Since 2010, a creative storm got unleashed in Kashmir that witnessed new means of expressions and professions. While many young Kashmiris became rappers, bards, storytellers, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, others tried to break the shackles of social and political barriers with different means of creative enterprise
By Mir Seeneen
At 16, when most of her pals are attending tuition and burning midnight oil for ‘do-or-die’ entrance examinations, Hanshika Kohli is busy serving the tastes. Akin to a well-meaning person, she believes in her own creative journey, without getting perturbed by the domino effect-driven career choices in Kashmir.
This cake designer from Srinagar isn’t only the youngest but also an ‘idol’ of sorts already. Her case is fitting for those who falter to take their talent seriously, and in the long run, end up being a part of the rat race.
Right from her childhood, Hanshika was assured that she would do something of her own one day. Much of that confidence came from her curious nature, motivating her as a child to make cakes when her cousins and playmates were still in toys and toffees.
“Quite early in life, I discovered my passion in kitchen,” Hanshika, a Class 11 student explains in a typical teen’s curiosity. “As I began making cakes, cupcakes, fudges and doughnuts, I knew that this is what I wanted to do in life.”
But more than anything else, bakery making for Hanshika is all about the happiness and sense of fulfilment. Following her heart has already made her a reckoning tastemaker in town despite still being a rookie in her field.
Her tasty and delightful confectioners are now creating their own market space at a time when a chain of entrepreneurs are being groomed in many fields in Kashmir. But Hanshika’s case simply defies the fanfare belief that achievers and role models fundamentally need an institutional grooming.
The self-trained pastry chef is also keeping alive the much-acclaimed heritage of Srinagar — the place where the delightful pastry-makers of yore would even enchant the Imperial British Residents in pre-1947 Kashmir.
Still too young to understand the legacy of her vocation, Hanshika wants to keep it simple while baking for a leading food outlet in Srinagar.
“Right now,” she says, flashing an eager smile of a youngster, “I’m only concerned about investing more creativity in my work, and make it more beautiful and presentable.” In the long run, she continues, in a thoughtful manner, “I would like to come up with my own brand.”
Post-2010, a creative storm got unleashed in Kashmir which witnessed new means of expressions and professions. While many became rappers, bards, storytellers, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, others tried to break the shackles of social and political barriers with different means of creative enterprise, like the designer duo of Omaira Qayoom and Binish Bashir.
In 2015, these young girls from Srinagar introduced a venture under the brand name of Crafts World Kashmir. Their arrival coincided with the long and silent departure of artisans from their heritage art in the hub of Kashmiri handcraft community of downtown Srinagar.
Many were calling it quits due to meddlesome middlemen and market mess. This unseen demise of the needle art had almost threatened to crumble the old city’s centuries-old artisan emporium.
It was in this backdrop, the duo was announcing their brand arrival, which would shortly infuse a new confidence in the art. From the word go, they were driven by the motto of playing their part in salvaging the handicraft culture. Later, this sense would shape into the creative designs called Koerashi aka Crochet. And within a short span of three years, they succeeded in creating a space and acceptance in and outside the Kashmir Valley.
As college-goers, the duo had first bumped into each other in the spring of 2010. Later as they would together join Kashmir University for their Masters, they soon realised that they share the similar enthusiasm for the art.
“So we decided to come together and spread the word about our creations through social media,” says Binish, sounding chirpy while detailing her art journey. Much to their delight, the idea clicked.
And today, the duo sells a variety of products including crochet bags, crochet booties, crochet purses, crochet pouches, crochet bed sheets, crochet stoles, crochet curtains, handmade crochet Jewellery, wall hangings, etc.
For thinking beyond the ritualistic government jobs, regularly forcing hundreds of educated youth to organise protests at Srinagar’s Press Enclave under different banners and fronts, the duo’s decision to be self-starters has made them self-sufficient, besides employers, rather than employees.
Already, their success story has become an inspiration for those young girls who pick traditional crafts but seldom succeed due to unavailability of the right support system. “We don’t consider ourselves role models,” says Omaira, putting up a thoughtful face of a no-nonsense person. “But yes, we do believe that if we can do it, so can others.”
After establishing their brand, the duo is now mulling to restore the lost pride of old Srinagar city’s handicrafts. And for that, they’re planning to engage more and more artists, and create a chain of the traditional workforce.
It’s this collective goodwill, which is making Kashmir’s new age self-starters different from their predecessors. Much of this, many believe, comes from their primary schooling in the perpetual state of conflict in their homeland, where in the name of opportunities, not much is available. Most of them, however, are doing their bit to uplift the pervasive sense of hardship in the society, without playing to galleries.
While girls like Omaira and Binish are inspiring many in their backyard, others are creating their identities on the global level. When one such Kashmiri girl, Farah Pandith joined the ex-US President Barack Obama in his Oval office on 15 September 2009, many said that Kashmiris are smart enough to make it to the White House policy-making list.
However, there may not be any new Kashmiri entrant in Donald Trump’s White House currently, but there’re Kashmiris creating their own distinction on global level, like Anayat Rehman of Sopore. The young man recalls it a proverbial pastoral struggle, before coming to age as the sole Kashmiri in-flight chef, cooking some 30,000 feet above the sea level.
The ‘air-borne’ professional might not be usual entrepreneur of Kashmir, but his capability to serve the tastes at the highest level itself makes him a ‘departure from the crowd’ success story.
Before starting his half a decade stint with Atlantis, The Palm, the well-known chef pursued his Bachelors in Culinary Art and Catering Technology. His gig at The Emirates Salon Culinaire (ESC) saw him emerging ‘first among the equals’ and being awarded for his ‘exceptional’ work. But the chef carrying a boy-next-door image doesn’t think much of his feats. He believes Kashmiris are genetically-designed to create their mark of excellence on any level.
“I believe, most of us just need right push and platform to shine,” Anayat says, with considerate facial expressions. “But yes, the situation back home has also taught most of us to rise above the pitfalls and create our own space in any circumstances.”
Today, as parts of Kashmir, especially Srinagar, is witnessing a boom of eateries and cafes, the trained chefs like Anayat are playing their own unsung roles in creating a change in town where a common complaint till some years ago would be: “Aren’t there good places to eat in South Asia’s second oldest city?”
Many eateries and teashops including Indian Coffee House at Regal Chowk—crowded by yesteryears’ hippies, comrades and who’s who in town—were forced to shut after Kashmir erupted with armed uprising against the Indian rule in the late eighties.
After born and brought up in such a politically troubled period, many of these fresh-faced chefs had decided at certain points in their lives to go against the tide and become tastemakers. Anayat being a role model for many of these young chefs is playing it cool, without taking credit for a change around.
Currently working as an in-flight chef of Saudi Airlines, the Sopore lad might not be a usual success story for his ability to keep a low-profile, but in the place like Kashmir where hunt for heroes itself give rise to new industries and institutions, the likes of him do matter for daring to do different.
Such stories are now slowly helping evolve the society where otherwise parents and teachers would be obsessed to groom their wards and students as doctors and engineers only.
The society on the whole, Anayat reckons, should embrace the larger change sweeping around the world and encourage their young ones to dream beyond the usual classroom worldview. “At the end of the day,” he says, “what matters is that whether you run own race, or end up lost in the routine race.” This is to say, he explains, one should always do things differently and with a sense of difference.
The same mindset motivated Sama Beg to start her own clothing brand Koshur Wear, which she launched at a Kashmiri gathering in North America in 2017.
Since westernisation has deeply impacted her homeland’s way of dressing, the idea behind the brand was to fiercely sell and promote Kashmir.
Coming from southern Kashmir’s Anantnag (Islamabad) town, Sama has been promoting graphic designs and supporting social causes for long before coming up with her own clothing closet.
Her lifestyle brand offers a huge variety of contemporary clothing and accessories, including T-shirts, pin badges, hoodies, tote bags, bumper stickers, fridge magnets, etc. The USP of her brand is Kashmiri phrases and messages emblazoned on the outfits. This, she says, is her way to answer the western message which youth love to flaunt on their T-shirts and other outfits.
“Koshur Wear was an abstract idea,” she says, “which I successfully transformed into a reality.” With style, her tribe of young achievers is equally mindful of substance in their work. Many of them are currently making their name while exploring the true picture of their homeland.
Visual storytelling through a native sense drives many of Kashmir’s youngsters with a belief to counter the stereotypical treatment given to their place by many non-native filmmakers.
Ruman Hamdani, 26, is one such promising visual storyteller of Kashmir, gifted with a detailed subject sense. The young man’s brushes with cinematography started a couple of years back, when as an enthusiast, he would either capture his sudden homecomings and some fun moments at home.
“As it became a matter of routine,” Ruman says, with a glimmer in eyes, “I tried to learn the art and polish my skills.” To keep tab on his passion, he would make amateurish videos and upload them on social media. His instant fame as visual storyteller on the virtual media encouraged him to pursue his passion seriously.
In the long run, it would influence his life goals and career decisions as well. Those videos, interestingly, were coming at a time when he was studying to be an engineer in an institution outside Kashmir. As he eventually gave it up to entirely focus on his passion, today he’s successfully working for various creative photography projects and has been facilitated for his works.
One of the things setting him apart is a deep spiritual sense reflecting from his works. Inspirited by the works of Maulana Rumi, the young man tries to portray the mystic musings through his visual treatment. His fans and followers also admire his knack to portray the in-depth story of Kashmir’s postcard landscapes and heritage places.
Like Ruman, many other young Kashmiris today are using camera to create a space and tell a story of their homeland in an objective manner. The camera-wielding young girl from Srinagar known for performing some tough professional callings is one of them.
At 24, Sanna Irshad Matoo is already walking shoulder to shoulder with her male colleagues to cover the gunfight sites and other mundane affairs of her hometown Srinagar with utmost bravery. The serious-minded photojournalist did her Bachelors in Science before completing her Masters in Convergent Journalism from the Central University in Kashmir.
Given the dedication she showed towards her profession soon after coming out of the campus, it didn’t take her much time to get noticed. Today, her work speaks for her. For Sanna, photography is the means of expression to show the everyday reality of her homeland caught in throes of unabated conflict. Her photographs depicting pain and suffering in Kashmir are all over the internet. She also figured in many documentaries and reports.
But despite receiving the raging media attention for being one of the few women photojournalist of Kashmir today, Sanna is consciously brushing aside the limelight for discharging her professional duty with clear-mindedness and a sense of great responsibility.
Beyond the camera, however, many more young Kashmiris are slogging on daily basis to rise above the routine career options. Some of them are now even pursuing those vocations which their elders once dismissed as the penniless passion projects, with a grumbling refrain: “It won’t fetch you enough bucks to take care of your belly!”
At 29, Nadiya Mushtaq Mir, is a self-taught calligrapher and predominantly fond of scribbling the verses of the Holy Qur’an. In a place like Kashmir where Persian influence is still quite apparent in day-to-day life, calligraphy is one of the reminders of Kashmir’s lost connection with Persia, the present day Iran. Before barriers and borders would come in between the two regions after 1947, the famous Persian saint Mir Syed Ali Hamdani had long treaded the famous Silk Route along with his disciples (who were masters in crafts and skills) to spread Islam in Kashmir. Along with Islam, the saint-reformer had introduced many vocations in Kashmir. Among them was calligraphy. But with time and change, the vocation didn’t find many takers, until the young woman like Nadiya decided to take it up as a passion project.
Hailing from Kralpora in central Kashmir’s Budgam, Nadiya has done her Masters in Economics from Kashmiri University. Her work was exhibited in a calligraphy workshop KhushKha” in Srinagar in 2017.
Calligraphy is a form of worship for her, she says, as it used to be practised by the artists during the peak of Islamic civilisation. She scribbles beautiful scripts like Muhaqqaq, Jeli, Riqa, Early Kufic, Eastern Kufic, Diwani, Modern Kufic, Thuluth, Kufic, Naskh, Shikasta Nastaliq, Mosalsal and Sumbuli.
After establishing herself as a rare artist, she encourages Kashmiri youth to learn calligraphy as a mark of tribute to the historic Muslim artists. She wants to set up a calligraphy school in the Valley one day.
While Nadiya’s initiative is likely to inspire more youth towards calligraphy, there’re many others who aren’t ready to settle down with the regular life—which their predecessors lived by grabbing available options and opportunities around them. They seem to make a case for themselves at behest of their merit and conviction. It’s a similar case for a young Kashmiri sketch artist Aqeel Ahsan Wani.
Hailing from Kupwara’s Hatmulla village, Aqeel is an engineer by profession whose creative works are well known. Right from his childhood, he would outline his homeland and its myriad hues. He gradually picked up the threads of the art at home without undergoing through any formal training.
He mostly sketches portraits, besides drawing pictures modelled after live subjects and scenes. Recently, he bagged second position in International Sketching Competition held in Dubai.
In the field of fine arts, Aqeel is already a reckoning name. He has introduced several experimental projects, and in 2012 he became the first prize winner at a state level competition for making a “Golden Chair” for handicapped people. He suggested a model under the name of “Remote Hazard Signalling for Traffic at Blind Turns” and was selected for Masterpieces 2017, World’s first intercontinental Multi-Genre Festival. Aqeel was the lone competitor representing Jammu and Kashmir at the Fest, which included participants from across the world.
Aqeel’s contemporaries driven by the sense of service are equally toiling to leave their own mark in peoples’ lives. Nadiya Shafi is one among them.
As an Individual and Community correspondent, a social worker and a constant promoter of feminism, Nadiya is playing her role in mitigating the crisis, despite facing brickbats.
Associated with the Kashmir Unheard Project and Team Video Volunteers, the 29-your-old girl never shies to cover controversial subjects based on domestic abuse and hate crimes in the society.
As a spirited young woman, Nadiya decided to follow her own path when she started working with several NGOs soon after completing her Masters in Social Work. She was the first girl in her family to get a professional degree.
She fears that the social censure that she believes runs deep in the Kashmiri society, has “unfortunately given birth to discrimination between the two genders”. In past, Nadiya introduced two discussion clubs in Bandipora and Srinagar to talk about the society and the issues plaguing it.
She has also been documenting the impact of the Kashmir conflict, particularly on the children and women folk of the Valley, since 2014. For her work, she has been awarded the ‘most promising individual award’ by Martha Farrell Awards for Excellence in Women Empowerment.
At a time when Nadiya is doing her bit for the society, some in her peer group are now picking up the traditional musical instruments to play their fiddle. Rabab being one such Kashmiri traditional instrument has found its new performer in the form of 18-year-old Sufiyan Malik.
At the age of 4, Sufiyan, who comes from Srinagar, first started playing guitar and was gradually drawn to music. With age, he learnt playing Spanish Flamenco Guitar under the guidance of Kashif Mirani, a well-known Kashmiri musician in Delhi. In 2015, Sufiyan won Kashmir Got Talent show.
All those musical brushes groomed him for handling his family’s musical legacy. Sufiyan’s grandmother used to play Santoor, an Indo-Persian musical instrument which encouraged him to play Rabab — The Lion of Instruments, known as the national instrument of Afghanistan.
After considering the pros and cons of his ardour with his friends at DPS Srinagar, Sufiyan finally made a debut composition which he called ‘Firdaus’ and fused it with Pirates of Caribbean theme song.
With time, as he became a well-known young musician from Srinagar, he went on to perform in more than 20 concerts. Lately, Sufiyan performed in Los Angeles at the KGNA (Kashmiri Gathering at North America) event. His videos get a great response from people across the globe on social media.
After getting early shot to fame, the young musician, pursuing his graduation in Computer Sciences, wants to perform with a sense of service now. Among other things, he wants to keep the culture of Kashmir alive in the hearts of people through his music and albums.
—Mir Seeneen is a Srinagar-based writer. This piece appeared in December 2018 issue of Kashmir Narrator. For subscribing to hard copy of the magazine, contact: [email protected] or call at 7298102560