What struck photographer Sheba Chachhi most about Kashmir was the suddenness with which violence sneaks up on the placid landscape and shows itself up for what it is: an obscenity.
But for the women of Kashmir, whose voices and images have been captured in an unusual photo documentary by Chachhi and Sonia Jabbar, violence is neither new nor unexpected. Chachhi and her intrepid team of four called Womens Initiative on Kashmir travelled extensively in the Valley and Jammus migrant camps for six years on an unusual mission: to find out how the women of Kashmir were faring in this decade of "undeclared war". The result is a set of images and voices heard for the first time in troubled Kashmir. Voices of pain, of course, but also of reason, compassion, hope; images of incredible strength and dignity.
We travel through this exhibition - put up at the India Habitat Centre last week - in the same way that Chachhi and Sonia undertook their mission - in a profoundly feminine way. A collage of news reports confronts the viewer - armed mujahideen, soldiers, blasts, killings, government statements...all clubbed together in a chaotic panel. Says Chachhi: "We discovered that facts were being manipulated by both sides." Behind the screen, edged by barbed wire, are women in the privacy of their homes.
Sometimes "home" is nothing but a half-opened suitcase under an iron cot, or a piece of bare floor and a bit of wall to lean against under a scrawled "Crash India". Or an inland letter filled with those old cliches - "having no source to live in these hard times.... Keeping above facts in view I hope your good self will sympathetically consider my case..." - stamped with a womans thumbprint. Or a wooden staircase where a woman poses for a family portrait with her children - two boys, the younger sporting a toy gun, and a girl whose hand is tucked trustingly into her brothers. Adult men are conspicuously missing from these family portraits, surfacing briefly in newspaper photographs or as names on the lily-bordered graves. Also, perhaps as memories of a young girl in a bright-flowered scarf: "My father looked like Rajesh Khanna."
One of the testimonials collected by the team reads: "My husband was abducted by militants seven years ago. Weve no idea whether he is dead or alive. Everytime the talk of my remarriage begins, there is a whiff of rumour about his being alive. And so the wait begins again."
The strength and character that shines out of these stark faces arises from this new role they are increasingly called on to play. Hark to this testimonial: "The children ask, where has our father gone?."
"He has become a shaheed, martyr."
"Are you going to be martyred too?"
"No, I have to raise you."
No wonder the women are resisting giving birth to new life, despite exhortations and the banning of sterilisations and abortions. There is a very poignant picture in this exhibition. It is of two women and a baby. The younger woman is lying back in a hospital bed, exhausted from her labour. Next to her, squeezed into the narrow gap between two beds is an older woman, holding the newborn infant. Her hands are busy, holding and feeding the baby from a bottle. But her eyes are far away, and infinitely sad.
"You must not believe everything that people tell you. You must not listen with your ears but your heart," a testimonial declares. A frame of reference for the exhibition itself - to be seen not with your eyes but your heart.