I have traveled to Kashmir a few times but this is my first visit during winter. I arrived in December with certain ideas of a photography project around specific human rights violations at the hands of the Indian armed forces. Barely a few photographs into the idea, the month of "Chillai Kalan" (marking the harshest forty days of winter) started. My ideas shifted to the back-burner as movement outside of Srinagar became difficult and all my thoughts turned to staying warm. Then came the snow...
I had expected a snowy Kashmir winter to be about simply oscillating between gasping at the beauty of the snow, and cursing the bone chilling cold, but during this winter I saw the different ways in which snow impacts life in Kashmir. It is picturesque when it falls, covering everything under an equalizing white quilt, but unsightly once it starts melting into a dirty muddy slush. The slippery roads cause traffic jams in the city, and even basic movement is limited in the countryside, but the snow also brings enthusiastic tourists. Work slows down as all movement outside the house or even outside the pheran feels uncomfortable and unnecessary, but people also spend longer hours huddled together over their Kangris bonding over endless cups of tea and discussing the summer past. The power-cuts become more frequent and prolonged but people talk of the rich crop of juicy apples that they can expect in the next season due to the snow. Water pipes freeze and running water seems a luxury to many, but they delight in thoughts of the flowing streams that the replenished glaciers will bring come summer. There are some who flee the region to warmer climes, and others who view this as a period of re-energizing.
As an outsider, I see my previously binary understanding of the Kashmiri winter the mesmerizing beauty of the snow covered valley and the struggle to keep warm – as a metaphor for the popular perception of Kashmir. The average Indian thinks of Kashmir only in terms of the natural beauty that draws us as tourists, and the militancy infested threat to national integrity that it is often portrayed as by propagandists. The complexity of its history and its relationship with India is lost to most. Beyond the tourists, the yatris, and the militants, there is also the struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms. Alongside the shikaras and the ski slopes, there is the decades long brutal presence of Indian armed forces. Together with the nationalistic cries for “integral part of India” there is silence on the human rights violations. In the middle of the political chess play between India and Pakistan are the rising Kashmiri voices. There are school going teenagers who pelt stones and trained soldiers who fire guns indiscriminately. There are kids who run around singing songs of Azadi as they throw snowballs at each other, and youngsters who click and post photos incessantly to express their fashion identity. There are people who welcome Indians with gracious hospitality while the walls are scribbled with their rejection of the Indian Occupation. There is the sorrow of loss of business this past year, and the resolve to continue the hartaal as part of the uprising. There are unfulfilled promises of successive governments, and new generations that have only known discontent.
To photographically capture some of this complexity still remains the subject of a future attempt for me. The current photo series is motivated by gratitude for the unique experience of the nuances of the Kashmiri winter over the past Chillai Kalan.