One would think arts student Bilal Ahmad would be in a good mood. He earned his graduate degree in August and his jarring, brightly coloured paintings have won numerous national competitions. Yet his recollection of a violent 1993 confrontation in his native Bijbehara reveals a seething soul.

“A big crowd had gathered in the market and they reached a peak, protesting against the security forces,” said Ahmed, 23, who was a young boy watching with his parents at the time. “Suddenly the security forces opened fire,” he said, staring out the window with saucer-wide eyes and quivering lips. “So many people were killed, there was blood everywhere...I was shocked. Shocked. To see all those people shot? I was so shocked and frightened.”

He paused and blinked once, twice, before turning to face his questioner.

“That was when I started to think.”

Rarely seen, occasionally mourned, and on the brink of extinction, the Kashmiri artist is not unlike the mythic snow leopard that supposedly still prowls the Valley’s sheltering mountains. More than twenty years of governmental and societal ignorance, educational disinterest, and a cultural shift away from creativity have endangered all variety of fine arts in Kashmir.

The conflict too has played a part, as pervasive fear and an erosion of freedom have placed creative endeavours – often considered subversive – in the crosshairs of the authorities. As artists and musicians look elsewhere to start or further their careers, the Institute of Music and Fine Arts has become one of the Valley’s last bastions of creativity. Drawing on their anguish as a tool for expressing and understanding a brutal, frustrating, and often inexplicable world, its students hope to promote a deeper understanding of their past as a means to improve a cloudy future.

Created in 1965 under the auspices of the J&K Academy of Arts and Culture, the Institute peaked at approximately 150 students before the insurgency began in the late 1980’s. Today the student body is about half that.

Despite spartan rooms, minimal financial support and inadequate materials, the modern Rajbagh building crackled with life on a mid-September afternoon. Sunshine poured through large, wood framed windows, filling studios with light. Sculptural works, paintings, and exhibition photos filled the narrow cement hallways. Instructors sipped tea and chatted amiably in a cozy break room. Several painters stroked canvases with care and consideration; three music students strummed sitars for a vocal accompanist; and a sculptor chipped steel-gray granite into apple shapes with a hammer and chisel.

“When I was a kid I used to go to all these great historical places but now they’re turning into ruins,” said a diminutive, bright-eyed Snober Hassan, 21, as she flipped through computer images of her graphic design project on Kashmir’s under-appreciated monuments in a small interior office. “My main goal is to get people interested. Parents and teachers never advise their children to visit these places; the only people that see them are tourists.”

She dug up a two-inch stack of photos and pointed out her favorite sites: Nishat, which “Akbar built when he fell in love with Kashmir;” the ruins of Avantipora; and King Lalitaditya’s Sun Temple among them. “This is our legacy; why can we not protect it?” she wondered. “When we teach our kids history, why not this?...Violence is not our only history.”

Showkat Kathjoo, who graduated in 2000 and recently returned to teach, had a theory. “Because of the conflict, the Centre has been propagating culture in its own way,” he said, citing Kashmiriyat, Dal Lake and “paradise on earth” as talking points. Crafts and tourist-related artisan industries have survived and even flourished as a result, while fine arts and music have withered. “To create decent culture, arts, and literature you have to look back at your history, yet this is probably the only state whose own history has never been taught in its schools,” Showkat added. “Nobody knows the history of Kashmir, so the result has been a cultural genocide.”

The decline of arts education can be traced to an early 1980s’ National Council of Education Research and Training law that eliminated required art classes from public schools. Thus downgraded, art fell precipitously in the eyes of the public and the government. “At this point, we can’t say there’s any state of art in Kashmir,” said Sajad Hamdani, another 2000 grad who returned to the Institute this month after teaching for two years in Thailand.

He pointed out that Srinagar has no art galleries, no concert halls, no periodical publications, no debates, nor any meeting place for discussing arts and literature. Professor Masood Hussain, whose work has been exhibited internationally and who has taught at the Institute for a decade, fingered both locals and politicians. “People aren’t really aware of this particular field. They don’t see any future in art,” he said. “The government is also responsible because of ignorance; they don’t understand the artist community.”

Examples of this lack of understanding were common among the Institute’s student body. “I exhibited my work earlier this year, but people saw the paintings and left without asking what they were about, what they meant,” said Ahmad, the Bijbehara painter. “They are not interested; how can they understand?”

The result has been an artistic brain drain, as students are forced to seek graduate education and careers outside Kashmir, where they are held in greater regard. “Most students go outside the state and find success because they cannot find it here,” Hussain acknowledged.

Several have accepted prestigious fellowships and faculty members have been featured in magazine profiles and, most recently, presented works as part of an Indian Art Exhibition in Damascus, Syria this past July. The youth of today are unlikely to buck the trend. A recent study by KN Pandita, former Central Asian Studies Director at Kashmir University, found that they had borne the brunt of the mental and emotional damage wrought by the conflict. Trauma, disorientation, frustration, unemployment, and other negative pressures of the lingering insurgency have in the last decade psychologically ravaged young Kashmiris, creating a lost generation tossed by forces beyond its control. Many have turned to drugs, militancy, or crime, others to fundamentalism. Very few have found their creative side.

Hamdani foresaw a dark future.

“It’s going to be very difficult for this Institute to survive,” he said. “Full-fledged status is the most important thing now.”

Long seen as a panacea in the halls of the Institute, full-fledged status as a department of Kashmir University finally appears within reach. The arts college is only loosely affiliated with KU, which administers exams and confers official degrees. Governor SK Sinha, who also serves as KU Chancellor, and Vice Chancellor Abdul Wahid made an assessment visit in May.

“They have a very good faculty, very good students – I was deeply impressed,” Wahid said of the visit. “We thought it would be in the best interest of the Institute if we can help them by offering to take over.” Wahid is currently preparing a letter describing the specifics of the handover for Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, which he plans to send in early October. He expected a final response from Azad, who controls both education and cultural academy funding, by December.

“We want very sincerely to help this Institute,” said Wahid, who pointed out that some of the Institute’s professors were not fully qualified, that the college did not own its own building, and that it had a sizable non-teaching staff. “If we decide to take over we must take over these liabilities also. The University cannot afford to finance the whole activity, so we need this financial support from the state.”

Approval would mean double the Institute’s funding, additional infrastructure, its own building, and likely UGC moneys down the road. “Something is really cooking,” said Hussain, confident of state approval by the end of the year. “Everything would be changed.”

Not everything, according to Hamdani.

“Our society doesn’t realize the importance of culture,” he said. “When people visit a place they don’t look at the house you live in or the car you drive, the food you eat or the clothes you wear. They look at the civilisation, what type of things we’ve created, imagined, and built.

“I’m not a pessimist,” he clarified. “I hope things will get better. But the first thing we need is freedom, and that we don’t have.” Ahmad hoped to eliminate the mental and emotional imprisonment.

“That is the main point of my paintings: to address why we can’t express these things,” he said, standing next to three of his gory works, including “October 22,” which commemorates the massacre. “My work is not finished yet.”

For the students of Kashmir’s Institute of Music and Fine Arts, the work has just begun.

Excerpted with permission from Desiccated Land: An American in Kashmir, David Lepeska, Vishwakarma Publications.