“I am happy to find out that Kashmiri women are just like I have imagined them, really powerful and strong. What I had depicted, they are similar and even so loving.”

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Rollie Mukherjee, 39, was born and brought up in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh. In collaboration with Conflictorium, Museum of Conflict, in Ahmedabad and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons she has organised the exhibition in Srinagar to “neutralise the manufactured narrative”, where out of her 73 works, she has put 60 of them on sale. A part of her sale will go to APDP for managing the education of orphans, she told Saima Bhat in an interview

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How did your journey as an artist started?

ROLLIE MUKHERJEE (RM): I started when I was four. I was self taught then. My father, major critique of my work, a photographer, used to tell me that I should do it more often. I went for bachelors in Visva Bharati University at Shantineketan, West Bengal, where I studied art history as specialisation for two years and started more with portraits, feminist oriented works and on environmental issues, then for my master’s I went to Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Baroda where I studied art criticism.

For next three years I shifted to Bangalore where I taught in different colleges and universities as a visiting faculty. While teaching I realised I cannot just read only, I was getting frustrated so that is where I started painting again. Earlier my works were human centric, people who were around me, with whom I had memories I used to draw them. In Shantineketan, I started more with portraits, feminist rented works and environment. During my masters I studied more about political art, so there was enhancement of knowing what has happened in art historically, political interventions, and how artists worked.

While as in Bangalore, I started reading about farmer suicide and lots of books on eco-feminism. Later, I did a solo show there, and those works majorly dealt with different issues of patriarchy, state in terms of what is facilitating farmer suicide and how urban people are parasitic, so those were my quires about the situation. There I did one work on Kashmir “will of the wisp” in 2007 which was dealing with people remembering their lost ones and hegemonic state controlling them. Despite that they are not losing the hope. That work was in oil.

KL: How Kashmir came to your canvas?

RM: While in Bangalore there was a lot of talking about the terrorism, Islamophobic discourse. That time I used to recall about the Kashmiri stories through the people who used to come to our house during 90’s to sell woolens and carpets. But then I had no much information about the history of Kashmir, I was not knowing about half widow, about torture  centres. I knew about repression but had very vague idea of things happening there.

In 2007 I became very active on Facebook and slowly I started making Kashmiri friends. I started reading their writings, not just journalists, poets, writers but of common masses that included doctors, engineers, legal experts, who used to share their anecdote  about killings, custodial deaths. So things started to open up and I purchased books on Kashmir and meanwhile I was reading George Orwell’s 1984, and other writers which opened up my mind. I started understanding how mind is being controlled, and people made to forget the memory. Constantly there is a propaganda machine operating and there is a regressive way of eraser. So I started reading more. Then there was visual medium, main stream that always talked about exotic Kashmir, beautiful Kashmir, or terrorist Kashmir. I collected pictures of Steve Mccurry and some Indian photographers and subverting them, de-contextualising that by using a poem where the poet says ‘After every death, the cold blooded moon is always there as the witness and it is not chillingly effecting our eyes but is aesthetically there. It is this coldness, everyday death is happening but nothing is shown, as if nothing is happening.’

KL: When it comes to Kashmir, only a few people from mainland India care to see beyond the usual rhetoric. What inspired you to see Kashmir sufferings as an artist and portray them on canvas?

 RM: I don’t know. May be because I kept on thinking about people and reading. When others talked differently about them, I used to feel bad because I knew they were not like that. After reading about Kashmiris I understood them more. Initially, in 2007, I did five works and when I shared them with people, they asked me to wok more about it and that is how I got into it.

In 2011, I did a map work and another painting showing a women talking on the mike and in one more I showed a mother in a sit-in where I put my parents as well, sitting. It was like an auto criticism of my position, as an Indian who come to Kashmir as a tourist and enjoy the place. They are oblivious of the fact that there is so much suffering like every landscape is haunted by mothers who are waiting for their sons and daughters to return. There is a lot of confusion. When I told my mother about Afzal Guru’s story she cried literally.

I have now stopped watching TV and reading newspapers on Kashmir. Whatever I read is on Facebook. I believe with the advent of social sites, Kashmiris have become courageously vocal, they talk out rightly.  On TV they are subjugated and not permitted to talk but they place their viewpoint clearly. I follow them, I read them, and then make points of what they say. It is not always Kashmiris, many Indian also speak for Kashmiris, who are empathetic. I have seen such people in Kolkata, Ahmadabad, but when they are asked questions, they get confused that is where information is needed from the ground level. If you are not referring people, from ground like masses and activists, you are left confused. Information is needed.

 KL: How do people in India react to your work on Kashmir?

RM: There is a mixed response. In Kolkata there was overwhelming response. People who came wrote about it, participated, and congratulated me saying they were not knowing about the situation in Kashmir and they came to know through my work, and at the same time there are other group of people who have typical viewpoint as India propagate so. There is always contradiction.

KL: You juxtapose different forms of art to highlight the pain and suffering in Kashmir? Please tell us more about it?

RM: I have done collages, mixed media, pencil and charcoal rendering, pencil colours, water colouring: opaque and transparent, used sparkles, acrylic, golden colour is more in frames because Kashmiri people are important, they are vital so I choose to use golden frame.

KL: When it comes to Kashmir different narratives dominate the news sphere and airwaves. What is your source of information on Kashmir?

RM: My sources are Kashmiri writers and the counter narratives. I just don’t refer to newspapers, Indian news channels.

KL: You were trolled on social networking sites, for depicting the happenings in Kashmir. How many times you were blocked by Facebook?

RM: I was blocked once for eight days for sharing some posts on human shield issue. After three days of that incident I was blocked. There was an activist who actually helped me to recover my account without making me submit any of the documents. I was trolled from beginning but I used to ignore by deleting their comments and then blocking them. But it increased after my Kolkata show.

Before coming here, I was followed by some army men on facebook so I kept blocking them, they didn’t sent me friend requests but they were following me. All of them were newly opened accounts with Modi as their profile picture.

KL: You are in Kashmir with your work since last few days. How is the response so far? Is there any difference between audience in Kashmir and India?

RM: Response was quite good. Here people don’t enquire about the information, they are already informed. They come and share their experiences, pain, sufferings with me rather than questioning what is the message behind and what are you depicted.

KL: How many exhibitions you had so far?

RM: First I had in Ahmadabad, then in Kolkata where a lot of people support Kashmiris and now I am in Kashmir. I wished to do this exhibition in Kunan-Poshpora but that is too far and it was not possible. And then I decided to do it in an abandoned architecture as there are many abandoned schools, houses, which were transformed into torture centres and then to guest house for dignitaries, bureaucrats. I believe that eraser had happened but I wanted to hold on that memory, history.

KL: After coming to Kashmir for the first time, how do you see the conflict on ground?

RM: It has become an endless thing. Last year there was a time when everybody thought like it is nearing self determination, everywhere across Kashmir and Ladakh people were supporting each other but then suddenly it came down, without any reason. I keep hoping but nothing is achieved so far.

While in Kashmir I got to know many groups, viewpoints, some are vocal but some people don’t want to talk about it. They just want good life. Before coming here I was thinking everybody here, is for Azadi. I knew there is a plural nature to it as well but now I could feel the complexity within the groups and ideologies.

In Kashmir, I am happy to find out the Kashmiri women just like I have imagined them, really powerful and strong. What I had depicted, they are similar and even so loving. After so much of torture by Indian army, I didn’t see anybody who saw me with hatred and I feel very bad about it. I feel bad how Kashmiri people are treated

 

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