their current moment of worldwide unpopularity.

The use of such artistic expression, one that goes beyond slapping couture labels on bridal wear and copying images off trucks, would have to be based on two core premises. First, the belief that not everything that is opposed by fundamentalists or is threatened with death by the Taliban deserves elevation as a form of resistance.

Fashion shows where individual outfits cost more than the salary of millions of Pakistanis provoke little rethinking of discriminatory values, modelling not tolerance but a lot of unchecked gluttony. Limiting art to what is opposed by religious fundamentalists continues, after all, to allow them to dictate the debate; and consequently determine the rules of the game.

Second, for art to be meaningful it must never substitute the truth with beauty or the prosaic with the dramatic. Artists must curb the desire to paint in tolerance and unity where none exists, or embellish the ordinary to produce the sensational.

Like the Kashmiri citizen, the Pakistani artist lives in limbo, cajoled at home by a nationalism that sees art as valuable only when it counters the demonisation of the world and abroad by the Orientalist demand for sexy, sensationalised danger. Each inflicts its own wounds, making the agenda far more important than the art: endless reworkings of Mughal motifs at home, overblown accounts of Islamist threats abroad — in both is absent the effort to dislodge the obvious and reveal the unsaid.

War, with its suspension of logic and its strangulation of sense, is the artist’s moment, demanding more than ever before a creative rethinking of history and identity, a way out of the insoluble and impenetrable.

The Paper Texts from Kashmir project is one small, free and beautiful iteration of an attempt to do just that: expose the complications of a conflict that persists over generations, the mixing of new technology and old enmity, the banal and the noble.

I have little against Pakistani bridal wear or pretty trucks or reworked Mughal motifs. But like the catchy lyrics of pop songs, they represent the easy and the comfortable, designed to dupe into silence, not provoke into thinking. Pakistan is at war, ideologically and physically, and in the bloody confusion of its conflicts, craves more than ever the new directions that can only be provided by the Pakistani artist.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law. rafia.zakaria@gmail.com