Through his images, Amit Mehra gives voice to the voiceless Kashmiris

Choosing a subject like Kashmir, always in the reckoning of poets, artists, writers, thinkers and photographers, can spell many challenges. Pre-conceived notions, you would say, is the biggest of them all but according to Amit Mehra, the most difficult thing to overcome for a photographer is falling into the trap of beauty and turmoil. Mehra did and didn’t and that’s how “Kashmir”, the body of work displayed at his ongoing exhibition in Photoink, came about.

“Eighty per cent of Kashmir is turmoil and 20 per cent is beauty. I had first gone there in 2006 on an assignment for a magazine. When I first landed there, my first reaction was ‘wow’ and then there was the conflict. For the initial two years, I would shoot pictures that everybody else had. I could sense that there was something missing in them. I wasn’t getting beyond beauty and turmoil of Kashmir,” says Mehra sitting at the gallery.

Well-known photographer Sanjeev Seth advised him to go there once again but this time without a camera. “I stood in the alleys, in corners, at the crossings, watching and observing quietly. And that’s exactly how I started taking pictures without letting anybody come to know of my presence, in a non-intrusive manner.”

Mehra calls his photographs visual silent notes and he is right for the amount of silence that pervades the images. “But it is a disturbing silence, not a peaceful silence and what else can you expect in a place like that. Somebody asked me ‘So are you pro-azaadi?’ I agree that it is a political subject but I am not taking sides here. Nobody talks about the people of Kashmir. They have become silent, cold and almost numb.”

Steering clear of the stereotypes, Mehra narrates the tale of Kashmiris using metaphors. If in some pictures, his images portray faceless Kashmiris, elsewhere, he zooms in just on their faces, redolent of pain and agony but with a glass between them and us. “The glass is like a barrier. The boy there wants to come out and play the flute but he doesn’t have access to a normal life,” explains Mehra pointing to the image “Nowhatta Chowk” showing balloons of different shapes and sizes. By capturing this moment — one particular balloon in the shape of a kid — Mehra remembers the number of children who died in Kashmir in 2010.

While the outsiders like us may like to believe and feel good that Kashmir is reclaiming life and tourism once again thriving Mehra breaks these myths with his poignant pictures of silent landscapes, barren roads, empty hotels, vacant houses of Kashmiri Pandits. A routine life is still a long way off. But then he shows glimpses of hope, strong bond and love too in the form of two young boys Mir Abdul and Musadiq Mehraj who became the first ones from the valley to play the league, an old Muslim man who to date is taking care of the shivlinga at the abandoned house of his Hindu friend.

(Penguin is releasing a book of Amit Mehra’s images capturing Kashmir next month. The book will have 90 images and an essay by Ranjit Hoskote. The exhibition is on display at Photoink, Faiz Road, Jhandewalan, till January 12. )