Of cabbages and walking


On 27th June 2016, I gave a paper at Utopian Urban Futures, Leeds University. I spoke about the ways performance art engages with contested space. By unravelling its rules and habits, even if temporarily, it opens up possibilities for reinvention. I described what I knew of three art interventions in Srinagar, Kashmir – past, present and future: Nikhil Chopra’s 2008 performance in the character of Yog Raj Chitrakar, drawing the Lal Chowk clock tower on the ground; the Kashmiri cabbage walker’s counter to the absurdity of a militarised environment with the repeated walking of a cabbage on a leash (after Chinese artist Han Bing); the proposals for a Srinagar Biennale being made by Srinagar-based curator Syed Mujtaba Rizvi from Kashmir Art Quest and artist Showkat Katju  and Delhi-based artists Inder Salim and Jeebesh Bagchi (with a wide network of organisers for ‘nodes’ in other cities). I was, and remain, interested in the urgency and specificity of such interventions which, to borrow Ananya Jahanara Kabir‘s words, offer images of Kashmir neither as ‘the paradise of Bollywood’ nor ‘the hell of a conflict zone’ despite being ‘intimately entangled’ with such representations (Kabir 2010:178). I spoke of these works as statements of peaceful political intent to reclaim the city as creative space, and of the right to represent the city differently.

On 8th July 2016, Hizb commander Burhan Wani was killed; protests followed and met with violent response; Kashmir has been under curfew for six weeks now, more or less. Protests, injuries and killings have continued. 60 people have died so far, with thousands injured. Hundreds have been operated on for eye injuries from pellet-guns used by state security forces. Despite these being termed ‘non-lethal’ weapons, two have died and of those with eye injuries, many have lost their eyesight. Half of these are children under 15.

I thought of that cabbage when I read that for Majid Maqbool:

‘Getting vegetables, fruits and other essential household items is a daily struggle for us. We have to cover long distances to reach and buy household commodities from a few half-opened shops discovered in some inner lanes and by-lanes on early mornings and late afternoons.’

It has become a ‘skill’, he says, to keep a family supplied with food.

I remembered that the Kashmiri cabbage walker uses a little trolley to raise the cabbage off the ground, and feels this is fitting where food is a respected item. Though suggesting this concern is not specific to Srinagar, Parul Abrol tells us that:

‘Once, when the Kashmiri Walker’s cabbage fell off the rollers in Srinagar’s alleyways, “a shopkeeper jumped out of his shop, placed it back on the roller and said — do whatever you are doing but you must not let your cabbage fall to the ground, it is food and food is sacred, it deserves a certain respect.”’ (Abrol 2016)

Collard greens, or haak are a staple vegetable in Kashmir, eaten in soup with rice, or with meat, fish or cheese, or in pickles.

Besides the carpets of lotus flowers, there are floating gardens where the haak is grown, and floating vegetable markets where it is sold on Srinagar’s Dal Lake.

Art continues in Kashmir, and in solidarity with Kashmir, but the streets, Maqbool says, are almost deserted.

This is, in any case, a place where getting about can be difficult. As I have been thinking about walking ‘architectures’, I am also intrigued by Kabir’s characterisation of the loose-fitting pheran (tunic) and the Kangri (hot-water pot) held beneath it as ‘portable central heating’, which caused early colonial observers to describe armless men with pot bellies (Kabir 2010:181). Average January temperatures in Srinagar are 2.5 degrees c. and below freezing at night. They can fall well below.

But to say this, of course, risks understating the dangers of walking in a highly militarised area, even before July 8th. I don’t feel equipped to summarise these risks adequately, but here is a list of books that can tell you more than I can, and which I am reading myself. Just to acknowledge that the cold isn’t really the problem.

Walking cannot be taken for granted, any more than cabbages.

To walk a cabbage might seem absurd, but in fact, it’s a serious business. A cabbage is survival. It is also a talisman. An eyeball.

[Note: If looking to support international aid, Medecins sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders provide mental health support in Kashmir and support in medical emergencies]

Abrol, Parus (2016), ‘Walking a Cabbage in Kashmir – To protest the absurdity of war’, Narratively, February 19th.

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara (2010), ‘Talismans’, India International Centre Quarterly 37, 3-4, 176-185.

Maqbool, Majid (2016), ‘How People in Kashmir Live Amid Ongoing Curfews’, 101.india.com, August 10th.