When nine-year-old Fatima Shafqat and her cousins began to worship their dolls, her father Shafqat Hussain was shocked. The children folded their hands and bowed pleadingly – something they had seen in cartoons on television.
Residents of the town of Anantnag in southern Kashmir, Hussain, tried to instill in Fatima their faith and identity and to dissuade her from watching cartoons unrelated to their Kashmiri Muslim identity.
These cartoons led Fatima to believe that the hallmarks of Hindu identity were no different from their own ethos, she had also begun to greet her family with namaste, the Hindu gesture of folding hands while greeting someone, and a Tilak on her forehead.
“They were unable to understand the difference between religions and cultures,” said Hussain. “Since that day I have kept her from watching these cartoons.”
This was four years ago when Fatima was five. She watched cartoons in Hindi – the popular show Chota Bheem based on the Hindu mythological hero Bheem, and the Motu Patlu series based on two dressed up friends dhotis (a cloth tied loosely at the waist). Fatima’s other favorites were cartoons like Little Krishna, based on the childhood of the Hindu god Krishna, ed Bal Ganesh, a film based on the childhood of the Hindu god Ganesha.
Since then, Fatima has stopped adopting alien practices, but her five-year-old cousin Murtaza, with whom she watched these cartoons, has continued to do so. To add to Hussain’s shock, Murtaza recently shouted: “Jai Shree Ram (Hail Lord Ram) ”.
“I asked him how he learned these words, he said a cartoon character says it,” he said. ‘He uses Hindi words like aakraman (attack). His behavior has become more violent and aggressive. “
Despite a variety of cartoons available, parents in Kashmir – due to various restrictions, including those of the Internet – have been forced to rely on television to provide entertainment for their children at home, especially during prolonged incarceration during political unrest. However, for Kashmiri kids, India’s most popular cartoons lack cultural representation.
Lack of representation
Cartoons can be an institutional way of introducing children to the culture they belong to in an entertaining way, Hussain believes, but the lack of cultural representation means Kashmiri children are misinformed. “This leads to a kind of brainwashing,” he exclaimed.
Even children’s products – such as school bags, lunchboxes, clothing, and even toys – are centered around Hindu mythological figures, Hussain noted. “My nephew nowadays plays with a bow and arrow. And Hanuman made even that about it, ”Hussain said. “Ultimately, you have to understand who these mythological characters are and why should our children relate to them?”
As a result, his children and those he observes around him are unable to connect with and appreciate their own cultural roots. “Children today have cultural, religious, political and psychological crises,” he said. “They’re in conflict.”
Mudassir Hassan Pandith, an assistant professor of child psychology at Government Medical College in Baramulla, said that until children reach the age where they can distinguish between religions and cultures, there is often confusion in their minds. “Even my three-year-old son watches cartoons and often claims ‘I am Shiva’. Although he doesn’t know who Shiva is, ”said Pandith.
An intermediate solution, Pandith said, is to expose children to a greater diversity of cartoons to give them more perspective. “Children should be shown things that add to their knowledge and not cause confusion,” he said.
Gul Bahar Shah, a graphic narrative researcher at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, said that religious references in cartoons would only be acceptable if the references were from different religions and not just one.
These cartoons are part of right-wing propaganda. They want to assert the supremacy of a particular religion, ”she said. “They want to reject a pluralistic past.”
Shah questioned the lack of diversity in the Indian cartoon industry. “Why not cartoons telling us about Islam or another religion?” Shah asked. “There is a problem that we can’t depict prophets in cartoons, but something informative about other religions or cultures can be shown.”
Shah believes that an alternative space for children can be created through comics as they can help sharpen their memory as children need to learn its meaning. “Comics should be the transcripts of their culture, history and religion,” she said.
There is a trickle of Kashmiri artists now trying to fill the void. Among them is Ghazal Qadri, a Kashmir illustrator from the United States whose quirky depictions of Kashmiri culture have won acclaim at home.
Qadri has a degree in illustrations from the Maryland Institute College of Art and designs comics and illustrations for books and digital products. Her recent work includes illustrating a children’s book based on the story of Kashmir, Okus BokusA WhatsApp sticker pack created by Qadri is also widely used in Kashmir.
More recently, she also designed a calendar that illustrates the seasons with a nuanced representation of Kashmir. “Numerous grandparents and parents believe they have told stories to their grandchildren and children by showing them my images,” said Qadri. “The calendar makes it easy for the elderly to reinvent and redefine the scenes in which they have lived their lives, for children.”
Qadri believes that Kashmiri artists can explore a variety of media to create content that children of Kashmir can relate to. “We should not limit ourselves to a single medium. Social media can be an excellent medium to fill the void, ”she said.
Given recent developments in the world, Qadri said, cartoons representing a particular “majoritarian” religion or culture would be attributed to an attempt to intoxicate the younger audience. “I always try to get along with all the religious communities of my hometown,” she said.
Books can become another medium for children to learn about their culture and religion, Qadri added. “I plan to write or illustrate books for the younger audience in the near future,” she said. “Visuals add a component to storytelling that the text doesn’t.”