In the valley, beyond the unrest, young Kashmiris are building mental peace in youth through art


Before 1989, only 1700 people visited the only psychiatric facility in Kashmir. In 2015, the number had exponentially jumped to 100,000. In 2015 , in a study by Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) it was alarmingly concluded that half of all residents of the valley suffer from mental health problems. The report stated that  “1.8 million adults – approximately 45 percent of the total adult population of Kashmir – suffer from some form of mental distress”. The situation is far worse for the youth and adolescents.

This deep sense of fear, insecurity, and trauma in the youth of Kashmir has almost spread like wildfire now. Tender eyes are uncontrollably exposed to violence, misadventures, and conflict. And the continuous upsurge of violence has manifested itself in a severe neurotic imprint on the minds of thousands of young people.

Whether it be during his Masters in Journalism or his active involvement in art related activities – Hayat Manan knew this was a problem that required intervention. As fate would have it, his actions and associations landed him in an organization that worked precisely to adress the same problem. Essar Batool and Natasha M. Rather started working together with The Indo Global Social Service Society in Kashmir. In 2014, Hayat joined the same as a volunteer and was soon a part of a collective of urban and rural youth called “Roots of Chinar- Kashmir”. This collective involved photographers, filmmakers, painters, theatre artists, and writers who collectively brainstormed on how to reach the youth through art. It was during these interactions that the idea of an initiative like Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative was formulated. Essar (Founder) and Natasha (Co-founder), with many other mentors and friends, collectively started this initiative based on the concept of “Art for Healing”, subsequently creating a space for people, especially youth and children, to express what was choked inside them for years. The enthusiasm of Hayat towards the cause steered him to join the team.

[From left to right] Essar Batool, Natasha Rather, and Hayat Manan from the Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative (KYAI)

“These children have suffered a lot. Also, a lot of the kids we deal with have lost their parents in conflicts. Hence, such an intervention is necessary.” adds Hayat.

The organization primarily focuses on building new avenues for children to de-stress themselves and engage in creative activities. “KYAI provides training for children in painting, theatre, photography, and writing. All these workshops have a component of mental health and counselling to help children deal with their trauma in a better way.” mentions Natasha, who now is now no longer formally a part of the team yet stays associated with them due to her keen intent towards art and the cause. “These children have suffered a lot. Also, a lot of the kids we deal with have lost their parents in conflicts. Hence, such an intervention is necessary.” adds Hayat.

Image courtesy: Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative
Image courtesy: Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative

Although the team comprises of a diverse bunch, their experience in working in the development sector was not acutely expansive. Pravah, a Delhi based organisation that works to promote Leadership amongst the youth, came in to fill the gap with their Changelooms – Learning and Leadership Journey forearly stage youth social entrepreneurs ,supported by Oracle. “The association with the Pravah Changelooms programme has been extremely fruitful. When we joined the programme, we were struggling with the structuring of KYAI, retention of the limited staff and ensuring that each person contributes to the best of their abilities. Pravah helped us in figuring our way around these issues to ensure stability now and sustainability in future.” Natasha said.



“Many of the participants were in tears while talking about the acceptance they had felt during the workshop.”

The organization has done close to 10 workshops reaching out to around 400 people, other than the ones supported by Pravah. The workshops have been cathartic and therapeutic with these children later producing beautiful stories about their own lives. Hayat recalls one such workshop they did in collaboration with HELP foundation at an Orphanage named Shehjaar in Kashmir. “On the last day of the writing workshop, conducted with the help of Pravah, the children did not want to leave. All of them were vocal about how much, a space where they could interact freely and express themselves, meant to them. Many of the participants were in tears while talking about the acceptance they had felt during the workshop.”

Image courtesy: Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative
Image courtesy: Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative

“The change was on individuals, but it mattered a lot to me personally. If through every workshop we create a safe space for even one individual to express themselves, we would have done a fair job”. Hayat shared that, it gives them as facilitators,  immense satisfaction to see how relieved and happy the parents are in experiencing the lasting effect of a workshop on their kids.

A session with children in the valley | Image courtesy: Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative
A session with children in the valley | Image courtesy: Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative

KYAI has faced and braved so many challenges to script steps of groundbreaking change. The struggle is still persistent to conduct workshops in conservative spaces where even Co-Education is  sometimes a taboo. Moreover, workshops can hardly be conducted in winters due to heavy snowing. Besides, the obvious concern of safety and security of participants during weekend workshops often looms large due to unpredictable violent confrontations between police and protesters.

Amidst all this turmoil and chaos, the story to tell about the people of Kashmir for Hayat isn’t about their suffering, but their courage to stay hopeful and happy. “You would still find them celebrating within their houses, trying their own capacities to stay joyous and happy. The entire family would gather around for a night of delicious dinner and conversations. The story everyone knows is of the unfortunate that befalls in the state and goes out in media, but not many know of the courage of common citizens to stand up to such adversities and live their life as meaningfully as possible”

Kashmir Youth Arts Initiative has been taking rampant and massive strides for mental healing in a tumultuous Kashmir Valley. You can get in touch with them or know more about their work by contacting here

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