A private art gallery opened last week in Regal Chowk, Srinagar, and is already causing a stir with its first exhibition – a solo by its owner, Iajaz Naqshbandi, 63, a town planner. The 24 oil paintings in this 600 square foot space offer views of the lush Kashmir countryside devoid of any human and urban presence, reflecting Naqshbandi’s desire for clean and open spaces in the valley.
Naqshbandi had moved to Saudi Arabia and lived there for 30 years. During his travels across the country, all he could see were views of a barren desert, minus any evergreen trees or gushing streams. Over time, he began to appreciate and miss the Kashmir valley for its abundant rivers, lakes, streams and vast alpine forests. However, when he returned to Srinagar in 2018, he was disappointed to find that the waters of Dal Lake were no longer pure and its shores were full of illegal encroachments. Many rice paddies had given way to settlements.
With the aim of retracing a time and a life lost during her childhood, Naqshbandi decided to paint from memory. His paintings depicted places he had visited in the valley in 1983 for his research project at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. Without its touristic allure, his painting of Dal Lake generally appears austere. Another oil on canvas work looks blurry at first glance, but take a step back and you can make sense of a Kashmiri village after another rain. Also on display are photographs of the land’s native bird varieties.
This unique theme of serene and panoramic views runs through the entire gallery, under different titles. Some titles are brief: ‘learning to marvel’ and ‘the beauty of the sunset’. Others are whole sentences: ‘when the glaciers slowly melt and the rivers are full of water’ and ‘in your nature is peace, in your nature I find myself’. Now, Naqshbandi expects artists and art lovers to visit his gallery and approach him to organize exhibitions. “I’m not an artist, but I wanted to create a space where artists could sit, discuss and display their works through exhibitions,” says Naqshbandi.
For the past decades, many attempts have been made to open at least one art gallery in Kashmir. But for one reason or another, the project never saw the light of day.
In 1976, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah announced the establishment of a cultural center (Tehzeeb Mahal) which would house an art gallery with plans to feature artists Abanindranath Tagore and Dr Percy Brown, who frequently visited Kashmir. He chose Emporium Garden, located opposite Doordarshan Center Srinagar as the location. The foundations were laid, work had begun, but Sheikh died and his successors abandoned the project saying the location was not feasible. In the 1980s, the government chose a location in the Gagribal area on the shores of Dal Lake. Consultants were flown in from Pune and work on the gallery began in full swing. But in the mid-1980s the High Court issued an order prohibiting any construction within a mile of the lake and the project was abandoned.
In 2003, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took office as Chief Minister and insisted on opening an art gallery at Sher Garhi Palace, a heritage building from the Dogra era symbolizing Anglo-Kashmir architecture and used as a cultural complex. assembly until 2008 by successive J&K governments. He formed a committee under the chairmanship of the then-Secretary J&K Cultural Academy. The committee gave a report that the palace is not ideal for an art gallery. After Omar Abdullah became chief minister in 2008, his government pursued the idea of building Tehzeeb Mahal, this time in space adjacent to the Srinagar Tourist Welcome Center. Work on the project began in 2013 and seven crores have been spent. Then in 2015 Governor NN Vohra, after coming to power, found the place unsuitable for an art gallery.
That same year, Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, opened the first art gallery in Kashmir in a space provided by the state government in the tourism department. Rizvi, then 26, had returned to Kashmir after completing a post-graduate course in Innovation Management and Art Extension at Goldsmiths University in London. The gallery actually opened doors, held exhibitions where artists started exhibiting their work here. Then, out of the blue, the state government asked Rizvi to leave the building. In fact, he didn’t have enough time to move. The works were removed and the gallery closed abruptly.
In 2016, the Mehbooba Mufti government chose Sher Garhi Palace to be transformed into an art gallery. The Indian government provided Rs 137 crore for its setup. The palace complex comprises quadrangular buildings made entirely of stone with wooden doors, windows, ceilings and roofs. The structure is ready to function as an art space if the government agrees.
Until then, Naqshbandi has offered artists and locals a compelling alternative.