Burden of Beauty: Symbolic Violence of Kashmir’s Video Stories

A still shot from Junaid Bhat video

The case of Kashmir has showcased that beauty cannot always be an asset; it can easily become a burden if the force of its attraction is too maddening; or if it is used to conceal the ugly political realities. For Kashmiris whose routine is marred by the worst brutalities – daily bloodshed and shutdowns, unemployment, lack of development and so on – these videos provide an escape. In this piece Waseem Ahad examines one video story, capturing the pastoral beauty of his native village and at the same time erasing the realities which fuel social life here, to highlight the internalization of the ‘beauty’ trope by the people of Kashmir as an exemplar of symbolic violence.

“What lies inside me is killing me

What lies outside of me is killing you”

– Translation of an anonymous Persian quote.

A few weeks ago a freelance photographer from my village in north Kashmir shared a video on his Facebook page, Junaid Bhat Photographer. The video gives an outer view of the village bathed in a beautiful yellowish glow of dusk. Houses, trees, patches of apple orchards and rice fields and the distant hills that surround our village are visible. Shot with a drone camera, the 27-second video consists of two high pan shots, so widely used throughout the world these days for capturing landscapes. This is perhaps the first video that gives a complete external view of a Kashmiri village.

Instantly the villagers living inside or outside of the village in different parts of the world liked the video story and showered praise about the village in the comments section. The video seemed to remind everyone of the beauty and prosperity of the village. Some even began to pour in their suggestion for a collective effort to take care of the “cleanliness” and “hygiene” of the village. One person even talked about the villagers’ simplicity, innocence and their dedication towards the village. For a moment one got a feeling that the talk was about Kashmir and not just a village. This video truly made the otherwise ordinary village of Kashmir (every village in Kashmir looks beautiful when seen from outside) look quite distinct.

However, it should be marked that people’s concentration on features of the village quite undermined the photographer’s techniques and efforts to make this beautiful video, the technology’s magic (his newly-bought drone camera) and the magic of the Kashmir’s sunset glow. The combination of all these aspects can cover the deeply rooted malice that every community in the real world, with real human species, is infested with; more so, in the disputed place like Kashmir where a multitude of political forces are engaged, every banal object and activity is infused with political and ideological meanings.

The past few years have seen a surge of such videos focusing on the pastoral beauty of Kashmir. There are musical videos circulating on social media with young Kashmiri artists performing on Kashmir’s traditional Sufi or folk songs at remote locations, among woods, greenery and sunshine, with snowcapped hills, gushing rivers and glittering lakes in the background. Most popular among them is perhaps The Cure: Game of Thrones Kashmiri Tribute by Ruman Hamdani, which made it to Game of Thrones official fan anthem video. Other important videos are Firdaus X He's a Pirate by Sufiyan Malik, Sahibo by Amit Sharma/Vibha Saraf, Gah Chon by Ali Saffudin, Tamanna by Yawar Abdal, Ride Home: Alif featuring Noor Mohammad, and Roakh Posh by Ali Saffudin.

The case of Kashmir has showcased that beauty cannot always be an asset; it can easily become a burden if the force of its attraction is too maddening; or if it is used to conceal the ugly political realities. For Kashmiris whose routine is marred by the worst brutalities – daily bloodshed and shutdowns, unemployment, lack of development and so on – these videos provide an escape.

People of Kashmir have been historically brutalized and deprived of the fruits of their own “heaven”, but their erasure in discourses and representations has been even more pitiless. For outsiders, these modern-day sophisticated video stories invoke the nostalgia of the Vale of Kashmir/Keshmir/Cashmere as Jannate Benazir that echoes through the Mughal and Afghan era poetry, Western Orientalist photography and the cinematic representation of post-independence Indian middle class. Thanks to Mridhu Rai, Chitralekha Zutshi and Ananya J. Kabir whose consolidated works on Kashmir have uncovered the disconnect between the real life of the inhabitants of Kashmir and its representation by outsiders over the past four centuries.

According to these scholars, the history of representation/misrepresentation of Kashmiris and Kashmir, since the time Islam became one of the variables of social and cultural identity and foreigners took the control of the territory, can be drawn from the Mughal-period onwards. This representation saw consistency in Persian poetry and paintings and photography of the subsequent Western Orientalists. The kings, ruling elite and travellers coming from outside were mesmerized by the topographical beauty of Kashmir, the beauty of its gardens and gushing rivers. For centuries this construction either erased the inhabitants or reduced them to few characteristics. In the post-independence 1960s Indian cinema, Kashmir for Indian middle class invoked the nostalgia of pre-independence Europe which they used to frequent for holidays. Hills and green woods of Kashmir replaced it as a fantastic holiday resort for rich Indian couples, and the Kashmiri appeared as a caricature of innocence and hospitality. In her few essays Kabir argues the only time Kashmiris began to appear in roles different from that of the 1960s was after the beginning of 1990s insurgency. Movies like Roja and Mission Kashmir showcased the war “nipping in the bud” of the flowery valley. Kashmiris began to appear in roles as victims of global terrorism (inference to Pakistan and Islam), as a misguided local terrorist and so on.      

The current barrage of depoliticized musical videos highlighting the “natural beauty” of Kashmir cannot be isolated from the dominant Indian state discourse about Kashmir. Considering the human realities inside Kashmir they are regressive for being politically compromised in a sense that they invoke an image of Kashmir that has been object of desire and fantasy for outsiders without any regard for the street life in the valley. In fact, the discourse of these videos has been competing with the original street discourse of Kashmir where daily agitations, the sound of bullets, bloodshed and desperation reverberates. Interestingly, social media acts as an important vehicle for both.

The appreciation and celebration of these music videos as a representation of “real Kashmir” can only be interpreted as their refuge from the ruthlessness of ground realities. Thus, the “symbolic violence”, a concept put forward by a French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, is in full operation here. Bourdieu described symbolic violence as “complicit” submission on the part of the dominated, which is not the result of a free, voluntary act, but rather results from the “internalization” of the dominant world view. The components through which symbolic violence functions are ignorance of the arbitrariness of domination, recognition of this domination as legitimate, and internalization of domination by the dominated. All of these components act simultaneously.  

The village called Botingoo, whose video mesmerized everyone, is geographically located somewhere between Sopore town and the Wular Lake, but its social life resonates with every village in Kashmir. The village can be used as a representative unit for entire Kashmir’s social and political life. Politically, it has been among the most active village in the past 70 years, with allegiances cutting across an expansive political spectrum due to the presence of political workers from Indian mainstream political parties like National Conference as well as the pro-independence Hurriyat Conference. (It is the complexities of the social map of the village – composed of disparate caste groups and artisans like sayyids, najars, ahangers, ganies, kumars, peasants and the most powerful landlords whose feudal estates have survived wars and reforms – the intersecting relationships, converging interests and the historical amnesia of the people that is keeping it from tearing apart.)  

Any development taking place at a larger level in Kashmir forces its ripple effects in this village. A recent example: when a former Kashmiri civil servant, Shah Faesal, announced he would join Indian politics, a group of people from this village went to have a meeting with the “prospective” leader in an anticipation to raise their own political influence to counter the influence of their rival group in the village whose leaders are closely working with another National Conference leader. Interestingly both groups are patronized by a Hurriyat leader of this village. As the village youth protested these groups’ meetings with the “collaborator” political party leaders (Indian mainstream), the group leaders justified themselves by emphasizing their “good intentions”: “We want to see our village prosper.” For the villagers, however, that prosperity seems eternally elusive. The village drainage is growing stinky; the drinking water ever more contaminated; irrigation canal ever more polluted and the by-lanes ever more unwalkable.

In fact, these few people have hijacked almost every public space in the village: mosques, dersgahs, schools, the Eid-gah and the shop fronts. In the entire Kashmir, this organized suppression at the hands of elders, whose ulterior motives, greed, mediocrity and life-long servility to wealthy individuals at the micro level is becoming widespread. When the villagers saw an outer view of their village, in such a beautifully different light, their souls filled with bliss. But the overall feeling was a mixture of happiness, hope, caution and cynicism. The subtext of their reactions was: the glory of the space resides in the contentment of its people. At least that is what one could read from the stream of comments and reaction to the video. ♦

About the Author(s):