"I believe language is the backbone of any culture. If you don't know your mother tongue, what is the point of learning international languages?" asks Meanka Handu, a Kashmiri Pandit who currently resides in Noida.
Her love for "my land and culture" encouraged Handu to start creating humorous videos in Kashmiri for her YouTube channel 'Asvun Koshur' in 2017. She attempts to preserve the Kashmiri language (Koshur) and culture through these videos. Handu's channel, which translates in English as 'Smiling Kashmiri', hosts satirical stories on social issues such as drug abuse, violence against women, gender stereotypes, etc.
Handu recalls that she was in class two in her hometown in Kashmir when she experienced displacement following the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990. Despite encountering such tragedy, she points out that she has never looked at her native place and its current citizens with anything other than admiration.
"My father has always told me that I have a right to be angry but I should not be bitter," she says. Bearing this in mind, her channel also serves as a medium for spreading positivity about Kashmir, something that has been veiled under the political and social turmoil in the region. Her onscreen character Dida uses satire to address issues that are relatable to Kashmiris.
Striding towards inclusivity
"I keep saying that Kashmiris are very possessive about their culture but they are not proud of it. If they were, the least they would do is teach their kids Kashmiri or speak to them in Kashmiri at home," mentions Handu.
'Asvun Koshur' is, thus, her way of representing Kashmir without reservation.
A vertical of the channel, 'Asvun Koshur Zaan', launched in 2021, aims to provide a sense of camaraderie among Kashmiri children. In each episode of this project, Handu has been joined by a Kashmiri Muslim child and a Kashmiri Pandit child as guests for a session on the region's history, language, and culture.
"Although it saddened me that none of the children I interacted with knew the Kashmiri language, it was also overwhelming to see how they gelled with each other," she says.
Talking about how this project started as a social experiment for her, Handu mentions, "At the end of the day, we are all human beings and all we want is love. The children came with beautiful stories about their counterparts, and it was heart-warming to see that these children had not been poisoned by religious politics."
Rising through tribulation
As a social media micro-influencer, Handu is of the opinion that her gender has a major role to play in success.
She explains, "I have realised that, in comparison to a man, a woman has to work twice as hard to get half the recognition."
Handu adds that she deliberately portrays her on-screen persona Dida as an older woman, a mother to 16 and 18 year olds. Dida's seniority, she says, is a reflection of her experiences. "In this country, people mostly connect age with experience. I have realised that if I mention my actual age, I will face comments on how I have no credibility to talk about the topics that I usually focus on."
While it is true that in five years, Handu and 'Asvun Koshur' have become popular especially in Kashmir, the YouTuber mentions that she still struggles as an artist. Emphasising that being a humorist is difficult, she concludes, "To make people laugh is not easy. To present social taboos in a humorous manner takes a lot of mental labour. I don't understand that if a doctor doesn't treat you for free, how is an artist supposed to perform for bare minimum wages. It pains me to see artists like myself not being remunerated for the work we put into [creating content]."