SRINAGAR, India -- At times it was enough just to stay alive, or to keep from breaking down when friends were dying and soldiers came knocking. Ugliness replaced beauty, and the finer things -- art, music, poetry -- seemed unbearable luxuries, like a rich dessert on an empty stomach.
But after nearly two decades of devastating conflict, of violence made more horrific by the achingly lovely natural surroundings, times are better now in Kashmir, the Himalayan region fought over by India and Pakistan. The two countries are engaged in a peace process, and the arts here are slowly coming back to life.
Over the last two or three years, Kashmiri painters, sculptors, filmmakers, poets and playwrights have again started plowing ground that had lain fallow for so long. Their cautious reemergence comes at a time when civil society as a whole is beginning to reclaim the space formerly monopolized by the Indian army and Pakistani-backed militants, whose confrontations have left more than 60,000 people dead since 1989.
"People have started to come out of their fear," filmmaker Akmal Hanan said as he sipped a cappuccino at a hip cafe here in Srinagar, the summer capital of the portion of Kashmir controlled by India. "I see a lot of potential."
Last year, a documentary Hanan shot about the travails of traditional Kashmiri potters screened at Srinagar's first festival of documentary, animated and short films. The year before that, an audience of hundreds gave a standing ovation to the premiere of the first digital feature film in the Kashmiri language, a story of star-crossed love set in the 19th century, directed by Aarshad Mushtaq.
Both men's films touched on themes of traditional Kashmiri culture, which bears more affinities with the Islamic culture of Central Asian nations to the west, such as Iran and Afghanistan, than with traditional Indian civilization to the south. Though fiercely proud of their heritage, the people here have struggled to preserve their identity under Indian rule and amid the same globalizing trends that have put indigenous cultures under pressure the world over.
When he was a teenager, Hanan, now 35, was an avid moviegoer who would sometimes buy tickets on the black market for the Hollywood and Bollywood extravaganzas that were screened in one of several cinemas around Srinagar.
But one by one, the theaters closed their doors, done in by damage during the violent clashes of the bad years, intimidation from conservative Muslim groups that branded movie-watching a sin and the dwindling number of customers who were willing to venture outside amid grenade attacks, kidnappings and other dangers. Only one or two movie houses are still operating, an obvious challenge for filmmakers.
In fact, a lack of venues to display their work handicaps most artists in Kashmir, whatever their medium. There is no state-sponsored arts center or a single art gallery in Srinagar. The city has only one decent auditorium for plays and concerts; it was occupied by security forces for several years and is under renovation.
A bastion of the arts
The only place to see a collection of contemporary artwork is on the walls of the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, where 120 students pursue disciplines such as painting, sculpture, applied arts, graphic design and classical music.
The school survived a riot during the '90s, when a mob stormed in and destroyed some paintings and sculptures. But the institute's cramped and slightly down-at-heel quarters, near Srinagar's historic downtown, are a reflection, professors say, of the low priority and funding assigned to the arts by the government of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
"We are caught between these bureaucrats. They really don't understand the meaning of art," said Masood Hussain, a sculptor who teaches at the school. "We have been working for the last 40 years in a rented building. . . .
"Our students have potential to work and they prove themselves outside the state," he added. But in Kashmir itself, "we have faced a lot of problems."
Last fall, in collaboration with a New Delhi-based arts association, Hussain was able to organize an artists' conference similar to ones that were regularly held here before the political and military turmoil put the arts into a deep freeze. Artists from Britain, Mozambique, Nepal and a few other countries spent two weeks discussing installation art and other trends.
The event helped inject some energy back into Kashmir's arts community, which had suffered not just from the exhausting external realities of violence and bloodshed but also the psychological scars the situation had inflicted on the artists themselves.