“Grief is unsettling, lingers for long”, she said in a wavering tone looking through the rusty grill of her window. There was beauty everywhere, but, the air smelled ‘blood’, the roads were stained and parted, making sure no one walked on them. Her swollen eyes still looked for what was long gone. Time seemed eternity. A delicate touch on her shrinking shoulders, stole her glance, “Is it over, ammi?” A pause and a sigh, since when became ally, with a little hope left, the mother replied, “Why do you ask? Don’t you know, storms don’t last….?”
– Manvi, Inspired by a conversation with ‘her’…
The idea of war is symbolic of clashing ideologies and civilizations, unsettled claims, revenge, reigning egotism, it is the eclipse of time that consumes countless lives and spits debris of many unknown. The India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir has lingered on for more than six decades. I remember, my mother referring to ‘Kashmir’ as ‘Heaven on Earth’ and I quietly believed for a long time that it exists by no other name. When I grew up, I saw and read what was awfully different from my beliefs. In all this time, I had learnt to recognize people as ‘disappeared’, ‘killed’, ‘lost’, ‘half-widowed’, yes, that’s how many are described in real Kashmir.
Today’s story is about someone who depicts a gripping insight into the realities of conflicts. Her portrayal of a repressed Kashmir is a significant awakening to many who look at it for the first time. It goes back to the time when, I saw a Facebook cover page, in it was a young lady standing firm right next to her painting that symbolized a penetrating description of suppression, violence, doubt, loss and misery. I was intrigued. I searched but found her nowhere on Facebook. Just then, somewhere in the corner of that cover page, her name flashed in bold – Rollie Mukherjee. Imagine the power of her work, I had heard this name several times before. How unlucky was I to never have gone into the depth of it… Today, I will!
I strongly believe, that, the biggest strength of an artist lies in its imagination to create or re-create a subject, to transform, enlighten and motivate. Thanks to my abstract conversations with many of them, I get to see a glimpse of their world, strangely affected by an underlying cause, deeper meanings, fleeting thoughts, overwhelming exchanges and long due concerns. What bothers me often is – are they respected for who they are or what they represent?
Meet Rollie Mukherjee, an artist and art critic based in Baroda, Gujarat. She has done group and solo shows in India and abroad. Her work has been included in prestigious collections across the globe. She is a part of my Real Life Heroes series.
Photo: Kunal Chakraborty
“Much of the knowledge about Kashmir in India and around the world even today is imagined and manufactured rather than based on reality. This imagination is partly due to the image of Kashmir as a picture postcard scenic beauty reproduced through Bollywood films and national television channels, which reduce the place to just the physical geography, bereft of human stories. Kashmiris, Muslims in particular are prisoners of the image constructed by the Indian state and the private media. These rumors and images of Kashmir, its people, its problems have created more prejudices and distortions rather than genuine knowledge about the people, place and its history. My work is an inquiry into certain stories which are testimonies of people living and dead, who are fighting and asserting their right to live as any other being, equal, just and free. My works is as much a reflection about the self as it is about the other. It always tries to probe the very idea of violence both which is overtly visible and kept deliberately opaque.” – Rollie Mukherjee
Rollie’s engagement with the issues of Kashmir started as an artist with the work titled ‘will o the wisp’ executed in the year 2007. The idea further proliferated into the anecdotes and stories of torture and suppression. Her work ‘Unframed Histories’ is a reminiscence of profound loss and how the very idea of keeping the memories alive can be redemptive. The background is powerful as it takes one through the burning sensibilities of the place and its people, alongside, a holiday photograph of her parents juxtaposed. There is wait significant in the eyes, a prayer unanswered, grief unabsorbed and a purpose unfulfilled. In the other, a woman claims mike as she is the speaking agency. The beauty in the background is surreal, but, not for long as an innocent child slides the curtain. The road, drenched in blood, divided between power and rights.
A gradual pull into reading testimonies, writings and poetry acted as a fodder for more imagination. She says, “By reading these books, poems and writings, I started questioning the Indian narration of the history of Kashmir. How their demand for self-determination is declared as baseless and everything is distorted and there is an avoidance to recognize their nationalist aspirations. Their resistance at day to day basis against this crisis due to military repression is in turn called as terrorism and violence against the state.”
If you look closely, her work offers indefinite details of how Kashmiri women have been an easy target of what is called systematic rape culture, violence, or forced masculinity, these acts of aggression have been seen against resistance of any kind. It doesn’t end here, what follows puts a perpetual dent on their identities and creates a void in their lives forever. Yet, they have never refrained themselves from voicing their opinions in form of protests. Women have been always a part of the strong political voice that is omnipresent in Kashmir.
Her choice of materials like cloth, embroidery, printed words, acrylic and glitter paint are in coherence with her subjectivity and delicacy of the matter. The detailing in every stroke and splash explains innate understanding of reality, immediate circumstances.
“Exiled home” – Water color on paper, Photo: Rollie Mukherjee
“For me the body of Kashmiri men and women are the prime site of history. Pain, agony, repression, torture, resistance and revolt are inscribed in their mind and bodies. A Kashmiri woman in most of my works, who has undergone atrocities imaginable and unimaginable, becomes the leitmotif. When you are harassed, prosecuted, tortured, raped and killed for no other reason other than your own identity, one understands, one is living under a fascist system of the worst kind.” – Rollie Mukherjee
As commented by Uzma Falak, “Rollie’s creation is a work in counter-memory and memorialization counter- history, counter landscapes, counter-imagination and counter-representation, a re-representation. It offers a reassuring possibility even though it may seem inadequate given the intensity of crisis.”
“Wounds” – Katha Stich, Photo: Rollie Mukherjee
“Let the blood stains stay, they will help you recover from grief”, said my inconsolable heart as I wrapped his torn and stained shirt around myself. Never had I ever been so close to death, so wept the mother who lost her son and a bride who lost her groom…
Rollie’s depiction of wounds (see above) using Katha stich, a technique taught to her by her mother, is a symbolic of healing. The idea dwells into the left over – be it a grieving mother, or, a widowed bride. As the character looks into the infinity, there is a longing for what has been long gone.
She admits that, “In Kashmir the ordinary architecture like the schools, shops, public places like cultural centres, cinema halls, religious places like temples and mosques, guest houses and residence etc. have gained an altogether different connotation and meaning after the occupation of the Indian forces. The structures are converted to detention centres, barracks worse torture centres.” This process of conversion highlights stark differences between fond memories and unforgiving certainties. How, through an act of ‘will’, a tourist building is converted into a detention centre and back and forth leaving no room for recuperation.
Photos: Rollie Mukherjee
“No school, or, home, no mosque, or, tomb, that, I call mine. Every time I do, they say, “everything belongs to us”, I ask, “belongs to whom?” They hit me hard, burn my skin, leave me die and call it a ‘win’. There is no heaven on earth, believe you me…there was once ages ago, now, sold off to grief…”
Her paintings below illustrate the way military encroachment in everyday lives of people has led to the death of the very idea of ‘normalcy’. For “Kashmiris”, their encounter with the military and paramilitary forces are the pervasive features of everyday life.
After carefully observing Rollie’s work and the pattern of what she unfolds with every creation, I thought, how ironical is it born in Gujarat and painting Kashmir? She says, “It isn’t, it’s about connecting with people and respecting their point of view, immediate circumstances. Go back to history, when imagination trespassed the borders and realities of lives. When an artist represents without negating the agency of the people and without suppressing their voice, surely I think one can depict the reality as closely as possible.”
Rollie prudently calls herself ‘an outsider’. Is she? I leave it to you……
(These journeys have been personally shared with me by our ‘Heroes’)
Know more about ‘Our Hero’ – Rollie Mukherjee @
Facebook – Rollie Mukherjee
Other articles on her –
- Painting the woes of Kashmiris from Gujarat
- “To stories rumoured in branches”, artwork by Rollie Mukherjee