State-sponsored artists cover up graffiti in Kashmir

In disputed Kashmir, the government is covering up protest graffiti with cultural messages in a beautification project. RIFAT MOHIDIN reports.

The government in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, has started painting murals depicting the culture and traditions of the conflict-torn region on walls across the city to cover up angry slogans and graffiti decrying what street artists see as the oppression of India in the disputed south-Asian territory.

Over the last few years, spray paint and marker pens have become the medium of choice for the anonymous artists who paint the walls of Srinagar with political messages during the dead of the night and then disappear.

Many people in Kashmir see the emergence of graffiti for communicating resistance to the Indian occupation as an import from Palestine. In many parts of Kashmir, particularly Srinagar, one can read messages like “Go India, go back”, “Revolution is Loading”, and “Police state” on walls and hoarding.

Kashmir mural painting 4

Security agencies in Kashmir keep an eye on the unknown graffiti artists, who have put up anti-India street art in many places across the city. Earlier, a controversial piece of graffiti appeared on the walls of historic Hariparbat – a hillock overlooking Srinagar, the largest city in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. “Welcome Taliban, Go India Go Back” said the words scrawled across the walls of the Fort, which is overseen by a Indian security camp.

But now Srinagar’s local government is trying to clamp down on the dissident messaging. Their chosen method involves having young people cover up the graffitti with something a bit more palatable to the authorities – murals depicting the culture and traditions of the area.

Six young artists have been hired by the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) and directed to beautify the walls with the non–controversial messages. Saqib Bhat (22) and his friends Sumaira Majeed (22), Maria Shamiri (22), Zaid Bhat (21) and Suhail Sofi (21), who work together on each of the state-sanctioned murals, are all students of  the Fine Art School in Kashmir.

The group say they have nothing controversial to write and just want to use the opportunity to showcase their talent.

Kashmir mural painting 2“It is aimed at beautification and the walls are the canvas, and we are giving our best to make the best murals. People appreciate us for the paintings. They come to see this different concept. Even artists visit us,” said Shamiri.

SMC commissioner Tufail Mattoo, who started the project, said the aim was to give the current generation an insight into Kashmir’s past.

“This is just to beautify Srinagar, so that the youngsters as well as tourists who come here from different countries can get an insight about the culture and history of this place through art,” he said.

Some see nothing sinister in the project and believe it is merely a way for government to engage and employ young people while at the same time giving the official brush-off to the city’s graffiti artists and their anti-Indian messages. But for others the mural painting project is nothing more than colorful censorship.

Rifat Mohidin bio picRifat Mohidin is a journalist based in Kashmir. Follow her on Twitter.