The last time Ratan Parimoo, an art history professor based in Baroda, visited his hometown Srinagar was in 1987. The 82-year-old made an emotional trip back this June for Concourse, an exhibition of 60 artists’ works that was held at the century-old filature at Srinagar’s historic silk factory. “I arrived at my birthplace on my birthday,” he said, over the phone from Baroda. “There was personal sentiment for me. My eyes were continuously welling up for three days.”
Parimoo was among 27 Kashmiri artists based in different parts of India who were part of Concourse, which also featured the works of 33 artists who live in the state. The exhibition from June 18 to June 24 did not just breathe a new life into an abandoned heritage building – it also brought together artists from the estranged Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim communities, many of whom were meeting one another for the first time. The factory’s whitewashed brick walls, uneven cement floors, and rustic wooden overhead beams were a perfect backdrop for the artworks and captured the essence of the exhibition’s title.
“The venue was part of the concept,” said Mujtaba Rizvi, the Srinagar-based artist on whose initiative the exhibition was held. “The curational idea [was] of filling a void and the venue also needed to be part of the idea.”
In 2009, Rizvi, an engineering graduate who went on to pursue a master’s degree in art at the Goldsmiths, University of London, set up Kashmir Art Quest in Srinagar, an organisation to promote art in the Valley. In June 2010, it held its first exhibition but on the last day, a young schoolboy was killed in police action against a stone-pelting mob and the Valley plunged into unrest for months. “Witnessing the volatile situation and the violence after the incident, gave us a push to revive the art scene as a medium of intervention in some areas,” said Rizvi.
That journey has not been easy at all, though. Rizvi says that decades of conflict have taken a toll on the once vibrant culture of Kashmir and art is no longer a priority. Bureaucratic red tape and a general lack of appreciation of art have made things difficult. In 2015, Rizvi’s art gallery, Gallerie One, was vandalised by government officials in an attempt to clear the government-owned hall. He had established it after two years of deliberations to chalk out a workable business model. “It was a centre for contemporary arts and research with a completely international focus,” he said. “It had a digital media lab, an archiving and cataloguing centre, the art gallery, a research division and a library.”
During the vandalism, Rizvi said important data stored digitally for a future open-access database was lost. “We had started building a digital database of historical and cultural objects and texts,” he said. “The research centre would build on the database and how others would use it to produce publications, help curate shows and foster further research.” The intended digital lab was the “heart” of the gallery, he said. “But exploring and promoting a creative and cultural economy was at the centre of everything that happened at Gallerie One.”
Organising Concourse was difficult, too. “For a typical bureaucrat, it’s about protocol,” said Rizvi. “He doesn’t realise the significance of 60 artists coming together [for an exhibition] after more than 60 years.” The last time Srinagar witnessed the coming together of artists from different communities was in 1951, when 24 artists held an exhibition at a restaurant called the Riviera on the Jhelum riverfront, according to Rizvi. The idea behind Concourse, Rizvi emphasised, was to promote harmony but also to “bridge gaps between the two communities” and revive the art scene in Kashmir. He said more than a thousand visitors were at the exhibition’s opening day.
For Tabeenah Anjum Qureshi, a Jaipur-based Kashmiri journalist and an avid photographer, visiting the exhibition was a holiday well-spent. “It’s a beautiful idea where one can walk into [a] heritage [space] and appreciate both the place and the works of artists,” she said. “I have walked past these abandoned buildings a couple of times and every time I wished to go inside but couldn’t. This time I could because of this exhibition and I am thankful to the organisers.”
For the artists, the exhibition provided a space in which to forge new networks and explore future collaborations. Especially for Kashmir-based artists, this was an opportunity to interact with veterans and get feedback on their work. Zoya Khan, a Srinagar-based architect and artist, said, “The real sense of achievement was to be able to bring together people from diverse backgrounds. It was not just an exhibition of artwork but the beginning of a dialogue.” Khan derives inspiration for her art from the old parts of Srinagar city and on display at the exhibition were three of her digital artworks – beautiful montages of vernacular Kashmiri architecture and fabrics.
Though Kashmir is home, 55-year-old Delhi-based artist and filmmaker, Chushul Mahaldar, has rarely visited since 1989, the year many from the Kashmiri Pandit community fled the turmoil in the Valley. One of the two artworks Mahaldar showed at the exhibition was about his struggle with the loss of home: “I get a feeling that I am stuck in wires and the pain is no less than blood shedding.”
For years Mahaldar did not visit the Valley, he said, “Not because of the threat of being killed, but I was afraid of going back to my own place, where I had lived a carefree life.” His visit to Kashmir for the exhibition helped clear many preconceived notions. The artists who visited from outside Kashmir had a chance during this visit to walk around their old neighbourhoods in downtown Srinagar, where they had lived before moving out of the Valley. “The best part was that we were within our own fraternity,” he said. “It was a great feeling of togetherness.”
Parimoo was impressed by the high quality of creative work produced by his Valley-based juniors and counterparts. “One could feel that it reflected some kind of despair also,” he said of the situation these artists have grown up in. “They have expressed the present unhappy situation of the Valley.”
Though more needs to be done to revive the art scene in the Valley, for now, Mahaldar said, the exhibition “served its purpose”.