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The Wall Chalkers

Obsession can get you to do strange things in even stranger ways. And how far this can go, I had a brush with it when I met Uzair.

While cupboards were being fitted in his room a year ago, he asked the carpenter- a young boy like him from Punjab, to make him a secret compartment in  the cupboard’s lower chamber. No one can spot it easily. Its only when you look very closely, you find a small cabinet where Uzair hides, guess what? Drugs?Arms?Gifts from his GF? Nay, you’ve got it all wrong.

It’s aerosol paint canisters. Paint canisters? For what?

Uzair is a graffiti artist. But why hide the canisters? “My family doesn’t approve of this. My father thrashed me several times over this ‘painting business’,” says Uzair.

But the thrashing didn’t deter Uzair. Ask him how he feels when people call him an artist, his only answer is a blush. Probably, he himself isn’t sure about his ‘art’. “I don’t consider graffiti or walk chalking  as an art,” he says in a rather serious tone.

This is the way most other people in Kashmir think of graffiti.

That is changing very rapidly though.

“Graffiti is writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surfaces, often in a public place”- this is how Wikipedia defines graffiti.  The word graffiti comes from the Italian graffare which means to scratch on a surface.

The graffiti artists in Kashmir check all boxes of this definition and this art, if we may call it one.

 Over the years graffiti has become an increasingly popular and novel way of protest and registering dissent.

Social scientists believe that graffiti provides people a tool that enables them to say things that they normally can’t say publicly. The advantage of anonymity makes it an even more attractive means of public communication. This is particularly true of these times when censorship is in vogue. “It is a powerful form of expression of thoughts that otherwise, in a controlled and extremely scrutinized world that we live in, would be unacceptable,” says sociologist Professor Bashir Dabla. “Graffiti and similar forms of art give the younger generation a way to put across their point of view through a medium that says a lot in just a small picture or a few words.”

Most of the graffiti you find around in Kashmir represents strong and sharp political and social sloganeering. This, experts feel, is because of soceity being in transitional state as well as charged political atmosphere here.

I caught up with  Tayzeem  who told me what drives him to political graffiti. “I can’t go out and directly confront. But I can write it on a wall in the lane. They will get the message.”

Tayzeem’s words point to an environment  of bitterly opposing narratives.

Tayzeem came across to me as a shy person. In contrast, his walk chalkings are audacious.  

Doing  street  graffiti is not a big deal. You can order a canister of aerosol paint for 300 rupees online. At the shops, it may cost a little more. But take care. If you get caught, you might be in for trouble.

The graffitis you find in Kashmir are of different types. Some are simple words. some abstract art of expression.

You will find endless graffiti around in the city and towns which reflect the mood and temperature of a particular time in Kashmir.  

You will find scribbles and doodles on public washroom walls, classrooms walls and desks, public transport and the like almost everywhere.  They are easy to do. All you need is a pen and some creativity. Most of this graffiti  is romantic in nature. H + P. Rayees + Nuzhat. And so on. The plus sign obviously is suggestive of a carnal feeling. One graffiti has gone a little overboard with this emotion. It reads: M+P= Bacha party. Another one scribbled on a concrete pillar on the under construction flyover at Rambagh is rather too emotional. It reads: One day you will miss me.  There are others that serve as some kind of advisories.  Avoid girls, save heart, goes one. There is another one that warns you about pyaarkae toxic side effects: Love is poison. There are others which are openly offensive.

Experts say graffiti reveal the mental make-up of those who do them. ‘Everybody runs’- these two words have been scribbled on almost every bench and classroom wall of the journalism department in University of Kashmir. I asked a student what it means. ‘‘I saw everybody around me -my classmates, teachers running around for things they think can prove their superiority over others. But to me they are like ants who have lost their way and are running in all directions.”Hmmm! That’s is a philosophical answer.

 In the boys’ hostel of the University, the walls of every room are decorated with writings and drawings, some very elegant while others rather unsightly. ‘Arif’s Zoo’ is written on the door of a room where students of Zoology reside. ‘Zeeshan’sTehelka’ reads another.

I found this interesting one outside a public convenience around the Boulevard: ‘ Karsabardaasht’ ( be patient). How creative! And who can forget this one to keep people away from peeing in the open:  Dekhogaddhapeshaabkarrahahai.(Look, a donkey is peeing). 

If  you go around  Srinagar city, especially the Bund along river Jehlum, and other by-lanes of the city, you will find sketches  and texts with political and social overtones  that  randomly go into each other.

A careful understanding of these doodles and writings gives you a sense of the outpourings of a generation that wants to be heard.


I asked Prof Dabla to explain this. “Youth go through different levels of socialization which shape their mind. The dynamics of this socialization leads to crystallization of ideas,” Prof Dabla told me. He went on. “We, as a society, are very rigid and it happens very often that we do not understand these young people. Studying these graffiti can give us some idea of what’s going inside a youngster’s mind.”

Anonymity combined with a platform that everybody sees and  reads is what draws people like Uzair and Tayzeem to graffiti. “To keep one’s identity hidden and keep your work at a place where it is for everyone to see is not as easy as it seems to be.  To do such a thing requires courage,”  says Dr. HumairaShafi, a psychologist who teaches at the Psychology Department of Kashmir University. “Graffiti is done by sensitive people, people who may stay silent at times, but then want people to know what they think by placing these graffiti out on the streets for everyone to see.”

I got back to Uzair and asked him what usually drives his walk chalking. “Whatever  touches me most on any day,” was his curt reply.

A few weeks ago he scrawled these words on the wall of his school compound: DO YOU THINK YOU’RE IN CONTROL?  The principal had it washed off the very next day.  What was behind writing this line, I asked Uzair. “Those who think they are in control are mistaken and that is why I wrote it.”

But in control of what?Uzair doesn’t have an answer. May be the answer is far too tricky for this question.

 Or maybe Uzair is spot on -- nobody is in control, everybody is being controlled here.

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