Fernando Arias spent most of 2010 travelling in Asia and this video was made in response to the situation he encountered in Kashmir's largest city, Srinagar, where he spent a month. See fernandoarias.org
Arias was drawn to Kashmir ostensibly to escape a blistering 50-degree heat wave in New Delhi. "I knew very little about the region other than it had been in a state of conflict for many years and it was incredibly beautiful, surrounded by the Himalayas. What he found was natural beauty, a shocking military presence and considerable oppression.
Through a series of chance encounters he was offered a room in Ahmed's house on the edge of Dal Lake. The family of eight welcomed him into their home and helped orientate him in the city. "Each morning and evening I learned about their lives of curfews and fear, as father and sons took turns to visit me to talk for hours." One of Ahmed's sons, Firdous, worked for a textile house and took Arias to meet the men who make the traditional woven and embroidered cloths that Kashmir is famous for around the world.
He went into the homes of these men who spend their days on ancient looms weaving intricate patterns for shawls that can take more than a year to complete. He was struck by the timelessness in their workshops as the men sat at their looms or on the floor, working at their crafts with little to separate them from their ancestors. But beyond the stillness of their ancient workshops tension and violence flared into serious confrontations between young men and the Indian police. "The contrast hit me each time I left the workshops to walk home through the city's streets".
In the city's Fine Art College, Arias met professors and students to see how they responded to the contrasts and conflict that touched their lives. Funded by the Indian government the Art College establishment taught art along 20th century lines with stone carving, painting and printmaking, that searched for beauty in Kashmir's landscape, at it's heart. A lone voice stood out from this mainstream. One (nervous) teacher encouraged his students to look at the dark reality surrounding them and to find a language to describe it. Attending one of his classes that day Arias met Mahum Shabir who explained what it was like growing up in a city never knowing peace.
Mahum's determination to see Kashmir free of conflict was evident beyond words - although her eyes betrayed fear. "Mahum's words and body language reverberated as I photographed the Indian army, police and Kashmiri's on Srinagar's streets. I wanted to capture the mundanity of everyday life set against the backdrop of India's overwhelming military presence". Arias asked Firdous to find craftsmen to reproduce some of these images as handmade rugs, using traditional Kashmiri techniques to describe the situation.
By combining traditional techniques with images of life on Srinagar's street he drew the two together. As the month rolled on the rain and Himalayan melt-waters inundated the city as Dal Lake over-spilled its banks. The family became marooned inside their house. Water, rain and floods are part of everyday life in the region and it occurred to Arias that water played a crucial role in this conflict. The Himalayas feed rivers that run south through Kashmir to India's parched planes so it's no surprise that India needs to retain this precious water resource.
Superficially beautiful Dal Lake also combined conflict, human anguish and the suggestion of ecological catastrophe. A shoe, a polystyrene plate, a bottle and a flask floating in the rushes told their stories, reflected human impacts on nature and the possibility or not of survival.
"As I captured these images my grandmother died on the other side of the world and I channelled my grieving by filming the still lives of these polluted waters."
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