When my grandfather was hospitalised a few years ago, the doctor, on examining him, asked us about the scars on his back. That was when I first found out about how my grandfather had offered refuge to several Kashmiri Muslims who were followers of Sheikh Abdullah in the 1930s, and had suffered severe blows on his back from a lathi charge from the Maharaja’s soldiers,” narrates Rajesh Prothi, editor and founder of The Cherry Tree.
“My father, Manohar Prothi, a veteran broadcaster on Kashmiri radio, was just as dedicated as my grandfather was to bringing the valley’s communities together,” reveals Prothi, who is keen on carrying forward the family legacy. The creation of the website (www.thecherrytree.in), a portal dedicated to the arts, culture and people of Kashmir, is his way of cutting across religions, communities and generations in the valley.
Bridging the gap
Prothi, who grew up in Srinagar and moved to Jammu after militancy rose in the valley in the 1990s, shifted base to New Delhi decades ago to pursue a career as a journalist. “During my recent trips back home, I realised that the kids in college were completely oblivious to what Kashmir was like in my grandfather’s time. I felt it was important for them to know about the culture and the innocence that once abounded in the valley,”
After toying with the idea of setting up a website for about a year, he managed to launch The Cherry Tree in April, timing it with the opening of the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar. Prothi uploads poems, articles, short stories and interviews relevant to Kashmir, but makes sure to steer clear of religious and political issues.
“You will often find a tinge of nostalgia in the interviews, which are of people who I feel have made a significant contribution to Kashmir. For instance, I spoke to Nazir Bakshi, who can be credited with convincing Yash Chopra to shoot Jab Tak Hai Jaan in Kashmir. During the interview, he talked about how during a shoot in Pahalgam years ago, Rekha wanted to join the local ladies working in the rice paddies,” reveals Prothi. The articles about culture, which cover food, clothes, art, or the fact that Kashmir was the first princely state to issue stamps, tend to highlight the fact that Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims came from the same stock. “Kashmir, it is believed, is the only place in the world where you will find Muslims singing. This is because the conversion was a peaceful one and many of the customs that existed remained the same,” offers the editor.
While Prothi leans towards unpublished material for his literary section, Gaash (which means light), he bent his rules a bit for Mohammed Tabish’s poem A Story of Exile. “It is a wonderfully sensitive poem. Tabish, a Muslim, writes about the misery that thousands of Kashmiri Pandits went through,” explains Prothi, who uploads an article every Friday.
“I interviewed Mirwaiz Maulvi Umar a few months ago. But before I share the interview online, I want to rid the piece of all talk of politics. I want it to be purely about Kashmiri art, culture and society,” says Prothi, revealing what readers can expect in the upcoming weeks. “I have also sourced the audio of the Zubin Mehta show that was held in Srinagar recently, and hope to upload that soon. I also intend to share a rather controversial documentary, Hafiz Nagma, which is about a song in the praise of Lord Shiva,” he adds.
While most of the readers hail from Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir, Prothi is thrilled that a lot of Pakistanis log on to his site too. The website, and its Facebook page, sometimes face abusive language but Prothi chooses to ignore it. “At such times, it is essential to look at the larger picture. Currently the visibility of art and culture in Kashmir has definitely gone down. Even though the Zubin Mehta concert was hosted by the state, half the people there don’t want to talk about it,” rues Prothi, who hopes that his focus on nthe art and culture on his website can revive the Kashmir of yore.
Making a change
soon after the launch of the website, one of Prothi’s colleagues received a phone call early one morning. “The young caller from Kashmir gave her a piece of his mind. He said he had been through the site and demanded to know how people sitting in Delhi could possibly think they’d know how Kashmiris were suffering. As soon as I found out about this, I called him back and had a long chat with him. I made him realise he had no clue what Kashmir had been like. After my talk with him, he apologised for his misbehaviour. Now, he’s a regular visitor and often he’s the first one to ‘like’ our stories,” reveals Prothi. “So I believe there is hope for a change in people’s thoughts. Perhaps it’ll be slow, but I’m sure we can achieve it,”