In Kashmiri artist Khursheed Ahmad's family, who hail from a community of folk entertainers called Bhands, there is a tradition invoked on the birth of a child. On the seventh day of the newborn being ushered into the world, the great Sufi musician Amir Khusrau's cherished sitar, a family relic, is played close to the right ear of the infant.
When Khursheed was born and his parents were preparing to revere the long-held custom, they found one string of the fabled instrument to be loose. This did not cause any fear or foreboding and the ceremony went ahead as planned. Years later, Khursheed had difficulty in stringing his words together and gradually came to develop a stammer. His family came to attribute this speech impairment to the day when the sitar string came undone at the ceremony and could not tune itself right.
That ancient family sitar still doesn't produce any music. But Khursheed has found a way to make it relevant again. In Sitar-e-Wathoori (2014), Khursheed uses the sitar and the fictional story to comment on the inter-relationship between body, text and object and weave a common thread between his work and his own struggles with stammering. Such is the visceral aesthetic of Khursheed as a performance artist.
In the third edition of Dharti Arts Residency Open Studio by Serendipity Arts Foundation, on view from August 10 to 23 in Delhi, Khursheed has mounted an untitled, unfinished performance piece which combines video projection and simulated footage around a plywood structure, as a commentary on identity and dissent. This comes at a time of unprecedented clampdown in Kashmir following the government decision to revoke the special status accorded to the state under Article 370 of the Constitution and divide it into union territories.
The plywood box resembles a shrine with a tiny peep-hole of a window with golden bars through which visitors can see a video of Khursheed with his back to the audience. Clad in an all-black ensemble in the video, he is seen beating the bare walls of an apartment with his shiny black shoes worn around the hands like gloves. "What happens inside the shrine is not easily visible to the outside world. The voices in the valley are shut inside the box itself," says Khursheed, drawing on the metaphor of the shrine for Kashmir.
On top of this box-like shrine, he relays a simulated footage inspired from a scene near his village in Budgam. "There was a house near my village, apparently occupied by militants. In an encounter, the car outside that house was also mangled with bullet holes. I shot a video of this wounded car and juxtaposed it with another video of a zoomed in full moon, " says Khursheed, who wanted to show the resemblance of a bullet wound with that of a moon. There is a dove-like bird perched on the footage to heighten the sense of irony. "Every Kashmiri heart is carrying deep wounds. They might want to say there is normalcy and peace. But the reality is something else."
Khursheed completed his Master's in Visual Arts from Ambedkar University in Delhi. For the last nine days, he hasn't been able to contact his family in Kashmir. They don't know about his art exhibit in a Delhi gallery. He couldn't get through to them even on Eid. But he says his family has never celebrated Eid or any other festival. "For us every day and moment is Eid. It is to be cherished. Why should there be a separate day for it? Besides, what is there to celebrate?"
Khursheed's artwork will be presented as an exhibition along with other artists from the residency at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa this December.