Kashmir: A paradise that has been set ablaze.
For three decades, the state of Jammu & Kashmir has been caught in a brutal conflict between Indian armed forces and separatist militants resulting in the death, torture, and enforced disappearances of thousands. An estimated 7,00,000 soldiers are deployed in the state, making it the most militarized region in the world. Raqs-e-Inquilab (2019), directed by Mukti Krishan and Niyanta Shekar, opens with these lines on a black screen against the synchronized marching beats of soldiers.
The 29-minute documentary interweaves the personal narratives of four Kashmiri artists, three of whom – Hina Arif, Syed Mujabta Rizvi, and Zeeshan Jaipuri – are children of the conflict, their impressionable adolescent years taking place in the region's most violent period in the 90s. The fourth artist, renowned painter and art teacher Masood Hussain, grew up in a time of relative peace before becoming witness to Kashmir's tragic transformation. Perhaps that is why of the four artists, Masood appears to be more hopeful than the others about peace being restored in the valley just like it used to be during his childhood days. Even his art is not completely consumed by cynicism and has frequent dashes of hope and beauty in them.
As for the remaining three artists, their art itself is an expression of the conflict within them which stems from growing up around conflict in their external world. Hina Arif states that her core memory is ingrained with images and sounds of a conflict-ridden Kashmir. At the age of 10, while returning from school she heard gunshots and shelling, which left an indelible impression on her mind. Since then, images of the conflict started subconsciously seeping into her paintings. Likewise, the poetry of Zeeshan Jaipuri is also a reflection of the violence, pain and suffering of the immediate world he has witnessed all his life. He says his pen is compelled to write what he sees around him. There is no escape from the reality of the traumatized existence. Even as a child, Mujabta Rizvi's paintings used to invariably have images of soldiers interspersed with other regular images of life in Kashmir. The military men were an integral part of the world Rizvi saw around him while growing up in the streets.
Masood mentions that ever since a conflict in 1989, because of which fire spread in his workshop, destroying all his paintings, he has been regularly painting conflicts. He also recollects the trauma that civilians had to undergo after the death of militant Burhan Wani in 2016. The authorities used pellet guns to curb the peaceful protests in the streets, causing thousands of boys and girls to lose their eyesight partially or fully, forever. Children as young as 4 or 5 have lost their eyesight in these firings. All of these brutalities have been recorded in his artwork. That's all an artist can do, says a dejected Masood.
Rizvi has been working on a portrait of Parveena Ahangar who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her extraordinary fight against human rights abuse and the enforced 'disappearance' of Kashmiri men picked up for questioning. She is the mother of a son who 'disappeared', and has risen above personal trauma to rally against injustice. Rizvi helps her by making portraits and rallying with her Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons on the streets. He plans to donate the proceeds of the painting to Parveena's noble cause.
One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Zeeshan takes the crew to a spot he and his friends call the 'Hideout'. He reminisces about the innocence and beauty of his childhood, spent there with his friends. He speaks of the harmonious existence of a temple, mosque, and gurdwara on the other side of the lake. But above them on a hill now is the authoritative presence of the army's fortress. Zeeshan narrates a tragic incident of an acquaintance being shot dead by BSF guards who attempted to rape his sister. He says no matter how much he tries to forget about such things, the frustration somehow finds its way into his poetic expression.
The final act of the film shows the four artists steering towards the ray of hope. They explain how art has the power to heal and can be a source of catharsis. Through their art, they hope to free people's minds and enable discussions that could someday initiate some sort of a revolution. Zeeshan Jaipuri sings one of his revolutionary poems (accompanied by popular Kashmiri musician Ali Saifuddin on guitar); it is called 'Raqs-e-Inquilab', meaning the 'Dance of Revolution'. The hopeful poem, which wishes for a peaceful and violence-free Kashmir, is supported by brilliant visuals of the valley and its heavenly beauty.
The artists in Raqs-e-Inquilab hope that Kashmir will one day once again become the 'Heaven on Earth' that it used to be…