Seeing not like a state

Rollie Mukherjee, a Baroda-based artist’s exhibition of her images of Kashmir, to stories rumoured in branches, is showing at Conflictorium, a Museum of Conflict in Ahmedabad. Mohamad Junaid on her images.

to stories rumoured in branches, at Conflictorium, Ahemdabad
to stories rumoured in branches, at Conflictorium, Ahmedabad

The Indian state’s dominant visual order invisibalizes the structure of its violence in Kashmir. It enforces a blindness and numbs the critical senses of its citizens. From the twin images of Kashmir as a ‘beautiful landscape’ and as a ‘hotbed of anti-nationals,’ it mobilizes the composite image of ‘paradise crawling with serpents’ to justify the military occupation.

Rollie Mukherjee

In the consequent violence, the state makes its citizens complicit by keeping them blind to their blindness, and by making the abnormal look normal.

Can there be a counter-project to this mode of seeing and representation? Can artistic works agitate the dominant imaginaries, trouble the subtle ruses of state power, and, in the process, train a new disobedient sensorium?[1] The images by Rollie Mukherjee that you see here answer these questions affirmatively.

There is something immanent within her images that spills beyond the majoritarian frames of representation. They carry an excess—the ontological ‘trace’—which is restless, and produces restlessness. A repressed Kashmir is brought forth from the fragments of its dismembered present, urging the (Indian) viewer to align her view with the Kashmiri mode of seeing, and to dislodge herself from the grip of the nationalist scopic regime. Here pain and defiance, which underpin everyday life in Kashmir, irrupt into the state’s complacent, composite image. This seeing demands an empathic attentiveness and a language that acquires unexpected new meanings:

Half-’ life: to be left cleaved in the middle by the enforced disappearance of a child or a life-partner.

Waiting: the radical act of relentless hope.

Martyrdom: the public afterlife of the unquiet dead.

The last letter: a furtively scribbled note to the family from the threshold of one’s execution, requesting respect, instead of remorse, for the act of truth chosen by higher powers over the unconscionable sentence passed by the courts of the unjust.

Testimonies: the living as the proof of existence of those made absent.

Mourning: the always-unfinished, the ever-repeated cycle of living with grief.

Here absence becomes an intense presence.[2] “Paradise” is momentarily suspended, and a subterranean Kashmir emerges: a constellation of unmarked mass graves dotting the heaven; a claustrophobic forest of soldiers and their weapons growing around life forms; villagers reaping a harvest of martyrs and walking together to store them in graveyards; and artisans quietly weaving a history of grief into their shawls and carpets. Together these images form a poetic montage. They allow evocative, expressive possibilities and an apprehension through a sensuous engagement. Yet, they also disrupt illusions and fracture the deceptive harmony of the state’s composite image.

Kashmiris will instinctively recognize the texture of their daily reality in these images. For Indians willing to see, the images will help build an understanding, by bringing into the frame that which has long been deemed unrepresentable.


[1] I draw from Judith Butler, who answers some of these questions positively in her work Frames of War, Verso 2010. See also, Craig Campbell, Agitating Images,U. Minnesota Press 2014 and Gil Hochberg, Visual Occupations, Duke U. Press 2015.

[2] On the nature of images in general, for instance, Jean-Luc Nancy writes: “The absence of the imaged subject is nothing other than an intense presence…” In these images, Nancy’s contention acquires a tangible power. See “The Image – The Distinct,” in The Ground of the Image, Fordham U. Press 2005, p. 9.

See Mukherjee’s images here: Raiot

Originally published May 2, 2016, in Raiot


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