Art scene in Kashmir: A Palette of Problems and Promise

When militancy broke out in Kashmir in 1990, it was accompanied by a violent response from the state. These two opposing phenomena set-off new narratives and a new socio-political dynamic. There was a sudden movement: from life to death; from ‘order’ to disorder; from dwelling to displacement; from volume to silence; from calm to commotion; from appearance to disappearance.

When poet Agha Shahid Ali visited Kashmir the last time, he wrote seven couplets which he then handed over to Srinagar-based artist Masood Hussain. Shahid wanted Masood to render the couplets into visual form. But, after Shahid’s death in 2001, his request somehow slipped out of Masood’s mind. The couplets lay stored for several years in a closet at Masood’s Jawahar Nagar residence in Srinagar.
Somewhere in the middle of 2013, Masood found these couplets and immediately began painting them to keep his long pending promise. But while Masood kept his word, though belatedly, a catastrophe struck. It was threatening to wash away humans along with all their creations. Masood had little hope the paintings would survive.

It was September 2014 and Srinagar was hit by an unprecedented flood. The flood waters surged into the second storey of Masood’s house. Like most others, Masood was struggling to get himself out to safety. This collection of paintings based on Agha Shahid’s poetry was among the few things he could salvage. “I placed these on the attic but it made me uneasy for the rest of the days to think whether these would remain safe,” recalls Masood.
Somehow Masood’s promise to Shahid, the magic of his paintings and the resonant power of Shahid’s poetry worked. The paintings remained safe. “Infact, only these survived,” says Masood who had to rebuild everything he lost to the floods. “I could manage to reconstruct my house only because of the sales of my artworks.”

Masood then points to a bleak reality of the art scene in Kashmir. “All these sales took place outside the Valley.”

Like Masood, all artists in Kashmir face the same crisis. They rarely make sales in the local market and have to rely on markets outside. That obviously has a dampening effect on the artists’ minds and their artistic output.

Art galleries provide a space for discourse, healing, mutual support, and criticality. It’s healing to have conversations within the collective and strategize how to move ahead in the field of art

Despite significant progress in education, living standards, emergence of private sector and other socio-economic factors, the art market has never really taken off in Kashmir. Artists and art critics attribute this to a variety of reasons. They point out the absence of a dedicated art gallery and lack of art literacy as the main reasons.

Most of the activities in the field of art in Kashmir are directly or indirectly dependent upon the government. Either these activities take place from government-owned platforms or are sponsored by the state. In such a scenario only those artistic activities become possible which promote and favour state policies. This apart, state interference and control of intellectual and artistic domains are routine affairs in Kashmir.

But for genuine art to flourish, it is crucial to have an environment that favours freedom of thought, values the independence of artistic ideas and expression. Painter and performance artist Ehtisham Azhar alludes to the same point. “Artists can’t do without thought. They want freedom to express their thoughts. They want to live on their own terms. They don’t care about being politically correct,” says Ehtisham.

Adolf Hitler controlled all artistic expressions in his Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s. He wanted artists to follow a set of thoughts to propagate his ideology. In effect, art in such conditions became a tool of state propaganda. But artists in then Germany found a way around it. To experience their freedom, a group of ‘degenerate’ artists went underground, conducted shows but never asked for a gallery. They thought the idea of having a gallery would imply ‘institutionalization of art’ — something that can be applied to the production of artistic works in Kashmir as well.

Although, most artists feel the absence of an art gallery in Kashmir hurts the art scene here, it probably also saves art from being completely co-opted by the state and misused to further its narrative.

Having a private art gallery also doesn’t seem to work out. For one, business houses here have no interest in such ventures as the commercial revenue from these projects is next to nothing. Two, such endeavors usually fail to take off because of undue state interference as politics gets in the way.

In 2014, Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, a local artist took on lease some space in a government-owned building at the TRC, Srinagar to set up a privately-run art gallery. Apparently the idea of artists getting a private space to exhibit their work didn’t go to the liking of the government. It soon had the space cleared, although the authorities are quoting other reasons for shutting down Rizvi’s gallery.

But the absence of an art gallery has never stopped the practice and existence of art in any place. Nor has state control over artistic freedoms stopped artists from producing art.

In Egypt in the run-up to the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship few years ago, Egyptian artists had painted enormous graffiti on the famous Mohamed Mahmoud Street graffiti wall at the American University in Cairo (AUC) building in support of the revolution. But after the ousting of the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Morsi, a counter revolution saw a military dictatorship back in power. Soon after, the AUC decided that the wall needed to be broken down to make way for a building. The wall was taken down and the graffiti was also destroyed in the process. Some of the artists who had created that graffiti went over to see the broken graffiti wall. They searched through the rubble for bits and pieces of their artwork. Later, they asked the AUC to leave the rubble there for a day so that they could transport it to some other place. The artists scavenged through the debris and picked up pieces of the wall that had their graffiti painted on them. That was loaded on a truck and transported to a safe place. The artists are now planning to create something new out of these broken pieces of the graffiti wall and put up a work of installation art some day.

Events set off by the happenings after 1990 and the resulting political changes gradually became evident in Kashmiri artists’ works. Tones and symbols of hopelessness, suffering, anguish and agony crept into the artistic themes

That probably points to the power of art and why governments want to control it. Art survives destruction as much as it lives off curbs and controls on it to become a visual chronicle of times.

Kashmiri artists too have been producing quality artistic work despite a host of problems including the lack of a physical space to exhibit their work. The emergence of internet and the affiliated social media platforms it provides has, in the view of some artists, made up for the absence of an art gallery. It undoubtedly helps artists to showcase their work to a global audience. They don’t have to spend huge sums to travel around with their work to find contracts and buyers.

Saaqib Bhat, a student at Kashmir’s only art school, Institute of Music and Fine Arts (IMFA), feels the internet can be utilised to good effect at the commercial level. “I think internet is the best place to market your work. This diminishes the need to have a gallery,” says Saaqib.

But he doesn’t dismiss the need to have an art gallery all together. “Having a gallery is just an added benefit.”

One thing that cannot be expected on internet is the physical space it provides where people can just more than see a work of art. Displaying work online doesn’t have the same aura or feel of being inside an art gallery and having an intimate and studied look at the art work. Applied artist Zargar Zahoor who taught for over 40 years at the art department, Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi also doesn’t see the internet as a favourable option. “The students here have internet but it’s not a good option. There is a difference between what people see when you upload a painting and when they see it in person,” says Zargar.

Veer Munshi has been into art for over 40 years and is considered by many as one of Kashmir’s finest artists. He believes internet is an important platform to showcase art, but not a replacement for a gallery. “We need spaces for conversations and movements to make a concrete difference. There is something special about being inside an art gallery full of people that you can’t experience online,” says Munshi.

He believes art galleries also provide opportunities for exchange of critical ideas about art and related matters. “Art galleries provide a space for discourse, healing, mutual support, and criticality that comes from a shared experience. It’s healing to have conversations within the collective and strategize how to move ahead in the field of art.”

Munshi’s emphasis on ‘healing’ through shared experience is an important marker and pointer of his personal life. Circumstances forced him to leave Srinagar soon after the events that unfolded in Kashmir after 1990.

As Munshi points out, producing artworks does not always have to be a commercial enterprise. Art has many functions in a society. But when artists find no buyers for their work, they are unable to fund their future projects let alone find sustenance out of their work. The artists’ interest and motivation wane in such a discouraging market scenario.

A class of people in Kashmir spends overwhelmingly on other aspects of their lives some of which are pure luxuries or even fetishes. Pointing to these socio-economic preferences, Masood Hussain bemoans that people have a lot of money to spend elsewhere save art. “People are ready to invest in better interiors for their homes, but buying an artwork is hardly considered,” complains Masood, who has been producing excellent works of art in varied media for over 40 years.

Even applied artists, whose main job is to make creative designs for big and small commercial projects, find it difficult to make money in Kashmir. This, despite Kashmir being a traditional hub of commercially-manufactured artisanal crafts.

Applied artist Zargar says an artist’s skills are required in designing everything you encounter everyday, but, adds Zargar, in Kashmir as an artist you are reduced to making sign boards. “There is a designer behind everything: a chair, a smart phone and even a chocolate wrapper. It is the job of an applied artist to make these. But in Kashmir, they get confined to designing hoardings or number plates. It is difficult to make money as such.”

What discourages artists further is the state of affairs of the institutions entrusted with promoting art in Kashmir. Zargar had to spend all his productive years outside Kashmir while he could have made immense contributions to the promotion of art in Kashmir. He was with the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, considered as a vanguard institution for promoting artistic and literary activities in Kashmir. Zargar taught at the Academy-run art school for 4 years before moving to Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. “The authorities used to demean and take the faculty of Fine Arts for granted. We were considered to be street performers and would be called to perform before people on events organised by the government. That was not for us to do,” says Zargar.

The IMFA is the premier and only institution to train artists in Kashmir and till recently the institution was housed in a private building in the city. The previous year it was shifted to the main campus of Kashmir University at Hazratbal. But artists don’t seem to be impressed with the way the University is handling the course.

“There is no improvement. Lack of facilities and exposure are still the problems faced by the students,” says Masood. IMFA is a full-fledged department of Kashmir University, but is yet to start a Master’s course in music and fine arts, compelling students to move out to continue their studies.

Art students aren’t happy either about the treatment their work gets at the University campus. Sculptures placed around the University campus of IMFA are routinely vandalized by students from other departments. Artists at IMFA say this tells us something about how commoners value art works. “Nobody cares about the hours an artist spends on making these sculptures. Students find a strange pleasure in damaging the artworks displayed around the building for they don’t know the worth of these works,” says a student of IMFA.

Despite incidents of such unsavoury treatment to artworks, artists believe there is an increasing interest in art and art-related activities among Kashmiris.

“Interest in art and ‘art literacy’ are not measured by the number of art works sold,” says Yousuf Naqshbandi, an artist who graduated from the IMFA some 25 years ago and now teaches art at the Biscoe school. He recalls that artists in his childhood days were called rangsaaz — a word usually used for commercial house painters. “But today people ascribe different qualities to artist. Words like vision, inspiration, divinely gifted, etc., are associated with artists,” adds Naqshbandi pointing to a better appreciation of art and the artist among common people.

Yousuf has a different take on students willing to take up art as a profession. He says he has seen students lack interest, lose interest and also develop interest in art. “There is a feeling of achievement to be inspired, to develop interest and take up art as a profession.”

Ehtisham Azhar does not hesitate in questioning the role of senior artists in promoting art literacy and appreciation of art in the Valley. “Some artists only think of developing art for society after they secure their careers. That is unfair. Common people are never to be blamed for their ignorance regarding art. We are responsible for how the common man connects with art,” says Ehtisham.

The history of Kashmir Valley is long and storied. Kashmir’s literature is laced with accounts about Rishis, Maharajas, mystics, saints, mythical figures, mystical themes, natural beauty and others. Of late, themes of political struggle, displacements and disappearances, sufferings and suppression have also entered the domain of Oasis in desert literature and art. What Yousuf Naqshbandi acrylic on canvas is little known and even less appreciated is the uniqueness of artistic expression in Kashmir through a nuanced use of local aesthetics and idiom.

The impossibly beautiful landscapes, the seemingly dripping streams of blood on canvases or the poignant photographic portrayals in newspapers every morning, all have narrated stories from Kashmir in different ways. The content of today’s artistic expression is different. So is its framing and perspectivisation. It is obviously influenced by happenings in the realm of socio-economic-political-personal lives of the people. There was a different dynamic driving the artistic expression of the decades gone by. Today another set of realities drives it. Like other regions, the art practices in Kashmir have been through constant changes, taking influences in, sending them out.

When militancy broke out in Kashmir in 1990, it was accompanied by a violent response from the state. These two opposing phenomena set-off new narratives and a new socio-political dynamic. There was a sudden movement: from life to death; from ‘order’ to disorder; from dwelling to displacement; from volume to silence; from calm to commotion; from appearance to disappearance.

Events set-off by the happenings after 1990 and the resulting political changes gradually became evident in Kashmiri artist’s works. Tones and symbols of hopelessness, suffering, anguish and agony crept into the artistic themes.“It started getting darker, with shades of black and red being used predominantly,” says Masood.

Veer Munshi has been witness to the plight of other artists who had to leave Kashmir in the wake of the events of 1990s. “The exodus led to a survival crisis. It was very difficult for many artists to adapt quickly to the change. There were financial problems. Many artists could not adjust to the competition in the big cities and the change in themes. This led many of them to abandon art and take up other jobs,” says Munshi.

Munshi believes that post-1990, art began to emerge as “catharsis”. He continued his artistic work, but the themes were additional. “I witnessed a tragedy and reflected that through my artworks. I did not focus on one facet in particular. I painted exodus, stone pelters, disappearances, and floods lately.”

Munshi’s 1995 work Fate of a Kashmiri Pandit, narrates the stories of the Pandit community after its migration from Kashmir. “I am living miles away but I am most connected to my roots, and what I have experienced will continue to reflect in my work.”

Militancy, repression and crackdown by state forces brought an end to the art camps that were a usual feature on Kashmir’s artscape before 1990. The disruption also created a disconnect within the artist community as well as between artists and the people. “We had no place to gather and discuss the happenings in the art world,” recalls Masood about that period. Artists were compelled to take their work outside Kashmir to distant places far removed from their roots. “Every year artists would gather at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai and exhibit their work,” says Masood.

Till the middle of the ‘90s decade, there was a lull in Kashmir’s artscape. Then in 1995 a group of young artists joined hands for the revival of art in Kashmir. They called themselves Contemporary Art Foundation Artists’ Commune. It worked from 1995 to 1999. The group included painters, students of IMFA, its alumni, and even enthusiasts from other disciplines. They sought to breathe some vibrancy into the art scene here that had been lost to the tumultuous circumstances. They organised exhibitions with a motive of bringing together the artists and sharing their ideas and works.

“It did create a stir. Local newspapers covered it with enthusiasm selling it as hope. Some literary organizations approached for sponsorship, and ironically army officers became the best buyers of our work,” recalls Waseem Mushtaq who was then a member of the commune and is now a lecturer in the department of Fine Art at Aligarh Muslim University.

The group disbanded in 1999 due to “lack of encouragement from a section of the artists’ community,” believes Mushtaq.

Then the lull returned although artists continued their work at individual levels.

But, gradually things changed and are now looking up. People in general are showing better understanding of art and the youth are taking art as a serious profession looking at it beyond as a means of getting a government job.

Zubair Kirmani, a well-known Kashmiri fashion designer left engineering to be a designer. “He was enthusiastic about learning graphic designing. He would approach me for a long time to learn the basics of designing even when art was not his subject,” recalls his teacher Naqshbandi.

Before artists were taken seriously as artists, they were thought to be no more than artisans. There was no understood distinction between an artist and a craftsman. Even the artist looked at himself and his work with some degree of doubt not being sure about what he was doing was right or not. These perceptions are now changing. There is a different and positive thinking at play about how artists work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of — even about what art is and what its function in the society is.

Art today is not thought to be a ‘painting job’. It has come to be appreciated as a collective concept that incorporates anything from dance to music to theatre, literature to photography, graphic designing to film making and much more. Today people are able to distinguish each of these forms of art. Most importantly, they recognize the varied functions of art — art as a profession like any other, or as a hobby, art for preserving values of culture, traditions and spirituality, art as a visual record and interpretation of events at a particular intersection of history, and art for art’s sake.

Art for art’s sake is also picking up in Kashmir as amateurs find it an effective vehicle for their expression and interpretation of socio-political themes. Adil Zargar, an MPhil scholar in Linguistics Department of Kashmir University and a self-taught artist, did not opt for art as a career despite his deep interest in it. “I knew I was good at painting so why do a course in it? I can still be an artist without having a formal degree in art,” says Adil.

The exodus led to a survival crisis. It was very difficult for many artists to adapt quickly to the change. There were financial problems. Many artists could not adjust to the competition in the big cities and the change in themes. This led many of them to abandon art and take up other job

Ehtisham Azhar also believes some fresh air is wafting through the artscape in Kashmir as new thinking and themes seep in. He says fresh trends and paradigms are emerging in the art world. “It is no longer just Picasso and Michelangelo. You have a legacy, but we need a point of departure. Now it is us. It is what we observe in our daily lives. Anyone who says otherwise would be sticking to archaic ideas. And that’s not the way forward,” says Ehtisham.

There is another welcome trend making itself visible on the art scene in Kashmir. No matter how much or little people know about art, they are very expressive about their admiration for artworks. That may not though translate into sales for the artists’ work at the market level. That brings us back to the issue of the lack of market for artistic works in Kashmir. But as Masood Hussain points out, growing appreciation of art means there is some hope and promise in the palette. “Leave aside buying, people here now appreciate the aesthetics of artworks even if they don’t understand the technicalities. That’s the first indication of the beginning of a new art scene in Kashmir,” says Masood.

But Ehtisham differs on this point. He feels for a vibrant and successful art scene, there has to be more than just an appreciation of the aesthetics in a work of art. “The least successful art for me is art that people see but feel nothing, and the most successful is art that people think about forever,” says Ehtisham. He says art should not separate but make us feel the entirety of our being. “Art that thinks about space and time and the things that make us human and whole, and not about what separates us is the most powerful art for me. Art should make the people feel something.”

Ehtisham is also critical of Kashmir’s senior artists. “I would like to ask the senior artists of Kashmir as to what have they done. They haven’t created a base for young artists. Their work is redundant. In fact, the work of young artists is more interesting as they are breaking the set frames.”

Ehtisham’s words probably offer some secret prescription for adding some fresh tones and ideas to the canvas of Kashmir’s art scene.

—With additional reporting by Marouf Gazi

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