The story of art in Kashmir is bound inextricably with that of craft. While crafts – and by extension, craftsmen – are thick on the ground, art in the Valley is confined to a tiny school in capital Srinagar, which operates out of a rented building in a housing colony. While craftsmen have, by and large, a ready market and a large network, albeit outside the state, artists are part of no charmed circle. They paint in the seclusion of their homes, there is no public appreciation of their work within Kashmir, there isn’t a single gallery where they can display their talent, and even if there was, it is unlikely that they would find any takers.
“Why single out only fine art?” thunders Zahoor Zargar, the most articulate of Kashmir’s artists, who has been living in Delhi for close on three decades now. “In the absence of any discipline approaching applied art, even Kashmir’s hospitals and streets don’t have eloquent signages, the way other cities have.” Zargar, now in his fifties, remembers how he was encouraged to draw in school, so that he “would be able to execute science diagrams with ease.” For a state that was in the forefront of the Progressive movement, along with Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, Kashmir would appear to have regressed by giant leaps into a coma.
“The reason is not far to see,” says Mir Imtiaz, also based in Delhi. “Whereas every other university in the world has a vibrant art department, the College of Art in Srinagar is an uneasy part of the Cultural Academy, a somewhat moribund institution, bristling with bureaucracy. The university, contrary to promises made 15 years ago by political heavyweights, remains without an art department.”
Masood Husain, who recently exhibited his relief works on canvas in Delhi, feels that craft has more or less strangulated art. “Even during the height of militancy, no craftsman ever starved for the lack of a market. We, on the other hand, have to exhibit in Delhi. And whereas craft is a well-recognized, if not a prestigious profession, artists have no such stature.” Husain, one of the handful of Kashmiri artists who has made the switch from craft to art – his maternal grandfather was a paper mache painter – teaches in the College of Art, Srinagar, and has resorted to the expedient of painting pretty water colour landscapes for hotel lobbies. His real creativity never sees the light of day in Srinagar: it was squirreled away for his exhibition in Delhi. Fretwork windows with bas-relief figures, canvases textured with paint-soaked fabrics, bowls of oil paint in a broken open box, the world according to his exhibition was one of human turmoil, deprivation and suffering.
That, according to Shabir Santosh, son of Kashmir giant G R Santosh, is the posterization of art. “Art has to be an internalized emotion that reflects a universal truth. It cannot merely be a knee-jerk response to an external stimulus.” Santosh rubbishes theories that the Cultural Academy’s stranglehold on the College of Art has led to it being stifled. “It can’t be a part of the University. Where are the trained teachers?” Even he, however, is aghast at the plight of art in the Valley. “Nature is the best teacher,” he concedes. “And when nature is so bountiful in Kashmir, there should be more art than there is.”
Mir Imtiaz, whose limestone sculptures convey the powerful piety of Sufism in the Valley, meanwhile, is trying to come to grips with a life led outside his beloved Kashmir. “My medium is too bulky to be constantly transported from Kashmir. I have, perforce, to seek other media.” His job in Jamia Millia University in the sculpture section of the Art Department fills his working day. But his mind is busy with thoughts of home. “There is nobody of any stature at all in Kashmir today who is bent on keeping alive Kashmiri traditions. Even the famous Hazratbal shrine is too alien to the syncretic Sufi tradition of Buddhist pagodas atop a wood and stone edifice. The original building was simply razed to the ground to make way for this all-marble structure, which sits askew in the landscape of Kashmir.”
However, if Noushad Gayoor is to be believed, that art exists at all in Kashmir is a direct throwback to the rich craft tradition. “It is in our blood. How else do you explain that the minority Shia community, of which I am a member, has produced so many artists?” Gayoor, whose father is a painter of some renown, has founded a tiny art foundation in a private home in Srinagar, where “artists can come and work and discuss each other’s work”, but he has his eye firmly fixed on a plot of land in the heart of Srinagar, currently occupied by a State Government office. “It has a garden for sculptures and a building where exhibitions can be held.” Currently, whatever art exhibitions are held in the Valley, are because of the magnanimity of colleges who let out their auditoria for a couple of days.
Unlike most of the other artists, Gayoor sees no dichotomy between art and craft. Indeed, the plot of land that he covets so fervently, is cheek by jowl with the Central Arts Emporium, so that art and craft can lie side by side. “Locals will visit out of curiosity at first, but at least they will become accustomed to art for its own sake. That is not happening now,” he laments.
To Zahoor Zargar goes the last word. Furiously doodling patterns of light and shade on the back of an envelope, he mutters, “I’m in Delhi teaching applied art to college kids in Jamia Millia University. Buyers come to me for my work – oils on canvas, charcoal and pen and ink drawings of cityscapes of Old Srinagar. And though I paint images of Kashmir compulsively, I know that if I go back, it will be as the flunkey of some director of the Cultural Academy who will want to know what colour to paint his house.”
Amidst the usual gripes of “The government should do something to awaken the art culture in Kashmir,” the writing on the wall is plain to see: the surprise is not that there is so little art in Kashmir, but that there is any at all.