Culture & Society

Kashmir Gets First Private Art Gallery In The Heart Of Srinagar

After a litany of failed government attempts, urban planner Iajaz Naqshbandi has succeeded in giving Srinagar its very own local art space.

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Srinagar's first private art gallery
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A private art gallery opened doors last week at Regal Chowk, Srinagar, and is already creating an impression with its first show – a solo by its owner, Iajaz Naqshbandi, 63, an urban-planner. The 24 oil paintings in this 600-sqft space offer lush countryside views of Kashmir devoid of any human and urban presence, reflecting Naqshbandi’s yearning for clean, open spaces in the Valley.

Naqshbandi had relocated to Saudi Arabia and lived there for 30 years. On his travels across the country, all he could see were views of a barren desert, minus 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 the waters of the Dal Lake no longer pristine, and its banks teeming with illegal encroachments. Many paddy fields had given way to housing colonies.

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In a bid to retrace a lost era and life during his childhood days, Naqshbandi decided to paint from memory. His paintings were of places he had visited in the Valley back in 1983 for his research project at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Without its touristy amblings, his painting of the Dal Lake appears usually stark. Another oil-on-canvas work appears hazy at the first glance, but step back and you can make sense of a Kashmir village after a fresh rainfall. On display are also photographs of the varieties of birds native to the land.

This single theme of serene and scenic views runs throughout the gallery, under different titles. Some titles are brief: ‘learn to wonder’ and ‘the beauty of the sunset’. Others are entire sentences: ‘when glaciers will slowly melt and rivers will be full of water’ and ‘in thy nature is peace, in thy nature I find myself’. As of now, Naqshbandi is waiting for artists and art lovers to visit his gallery and approach him to hold exhibitions. “I am not an artist, but I wanted to create a space for artists to sit, discuss and display their artworks through exhibitions,” says Naqshbandi.

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Since the last few decades, many attempts have been made to open at least one art gallery in Kashmir. But for some reason or the other the project never saw the light of day.

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Srinagar's first art gallery to revive the art of Kashmiri landscape | Naseer Ganai/Outlook Srinagar's first art gallery to revive the art of Kashmiri landscape | Credit: Naseer Ganai/Outlook

In 1976, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah announced the establishment of a cultural centre (Tehzeeb Mahal) that would house an art gallery with plans to showcase artists Abanindranath Tagore and Dr Percy Brown, who were frequent visitors to Kashmir. He chose Emporium Garden, situated opposite Doordarshan Centre Srinagar as the location. The foundation was laid, work had started, but Sheikh passed away and his successors shelved the project saying the location was not feasible. In the 1980s, the government selected a location in the Gagribal area on the banks 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 one km of the lake and the project was discontinued.

In 2003, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took over as Chief Minister, and insisted on opening an art gallery at Sher Garhi Palace, a Dogra-era heritage building symbolising Anglo-Kashmir architecture and used as an assembly complex till 2008 by successive governments in J&K. He constituted 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 at a space adjacent to the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar. Work on the project started in 2013 and seven crores were spent. Then in 2015, Governor NN Vohra after coming to power found the spot unfit for an art gallery.

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That same year, Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, opened the first art gallery in Kashmir at a space provided by the state government in the tourism department. Rizvi, then 26, had returned to Kashmir after completing a post-graduation in Management of Innovation and Fine Arts Extension from Goldsmiths University of London. The gallery actually opened doors, held exhibitions where artists began displaying their work here. Then, out of the blue, the state government asked Rizvi to vacate the building. In fact, he was not given sufficient time to move out. The artworks were removed and the gallery shut down abruptly.

In 2016, the Mehbooba Mufti government chose the Sher Garhi Palace to be turned into an art gallery. The Indian government provided Rs 137 crore for its setup. The palace complex has quadrangular buildings made entirely in stone with wooden doors, windows, ceilings and roofs. The structure is ready to function as an art space if the government is up for it. 

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Till then, Naqshbandi has offered artists and locals a compelling alternative.

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