Kashmir had a bolstering art scene before the rise of armed militancy shrunk the space for such engagement. But in recent years, there has been a sort of revival, writes Adnan Bhat, after visiting Concourse, one of the biggest art exhibitions that the valley has seen in the recent years

In a small shamiyana that stood near the crumbling entrance of filature unit 2 at the historic Solina silk factory in Srinagar, a small gathering of the city’s political elites, businessmen, and artists flown in from different parts of the world listened to a breezy speech made by Jammu and Kashmir, Governor NN Vohra before the gates for the first art exhibition in Kashmir in 66 years were thrown open.

Inside the building, the tattered walls that once bore witness to the famous Silk Factory revolt in 1931 against the tyrannical Dogra rule which had patronised a few and pushed almost entire population of the region into a position of exclusion, now played backdrop for artworks of 60 Kashmiri Muslim and Pandit artists brought together for the seven day exhibition named Concourse. 

Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, 29, co-curator of the event says, the idea behind the exhibition is to bring Kashmiri Muslims and Pandit artists to one stage for the first time in 66 years. He says, “this is the 9th contemporary art show. But this time, we have got together 60 artists from around the world after 66 years. We do this exhibition every year, this year, when we planned it we thought of bringing back a lot of these Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim artists to the same stage perhaps for the first time. Two communities around which a lot of politics is involved.”

Pandits formed a substantial minority in the valley before they had to migrate to the plains of India in the early 90s’ after some members of the community were killed by armed militants. Six months prior to hosting the exhibition, Rizvi had traveled across India to convince artists to make the journey to Kashmir which has been caught up in a spiral of unending violence for over last six decades.

Chushool Mahaldar, a 55-year-old Delhi based artist had put up two paintings up for display at the exhibition. Since leaving his childhood home in Rainawari, Srinagar in the early 90s’ Mahaldar has only visited Kashmir a few times, but his paintings reflect the struggle that life has been for both communities inside the valley and outside.

One of his paintings, a self-portrait of Mahaldar battling it out between razor-sharp barbwire, he says draws inspiration from the Pandit community’s long and painful struggle to return back to the valley. His other painting depicts a numb looking Kashmiri Muslim man wearing a traditional white hat fading away.

Mahaldar says there are some people outside who feel Kashmiri Muslims are having a good life since they didn’t have to migrate from their homes but the reality is quite opposite.

“A friend very innocently told me one day that while Pandits have had to struggle in the hard plains of India, Kashmiri Muslims have been living a plush life without having to worry about anything. So I decided to make this painting which shows how the member of the Muslim community in Kashmir who didn’t leave are also losing every day in the conflict,” he says.

Vir Munshi, artist and co-curator of the exhibition believes art can be a way of bringing back the two communities that have been polarised over a period of time. “The exhibition is to connect communities. I think this one area where people can be brought together that have had a disconnect for a long period of time. I believe artists can do certain things in these polarised times. I have been trying to do that in Delhi through art. This is the first time we are doing it in Kashmir,” he says.

Right next to Mahaldar’s paintings that tell the story of heartbreaking times in Kashmir, 27-year-old Anjum Khan’s painting of a woman in a burka holding on to a can of Coke and a packet of chips stands out in sharp contrast. The Dubai based young artist says the painting is part of a series devoted towards the life of women. Anjum says, she takes inspiration from people around her. Even though she isn’t based in Kashmir, Khan was ecstatic when the opportunity to display her artworks came by. “We have a rich heritage of art in Kashmir, and I wanted to take this opportunity to show the other side of life in Kashmir that isn’t violent,” she says.

Kashmir had a bolstering art before the rise of armed militancy shrunk the space for such engagement. But in recent years, there has been a sort of revival. Apart from displaying work of some the established artists of the valley, the exhibition also provided a stage for the young artist from Fine Art college, Srinagar.

Rizvi believes there is a disconnect between the different generation of Kashmiri artists and this exhibition in some way will try to bridge those gaps. “These artists have earned a lot of international acclaims but since migrating away from Kashmir they have never come back. So this is an attempt to promote peace, dialogue and critical engagement through the medium of art,” he adds.

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