With its abundant flora and fauna, the crystal clear water of the Dal lake, fresh air and snow-capped mountains, Kashmir truly is a paradise. But over the years it has become a paradise lost to those who call this beautiful landscape home. A cloud of darkness has loomed over the conflict-ridden state since 1947 when India gained independence from colonial rule and a newly free country was torn into pieces. Kashmir joined the Indian territory but with its large population of Muslims, Pakistan laid claim to its territory. The result has been years of war and turmoil in a once-peaceful and heterogeneous society having undergone irreparable loss to both life and property.
Photographer Mukul Bhatia has been documenting the political riddle that is Kashmir for the last four years in his photo-series titled ‘Kashmir: Between Grace and Grief.’ An ongoing project, his series of black and white photographs focused on the intimate lives of the numerous anonymous Kashmiris who are trapped within Kashmir’s war torn valley and often become collateral damage. Bhatia first ventured through Kashmir in 2012, his intended week-long stay extended to over two months during the course of which, he says, he made a point to understand strangers, and get to know their “human” story. “These strangers became friends, and their stories inspired me to begin this long-term project in the valley,” he tells us.
“Most people have a very skewed perception about the conflict and independence scenario in Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani media is constantly filtering and censoring news for political benefits and human rights violations both from Indian and Pakistani troops, and militant groups,” Bhatia tells us via email from Japan. “Amongst all this political noise, and bloodshed, there lies the Kashmiri identity, beyond the Hindu or Muslim, and that is what interests me.”
Bhatia’s unconventional approach to photography involves living with his subjects to understand the characters, understanding their lives, and centering his practice on human identities, celebrating, exposing and providing alternative narratives aside from mainstream ideas about social conflicts and subgroups and subcultures within society. Till date, he has met and interviewed over 100 Kashmiri families and individuals--from Pandit migrants to war victims, and the one thread that binds them all together, he says, is a sense of humanity, faith, hope, or lack thereof.
“Kashmir’s present and future is highly uncertain, the unpredictability of life and lack of it has created an intimate, fragile environment of human affection, which isn’t like anything I’ve seen before. This particular, mundane human-ness was the inspiration behind the project. I documented these stories through environment portraits in the intensely conflicted regions of Baramulla, Srinagar and Sopore,” he tells us.
When we think of Kashmir, we think of the many facets that exist--the beautiful landscapes, boathouses and chinar trees, but we also visualise gunfire and militarisation. A lot of mixed emotions are evoked when we see such a pristine region overrun with destruction and bloodshed. “I love Kashmir, as much as I hate and fear it,” says Bhatia. “Kashmir is a poetic, time-travelled land of the unknown that offers the most brash juxtaposition of the finest and the ugliest that man can be,” comments Mukul, and we couldn’t agree more. “I’ve had the most unreal encounters of love and sharing here, while I’ve also seen a dreadful shadow of political propaganda in the valley. It has personally taught me life lessons that were very hard to digest, but has contributed a lot to the individual I am today,” he adds.
“I want people to think of Kashmir, not as a Hindu or a Muslim, or as an Indian or Pakistani, but simply as a human for another human. India’s ignorance about Kashmir’s independence and its people really worries me. No one talks about Kunan Poshpora, or Sopore, and the brutal human rights violations done by the army and the militants that goes totally unreported. No one talks about the thousands of Kashmiri Pandits that now live in an un-relatable state of contemporary India, and their truth is important to know and to understand. I’ve worked and lived with the war’s widows and orphans, and some of my best friends are migrants. I simply wish the viewer to see the world through their eyes and really understand what the political parties don’t want them to see.”
[These photographs have been published with permission from the photographer. All images have been photographed by and are copyrighted by Mukul Bhatia. They cannot be reproduced without permission, and any such illegal use of these images is in violation of copyright terms.]