March 27, 2015 10:04 pm

State Sanctioned Vandalism against Contemporary Art in Kashmir

On the opening day of Gallerie One, I was in a conversation with Rajendra Tickoo, Masood Hussain, Shabbir Mirza, M A Mehboob, Shaiqa Mohi and several other senior artists from Jammu and Kashmir. The opening of the first ever centre for contemporary arts and research in Kashmir was a dream come true for all of them. They told me that they had waited all their lives for such an initiative and how several great artists had died with the dream of having an art gallery in Kashmir. They were all very excited. They shook my hand again and again and hugged me before and after.

The artist Rajendra Tickoo had come especially for the opening of the gallery from Jammu, even though none of his artworks were in the opening exhibition. We all stood in a circle amidst a rush of visitors to the gallery, each artist sharing their memories. Rajendra reminded the other artists about a weird incident that had happened in the same building in 1960s – during the days of Ghulam Mohammad Bakshi – long before the building was destroyed on April 6, 2005 in an encounter between Indian armed forces and militants.

The artists had put up a show in one of the halls of the old building. These were the days when Modern Art was not really modern and the Bombay Progressive Artists’ group had recently disbanded and were not too mainstream yet. The Kashmiri artists were a league ahead, according to MA Mehboob, and had heavily influenced the progressive group. But due to lack of any space, they used to get together and organize shows in a tent at Pratap Park in Srinagar. The members of the progressive group used to visit Kashmir often and worked closely with Kashmiri artists independently or in various artist camps. But this exhibition at the old Tourist Reception Centre was too bold for the people in Kashmir especially considering its deep rooted practice in handicrafts. When Ghulam Mohammad Bakhshi (then prime minister of Kashmir) came to see the exhibition, he became so furious that the artists literally ran away jumping through the windows. “What nonsense are these paintings,” Bakshi has shouted. There were works by some of the most influential artists of the time like G.R. Santosh, Trilok Koul, S.N. Bhat, Nisar Aziz and others. The exhibition was closed.

Later, Bakhshi had visited some ‘important’ art exhibition in New Delhi and there he saw works that were formally quite similar to what he had seen in Kashmir. When he arrived back in Kashmir, he asked his officers to gather all those artists again and helped them organize another exhibition. He even acquired many artworks and was quite instrumental in the establishment of J&K Academy of arts culture and languages. Today, we don’t really know what happened to those works acquired by Bakshi. Those works used to adore the walls of old Tourist Reception Centre.

Like the disappearance of those artworks, the art scene also started to disappear from Kashmir. Probably because of the conflict. There were wars; there was the armed uprising, killings, encounters, rapes, mass graves and a lot of other horrific things to deal with.

If research is to be believed, then there is ample evidence as to how arts spur economic development, how arts boost tourism, how arts influence the social, cultural and intellectual evolution of a society. But the artists had become ghosts. Even the crafts industry was slowly decaying. Artifacts were reduced to mere objects to be sold for consumption by tourists and people outside Kashmir – In a place where the arts was deeply manifested in its traditions, economy, culture, architecture, and even religious practices. Kashmir is dying a cultural death. And the signs of this are even visible in the ugliness of its cities situated amidst jaw-dropping landscapes, as if from paradise. The irony is evident everywhere.

The J&K Academy of arts culture and languages, which boasts of one of the richest art collections, has become almost defunct today. There are still hardly any creative spaces for the artists. The lone institute of music and fine arts is in shambles. What will become of this place?

This question started to haunt me at an early age. And therefore, in August 2009 I decided to take the matter into my own hands. Kashmir Art Quest was born and we started to organize various art projects locally, nationally and internationally. We established an annual contemporary arts show, international art exchange programmes, film screening events, travelling projects, educational workshops, seminars, research projects and several other physical and online initiatives. Over the years we worked with around 500 artists worldwide and partnered with some of the most prestigious organizations and institutions. We had started to revive the art-scene in Kashmir and took it to the international stage. Young Kashmiri artists are re-living the legacy of their old masters and doing some really dynamic and exciting work – gaining critical recognition globally.

But an art gallery – a creative space – an open breathing space – was still missing in Kashmir. So I spent two years in London at Goldsmiths preparing a functional & sustainable model for a centre for contemporary arts and research in Kashmir. When I returned last year, I discussed this vision with the Ex-Director Tourism, Mr. Talat Parvez, Commissioner/Secretary Tourism & Culture, Mr. Shailendra Kumar, and other officers. Eventually we received support from the tourism department in terms of converting the main hall on the 1st Floor of the newly Constructed Tourist Reception Centre Srinagar into an art gallery. We conceived and prepared the entire project proposal, and formulated the business model. Kashmir Art Quest gave have them free advice, expertise, and personnel support to prepare a world-class gallery. We even contributed our savings, not to mention the time and energy. We worked hard day and night and our team was constantly at the construction site. The September floods disrupted some progress, but we resumed soon with greater spirit and enthusiasm. Once the space was ready, we worked closely with the artists and put together a fantastic show never conceived before. Finally Kashmir’s first ever art Gallery, Gallerie One, came into existence and was thrown open to people on 12 January 2015 at 2:00 pm.

Within one month we received global media coverage, and put together a world class exhibition of artworks by leading and emerging artists of Kashmir. Many exhibiting artists have already been recognized by galleries and institutions nationally and they have already started working with them on various projects. We also executed the first ever Design Summit to boost the creative economy in Kashmir and to bridge the gap between arts and the rest of the industry. We had already started collaborating with artists, institutions and organisations locally and internationally. Every Sunday we organized artist talks, and every Thursday we screened art documentaries which have gathered more and more public participation. Gallerie One was already becoming a major attraction for locals and tourists. What we established was no less than any public asset.

However in an unfortunate turn of events, the gallery was controversially vandalized and seized by tourism officials on Monday 23rd February 2015. We were not served with any notice, neither was any proper explanation given as to why they behaved the way they did. Artworks were damaged and all our operations came to a sudden halt as a result of their actions.

Just before Rajendra Tickoo was telling us the story of the 1960’s exhibition, the Tourism Director in his inaugural statement had called the gallery “the intellectual character of Kashmir.” Little did we know that just over a month after its opening the gallery will be vandalized, damaged and seized by the officials of the same department.

Syed Mujtaba Rizvi is an artist, and Founder, Managing Director – Kashmir Art Quest and initiator of Gallerie One, Srinagar.

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