Thursday, January 31, 2013

Shah Hamadan/Kali Mandar, 1957

There are some photographs in Brian Brake's 1957 Kashmir collection that I feel deserve individual attention.  This one because comparatively Babri and Hydrabad are simple.

The thought occurred to me a few years ago when I showed a few images on this blog to my Nani. Among these images was an old photograph of Mosque of Shah Hamadan and just for the fun of it I quizzed her if she knew which place it was.

From 'The northern barrier of India: A popular account of the Jummoo and Kashmir territories' (1877) by Frederic Drew
From 'Pictorial tour round India' (1906) by John Murdoch (1819-1904). 

Her answer was quick. With hands held in a namaskar she said, ' Kali Mandar'.

I knew the history of this place, both the oral and the written one, about the fights, about how this spot stood for both a mosque and a temple and probably a Buddhist shrine too, but this knowledge didn't make me realize what this place would have meant for people who lived in Srinagar during a particular era. Most of the old western travelogues I read simply referred to it as the Mosque of Shah Hamadan. Discussed it's architecture and importance is discussed. In one book, 'Houseboating in Kashmir' (1934), an angrez woman, Alberta Johnston Denis, probably finding 'men only' policy of the shrine incomprehensible wrote:
Shah Hamadan was holy, according to the Mohammedans of Kashmir; but whatever he may actually have been, in their loyalty to him, at least, they were intolerant. To this day, this is evidenced in the inscription, elaborately carved on the verandah over the entrance, which, translated, reads: "This is the tomb of Shah Hamadan, who was a great saint of God. Whoever does not believe this, may his eyes be blinded and if he still does not believe it, may he go to Hell." 
In one of these books, I did read about Pandits who while going about their daily business, would pass along this place, stop at a particular spot where water could be seen oozing out and bow down and wash their hands and face. The pull of a hidden holy spring. A spring of strange stories, stories of Kali Nag, an ancient spring, that apparently sprang up just at the moment when Ram killed Ravan, a spring that kids are told holds broken bits of ancient sculptures, a dark spring they say turns you blind if you look into it. Stories of flying chappals and falling gods.

An interesting account on birth and survival of the spot is given by Pandit Anand Koul in his book 'Archaeological Remains In Kashmir' (1935):

Going up by boat, one's attention is arrested farther on by a large building on the right bank between the 3rd and the 4th Bridges, which is called Shah-i-Hamamdan.
There is on this spot a spring, sacred to Kali. There was a Hindu temple over it which was built by Pravarasena II (110-70 A.D.) and was called Kali-Shri. The Mahall, in which it was situated, is still called Kalashpur, a corruption of Kali-Shri-pur. This temple was destroyed by Sultan Qutb-ud-Din (1373-94 A.D.) and, with its materials, he built a khanaqah. The later got burnt down twice and was rebuilt.
Soon after the conquest of Kashmir by Sikhs (1819) the Sikh Governor, Sardar Hari Singh, ordered the demolition of the mosque, saying that as it was a Hindu shrine, the Muhammadans should give up their possession of it. He deputed a military officer, named Phula Singh, with guns which were levelled towards the mosque from the Pathar Masjid Ghat, and everything was ready to blow it away. The Muhammadans then went to Pandit Bir Bal Dhar [a hero, a villian based on which Kashmir narrative you hold dear] who, having brought the Sikhs into Kashmir, was in great power, and requested him to intervene and save the mosque. He at once went to the Governor and told him that the Hindu shrine, though in the Muhammadans, was in a most protected condition and the removal of the mosque would be undersirable as it would simply lay it open to constant pollution by all sorts of people. There upon Sardar Hari Singh desisted from knocking it down.
On the wall fronting the river the Hindus have put a large ochre mark, and worship the goddess Kali there. 
The spot captured by Brian Brake in around 1957. A spot that is now claimed and hidden by a tree gone wild. Claimed by a grayness that now fills the recent photographs of Kashmir. A place very simply once claimed in speeches made in Indian parliament floor as proof of syncretic culture of Kashmir.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Kashmir War Speak, 1948

From 'Kashmir Speaks' by Prithvi Nath Kaula and Kanahaya Dhar (1950), these things, a reminder, wars make for sad quotes and sadder lives. It makes spartans out of apostles and apostles out of spartans.

Above is the only known photograph of Maqbool Sherwani. Or rather an illustration based on a photograph published in the book. The original photograph, published in a Kashmir war pamphlet from 1948, was shared by Andrew Whitehead sometime ago on his website [here]. When he did it became the only online available photograph of Maqbool Sherwani. Now above posted image is going to be the second, and more in focus, image of Maqbool Sherwani available online Wherein lies an interesting fact about the way history works. And even the way web works. Back in those days poems were penned in name of Sherwani in Kashmir, novels were written in India. Acclaimed as savior of Kashmir. And yet, because of the way history shaped over the years, and because of the way it in turn shaped the opinions of those who are online now, his image is only to be found old propaganda material.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Flag Day

I remember exactly what I was doing on the day of 26th January in year 1990. I remember it because I was playing stupid that day.

Just before the winter of 1989 set in, at Biscoe school, in a crafts class, I learnt a useful lesson. I had learnt how to make the flag of India.

On 26th January, I was bored. But a thought occurred to me. Since the nation, with all its glory, had arrived at the footsteps of my house in Srinagar, with its uniformed men and bunkers and armoured vehicles, all apparently to guard us from something horrible, I decided to celebrate the Republic day of India in grand style. I decided to make Indian flags, not just one or two but as many as I could and put them all over the house. The process of making the flag was simple and I had all the materials it needed. The process went like this: You tear a fresh page from a notebook, you turn this page around so that the length become the breadth and the breath becomes the length. Then using a pencil you draw two parallel lines on it in such a way that it divides the page into three equal part. If the partitions don't look good, erase the lines using a rubber and start afresh. If you still fail, tear a fresh page and start all over again. Once you get the division right, in the center partition, make a circle touching the two lines and inside this circle draw exactly 12 lines dissecting each other and meeting in the center of the page, inside the circle at a single point. They will magically give you the Dharma wheel of Ashoka with its 24 spokes. Now, take two sketch pens, one orange and other green, and using your teeth pull out the caps from both of them and get their wet spongy innards out. You might get your hands dirty and colored in the process, but that's the fun part. After this, take the orange filler,  leaving the center partition untouched, paint one of the partitions orange. Take the green filler and paint the other partition green. Your flag is almost ready but have to attach it to a staff to be able to hold it or stick it somewhere. For this you will need a broom and some cooked rice. Get them from your grandmother. Don't tell her what's it for. There is good chance your will be denied access to both, if you do tell her. Once you have the broom, take a twig out of it, and using the rice as gluing agent, attach the flag to it. While attaching, keep in mind that the orange partition is supposed to be at the top of flag and green at the bottom, and not the other way round. If you follow all the steps to the T, you will have your Indian flag. The symbol of your nation.

I repeated the process over and over, till I made about two dozen flags. Then I went about putting them all over inside the house. I put them on windows and on doors, looking for familiar cracks on the ageing wooden structure. I stuck them inside rose bushes and on evergreens. The last one I put on the wobbly old wooden handle-lock of the main door to the house. This one hung outside the house for everyone to see. There was no curfew that day, there was much movement on the road, so a lot a people could see it. I wondered if the men in bunker could see it, but there was no movement there.

It was done and it had taken me less time than I had expected. The afternoon was over but the day still remained. I was again bored. I decided to play another game. I had seen these other kids on road outside who would nail a used and empty boot polish tin pack to one end of a stick and would then run the contraption around like they were driving a wheel. A wheel-stick. That seemed fun. I was going to make me a wheel-stick. I already had a stick with me. A stick from a cloth roll. It was perfect for the job. I knew where to find the nails, a box in the dark storeroom. All that was missing was a pack of Cherry Blossom. No matter where I looked, I couldn't find a single empty pack. I found some filled one, but somehow decided that in the end the play may not be worth a beating. However, a lack of a wheel was not going to stop me. I held the stick in my right hand and just imagined that there a wheel at the end of it and started running around, with the other end of the stick touching the ground. I ran and ran, faster and faster, past all the fluttering flags greeting my parade from the rose bushes and the evergreens. It was fun till the stick suddenly caught a bump in the courtyard and in response the other end in my hand slipped out in recoil, catching me in my nutsack. In a never experienced before kind of pain, I fell down on the ground and rolled and rolled, hoping it would end before the white stars that I was seeing would engulf me. Saw saw Shankar Bhagwan laugh. A single tear rolled down my face. It was over soon enough but felt like an eternity. I threw away the stick and swore on the name of all the gods I knew, I would never play this game again.

I was still lying on the ground when an unfamiliar old man walked into the house. A man unlike anyone I had ever seen. This man had a black karakul cap on, and was dressed in all black. He walked upto me and in a very respectful manner asked if this is where the Razdans lived. I looked at him and although there was a gentle smile on his face, a smile that a dirt rolled kid would elicit, I could see this was face of a sad man. A very sad man. Smile couldn't cure the deep lines on his brow. I told him, he was at the right place and pointed him to the building that was our house. He walked on slowly keeping his head low. It seemed like he was climbing up Shankracharya hill.

Much later, in fact decades later, I learnt that the old man was the boss of my Choti Bua. Since Bus had stopped going to office, he had come to enquire if everything was okay. Nothing was okay. There were direct threats in papers. There were dress diktats. He was told that Bua had already left for the safety of Jammu.  

While I was still in the courtyard, I saw the old man go out the way he had come, out the main door. As he opened the door to go out, I noticed that the flag on the main door's handle was missing. I ran out to the door, indeed it was not there. I looked around. And found it. On the outer top floor window of a house just across the street. I knew the kid who lived there. We had recently become friends. My parents were probably worried I spent too much time playing with my sisters or inventing too many games that could be played alone. They probably thought I had reached the age when some male friends would be more appropriate for proper all round personality development. So this kid from across the road, a gour boy, son of a priest was introduced to me as a friend. He would often come over to my house and we would play cricket. And now this phoney friend had stolen my flag. I would not let it pass. I walked over to his house, called him out and asked him to return my flag. He denied stealing it and said he had made it himself. Had he not planted it so high up on his house, I would have just taken it and ran. But in this situation, there was one one thing to be done. I went back home and complained to my grandmother. I told her how this nasty kid, the one they call my friend had stolen my flag. Her response wasn't the one I expected.

'What flag?'

I told her how I had spend much of the afternoon making these beautiful flags. She walked out into the courtyard and was for some reason horrified by what she saw. She looked at all those flags I had placed all around the courtyard and yelled, 'Myani Bhagwaano! You are going have us killed! Why? Why would you do such a stupid thing?'

Then she went about pulling out the flags from all the places and tearing them up.

'That old man too must have seen them. We are going to die. We are going to get struck by lightening! Reign of darkness descends!'

I wanted to protest. I couldn't understand what it was that I had done wrong. But there was nothing I could do to stop her. She was angry about something and I had never seen her angry about anything, ever. Even when one time I got her to catch an injured parakeet for me and it bit her fingers. And yet here she was tearing these harmless flags with such violence that her hands were shaking. And her hands never used to shake, never, never ever even as she would descale and cut to pieces quivering big fish using a knife. Yet here she was, meting out violence on pieces of paper and twigs. Then her eyes fell on something on the ground that made her a bit less angry and a bit more sad.

'And you destroyed my broom too! My la'tchul!'

A few days later, I overheard the news about some members of a Kashmiri Pandit family living across our street getting shot in their house by 'militants'. Many years later, as I first tried to understand the concept of nations, I wondered if it was the flag thief's family that was killed.


Summer 2008. The courtyard where it happened, in front of the old house that doesn't exist.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

War Map of Kashmir & Jammu, 27th Oct. 1948

Came across it in 'Twelve months of war in Kashmir' by India. Information Services (1948) [LINK].

Mahatta & Co, Delhi

During 1930s and for a couple of more decades, the image of Kashmir that reached the outer world was majorly a product of a photo studio based in Srinagar called Mahatta & Co.

It was started in 1918 (1915?) by Amar Nath Mehta and Ram Chand Mehta on a houseboat on Jhelum river.

Mahatta & Co, Connaught Place, Delhi.

Previously: Picture Postcards of Kashmir from Mahatta & Co

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Disjoint Images and Text

While we are still on subject of how images impact us. A related post of another impact of images, previously posted to my other blog. 

Stages in Life of a Gandhi Photograph

Photograph by great Brian Brake published in 'India, by Joe David Brown and the editors of Life', 1961 [complete book available at Hathi] as a visual aid to the text that deals with relevance of Gandhi in India, The Nation's Unsilenced Conscience. It would have you believe Gandhi was alive, in heart and spirit of Indians.

As I looked at this beautiful picture, something about it made me realize that this can be a case study about  disjointedness of images, context and text. About giant sweeps of history. Of loss of footnotes. Of lost in footnotes. Of seduction by images. About loss.

One may ask why. After all it does look like a perfect picture for an article on Gandhi. Children = innocence = unsilenced Conscience. Children in love with Gandhi = The Nations's un-silenced conscience. Simple and brilliant.

The problem is with the details. The book only tells you that it is by Brian Brake and appears courtesy of Magnum. Place where is was taken in not mentioned. No year is given. Online, the only other place where you will find this image (besides the online version of the book) is an Arabic page dedicated with love to Gandhi, his life and work. This, as often happens, after I post stuff at this blog, will not be the case for long. It will probably end up on Gandhi Love or Gandhi Hate pages on Facebook, adding a new cycle to the life of this image. And will probably be again lost in indifference of text and context.

So what is it that I know about this photograph that makes this entire setup ironic. What is it about this setup that makes me often doubt everything I read and see. Why do I want to try and rescue it from the narrative in which it is wrapped?

The little girl in green at the back is attired as an elderly traditional Kashmiri Pandit woman.

The photograph was shot in 1957 during a 'national' day, an Indian one, with cultural parade and all, organised under Prime Minsiter of Kashmir, Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammed in Srinagar. He was the man who replaced imprisoned Sheikh Abdullah.

Another photograph from the event shot by Brian brake.
Via: Museum of New Zealand
Although I couldn't find the Gandhi photograph there, but the conclusion
that both very shot as the same event is quite easy to make based on the dress that children are wearing in the background.
"The close alignment of the Conference with the politics of the Congress was particularly distasteful to Bazaz. Bazaz had been moving away from Gandhian and eventually Congress politics throughout the 1930s. He had been taken aback by Gandhi's dismissive reply to his letter asking for advice on the path Kashmiri Pandits should follow in the political movement in Kashmir: "Seeing that Kashmir is predominantly Mussalman it is bound one day to become a Mussalman State. A Hindu prince can therefore only rule by non ruling i.e., by allowing the Mussalmans to do as they like and by abdicating when they are manifestly going wrong.""

Lines about strange case of Prem Nath Bazaz From 'Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir' by Chitralekha Zutshi. Prem Nath Bazaz was later exiled from Kashmir (after differences with Sheikh Abdullah) to Delhi and spent his later life advocating Kashmir's merger with Pakistan.

Looking now at the grand narratives of the national myths of India, Pakistan and Kashmir, and looking at the realities as they often dwell on hard ground. where these myths crumble into incoherent bits and pieces, one does tend to agree, history is a nightmare. And that there is no waking up from it. For it is a nightmare within a nightmare. It is narratives ingesting narratives, facts ingesting fiction, fiction vomiting facts. An on top of it, it is always a book with a beautiful cover.


A panel from an old Indian comic based on story of Rupinika, from Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara (The Ocean of Streams of Story)


A Beautiful Chain of Borrowed Beautiful Images

Last year, I came across an interesting photograph in a book published in 1961 called 'India, by Joe David Brown and the editors of Life' that intrigued me. It was accompanying an essay on India and relation of its people to the Gandhian thoughts. That confused me all the more. Although the book didn't offer any clues about the place where it was taken. But I saw something familiar in it. Something that made the photograph out of place. Even ironic. The quest to confirm its place of origin led me to some wonderful discoveries. The first clue: It was taken by famous photographer Brian Brake, best known in India for 'The Monsoon Girl'.

The little girl at the back in green dress with white headgear in this photographs told me that she is portraying in Kashmiri Pandit woman. That told me that there was a good chance that it was shot in Kashmir. Told me that the great photographer must have been to Kashmir. What beauty he must have captured!

A quick search lead me to site Museum of New Zealand where most of Brian Brake's awesome 22 years of work is showcased. Here I found his extensive work on Kashmir done in late 1950s and early 1960s.

I have been going over and over these photographs for months now. And every time I look, the beauty of them drowns me in a weird feeling that the Kashmir we see now is just like navel lint. It's just something.

But, I don't want to write about. I have not time for ugliness. Too much of that abound.  Instead I am going to write about beauty, about the photographs, the photographer who took them, a legendary photographer who inspired some of them and a living photography genius who was probably inspired by it.   And about beautiful things that are now gone, only remaining in these photographs.

The story starts in 1957 with Henri Cartier-Bresson suggesting Kashmir as a subject to young Brian Brake. Among the photographs he shot in Kashmir we see some shot which as an obvious tribute to his mentor Bresson. Also, it is here that we see Brake try out his technique of 'Set-up' to get the perfect shot. The technique that mimics the unparalleled moment capturing abilities of Bresson by deliberately putting the subjects in a staged, controlled environment and setting the camera to get the right moment. It was this technique that much later gave us beauty of 'The Monsoon Girl' when he shot Aparna Das Gupta (later Aparna Sen) in fake rain in 1960. But there is a certain rawness to the 'set-ups' he shot in Kashmir, or possibly the viewer now gets that feeling because he can see all these photographs together, a viewer can almost see the various stages of a 'set-up'. Back then, when a single photograph was published in magazine, a viewer could only see the final best product and form an opinion about the moment and beauty of it based on that. Some people done appreciate this 'set-up' approach to photography. But in the end, I guess it doesn't actually matter much.

"A photograph is only a fragment, and with the passage of time its moorings come unstuck. It drifts away into a soft abstract pastness, open to any kind of reading.” - Susan Sontag, On Photography.

What is interesting is that in some photographs Brian Brake can be seen directly trying to recreate some images that were shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson a decade ago in Kashmir in 1947. That he was able to do it tells us about the pace of life back then in Kashmir.

Look at these:

Kashmiri boatwoman by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1947. via:

And now look at this:
Kashmiri boat people by Brian Brake, 1957. The two photographs could have been from the same set and by the same photographer. Even the woman in two look the same. And even the place looks the same. It is almost like he sought out the same place where Bresson had been and in this was possible helped by Bresson.

Brian Brake even tried to recreate one of the most famous shot by Bresson.

Kashmiri women praying on Hari Parbat near Ziarat of Makhdoom Sahib. By Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1947. via:

Now see Brian Brake's one of the interesting obvious 'set-up' re-creation. (He actually did more than one version of it):

Kashmiri men on a Hill, Brian Brake, 1957.

B&W photographs, because of their obvious lack of more color, have this strange power of transporting their subjects to a realm where the viewer instantly knows he is probably looking into past. But that past for the viewer overtime becomes monotoned. The viewers stops thinking that the scene he is looking at was once alive, and actually had color. That it had life. That an apple back then too was red.It is colors that cast a more powerful spell over the viewer. The viewer instantly realizes that the past was once alive too and that the past and present have something in common, a shared color spectrum. The same sun. The same colors. And yet somehow, or rather due to the expertise of the photographer, those past colors look more appealing. See see colors you thought never existed.

Update: Now, also see an image predating both these images:

From the book 'The Charm of Kashmir' (1920) by V.C. Scott O'connor. Photographer: probably R.E. Shorter.

Look at 'boatwoman' in color  by Brian Brake. It's almost like both Bresson and Brake were at the same spot looking at the same woman.

Color photography was taking off arrive in a big way back then. Quite a few people were starting to experiment with it. And the colors of Kashmir were proving to be one of the palette. Something about its summer sun made Kashmir just perfect for color photography. The charm of Kashmir was again at work and now people could see it in all its colors.

Brian Brake's work in National Geographic vol.144 no.5, November 1958. Notice that Bresson re-enactment.

Brian Brake's color work in Kashmir was going to inspire another great photographer. Steve McCurry acknowledges Brake as one of the photographers who's work inspired him a lot as a kid. He was eleven when 'Monsoon Girl' was published. Much later he went on to chase that feeling.

Sometimes images just provide a name or a setting of a subject.

Let's take a look at one of the most famous Kashmir photograph by McCurry:

Flower seller, Srinagar, Dal Lake, 1996.

Now let's one of the earliest color images of Kashmiri flower sellers. Shot in 1957 by Brian Brake.

Now look at this photograph by McCurry.

And then this beauty captured by Brian Brake in 1957.

And that's how images live on. And so do memories.


Some other photographers inspired by  Henri Cartier-Bresson
Vogue fashion shoot in 1969.
Photographer was David Bailey. Who at the age of 16 was inspired by Carier-Bresson's famous photograph of Kashmir
Kashmir, 1955. By Sam Tata,  a Parsi photographer mentored by Cartier in late 1940s.


Next, I am going to post some of my favorite works of Brian Brake in Kashmir.


Listing of posts based on Brain Brake collection:

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Winters are not easy on elderly. Bhabhi, one of my grand aunts, passed away recently. Last month, thanks to a chance visit to Jammu, I met her for the last time. It was obvious she was in much pain. Cancer isn't easy on body. And extreme diabetes, blood pressure, don't  make it any easier either. You live on a diet of medicines, drips and biscuits. You live on warmth of relations. That helps till a point. Till it all again comes down to a diet of medicines, drips and biscuits.

There is no 'touch-feet-of-elders' among Kashmiris. We hug and kiss. As I hugged her that day, even in pain, she kissed me and repeated our old joke. In my ears she said, 'I stole you from your room while your were sleeping. Remember!'

I remember.

I once passed into sleep. When I woke up, I realized I hadn't woken up in my room, the naya Kamra, the new room. I hadn't woken up to the familiar sight of a Philips B&W TV, instead a smiling curly haired Baba in Saffron robes was showing me white of  his one palm from a photograph sitting cozy inside a cabinet of an almirah. But this too was a familiar sight.  I was looking at the Gods Cabinet of Bhabhi.  She was sitting in front of it, praying, lighting agarbattis, diyas, arranging and re-arranging marigold and rose petals around more than a dozen photo-frames of various gods. A silvery bracelet studded with beautiful blue and green stones jingling on her left wrist. 'It is for pressure,' she would always say when I would often quiz her about that strange piece of jewellery. A few years later, her son, my uncle, also got one. 'It is for pressure,' he says. As I looked at that bracelet, I knew I had woken up in Bhabhi's room which was right across our naya Kamra. 

Still in a daze, I crawled my way to her and asked 'How did I get here? Did I sleep here last night?' She looked away from her gods and staring at my face, reading the confusion which must have been well writ on it, she replied with a straight face, 'No. I stole you from your room while your were sleeping. At night, after you went to sleep in your room, I sneaked in and quietly picked you up and brought you here.'

'Is that possible? If that is possible, any body can walk in and steal me at night. Am I safe? How could they let this happen!' These troubling thoughts crept into mind. I got up with a start and ran out of the room to find my grandmother and ask her if it is true and if yes how could she let this happen. As I ran out of that room, and out of the door, the sullen darkness of a Kashmiri living room suddenly gave way to the brightness of the  glorious Kashmiri summer sun. In an instant my mind cleared. I understood the joke. I went back into her room and screamed at her 'You are quite a thief Bhabhi!' We laughed for sometime. Then she went back to her pooja as I sat next to her, watching in silence.


Summer 2008.

The spot where once stood Bhabhi's room. It is now a garden lawn or a saw mill. Just across it, my naya Kamra, my sleeping roomalthough now looking worn out, with the smoothness of its outer walls all gone. It is the only old structure that survived.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tol'e Hakh

Tol'e Hakh is a particular variety of Hakh that is grown in floating gardens of Dal Lake. It is supposed to be a delicacy. My grandmother compared it to having sheep liver.

One among many things that Pandits living in Jammu bring back with them from trips to Srinagar and distribute among friends and relatives.

From 'Indian pictures, drawn with pen and pencil' (1881) by William Urwick (1826-1905)
From 'Kashmir in Sunlight & Shade: a Description of the Beauties of the Country, the Life, Habits and Humour of its Inhabitants, and an Account of the Gradual but Steady Rebuilding of a Once Down-trodden People' by Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe (1922)


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