Around hundred years ago, under the shade of mighty Chinars and supporting mulberry trees, men and women would work in sync with Italian machines to produce finest silk of the times. The booming complex at Aloochibagh that later constituted world's largest silk factory in 1942 was not a factory, it was carrying forward great legacy of Kashmir's art, craft and skill.
The silk that came out of the factory designed by Britishers would end up all over the world and in variety of fabrics, right from finest gowns, carpets to even paintings.
As happens with all good things in Kashmir, silk factory with its hustle bustle and thousands of people associated wit it, died a silent death somewhere in 70s and 80s, primarily due to official apathy.
Last week one of the haunting yet beautiful buildings at erstwhile silk factory complex was brought to life by way of an art exhibition. The colour though briefly again returned to faded red and black structure. The grandeur of British designed buildings didn't disappoint as they too competed with dozens of paintings and art work for attention from art lovers who thronged the site.
"One of the reasons we selected this building was its fascinating history. This particular building, one of many here, was built in 1917 and here Muslims and Hindus worked together. Then in 1931 Kashmiri weavers revolted against the repressive Maharaja," said Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, founder of Kashmir Art Quest, an international contemporary arts foundation based in Kashmir and one of the curators of the seven day art exhibition titled Concourse. The other curator was veteran artist Veer Munshi.
"And then it was abandoned for decades. It has all hues right from glory to resistance to being pushed to oblivion," he further added. "So when we decided to organise an exhibition we couldn't find any other building that could have matched it."
The exhibition itself, one of the largest in recent times, was a treat to watch. It was a sort of community effort wherein over 60 Kashmiri artists – Muslims as well as migrant Pandits – had come together, as Rizvi said, to promote the idea of "togetherness and dialogue" through their paintings, pictures and art installations. The artists who displayed their work included photographers, painters, sculptors, installation artists, multimedia artists, performance artists, visual artists and contemporary artists.
Most of the paintings depicted the sombre mood and evident pain of the society. From the bitterness of migration to suffering through dangerous situation, there was one for everything.
According to Rizvi the whole idea of this exhibition is to fill that void that had developed between various communities in the society and try to make way to reach some sort of consensus.
Rizvi's own art installation at the far end of the massive hall had written three huge words Memory, Homeland and Identity against a white backdrop behind an empty chair and a pen box.
The artists who exhibited their work ranged from amateurs to senior ones, all hoarded together from different parts of the world by efforts of Munshi and Rizvi.
Munshi's art installation included an inverted Shikara and an art work of machine parts around a pigeon.
At first sight, an artwork that stood out, had a naked man putting up painful yet defiant smile while being bound by barbed wire. It looked a familiar sight of a Kashmiri Muslim. Yet a closer look reveals the man in the painting by artist Chushool Mahaldar is wearing a sacred thread identifying him as a Pandit.
As Mahaldar further elaborated that the painting, a self portrait of struggling smile, depicts the painful story of common Kashmiri whether Muslim or Hindu.
One of the ideas of the exhibition also was to share each others' pain and the art work beautifully did it.
At the entrance of the exhibition one could see 30 ft long painting by Mamoon Ahmad. It had forest of bones and trees sketched all along the length. A remembrance to walking dead, the inspiration for this art work had come to Mamoon from the Urdu word Ruveda (walk gently).
The exhibition also set tone for some of the emotional encounters triggering sweet old memories prior to turbulent times of 1990s, when the Pandit community had to migrate en masse.
For Avtar Krishan Raina who after migration called Madhya Pradesh his home and works as a painter, it was the first time he set foot on his motherland after 1990. When his old friend and former bureaucrat Mohammed Ashraf greeted him with a painting he had painted in 1985 and one of the few items that were saved during 2014 floods, it triggered a stream of tears from Raina's eyes as both remembered the old days.
Such memories became part of the exhibition during its seven days. "I spent a lot of time with Raina and he told me about how he had a studio here and how it was burnt and other struggle. He had so many grudges too. But during this course of event he was a changed man unwilling to leave the valley," said Rizvi. "At the time of departure we both cried."
Ratan Parimoo another Pandit artist had come after 41 years and he too had to deal with swell of emotions as he visited his old neighbourhood and met the people there.
At the end of the exhibition many people from different areas came to the organisers enquiring about certain artists. "They had heard somewhere that Pandit artists had come here who had been their best friends. There were lot of sighs when we told them that they left. These people pleaded us to give their contact number," said Rizvi.
The exhibition also provided an opportunity to young artists to get exposure an altogether new level.
Ishfar Ali, young calligrapher from Srinagar made most out of the exhibition by way of learning. "This was kind of once in a lifetime experience," said Ishfar. "My teacher's teachers were present there and I learnt a lot about style and technicalities. The artists are of international level and I being one of the most junior artist couldn't have asked for more. They pointed out many errors which could have not seen myself."
Ishfar had four calligraphy specimens, Chaar Kul, at the exhibition.
Saima Hussain Mir, a digital artist whose was the only digital video installation at the exhibition said that such gatherings are must for the society. "When like minds come together it leads to some wonderful things. Being in the company of such learned men who practiced art and knew every nuance, was itself a pleasure and here one could sense how much we had lost. It was like hundreds of years of collective experience was put before you and it was upto you how much you will learn," said Saima whose video installations were titled Tasting The Light, Man On The Moon and Kashmiri Star Girl. "Not only art, we got to know whole new face of the society which is now a history."
Many younger artists including Saima even got job offers at the exhibition.
The art pieces were full of experimentation too. Khytul Abyad, an artist, had sketched a map of Srinagar by arranging bottles of spring water from Anantnag on a table. A deviri stone art work in the shape of cards, arrangement of pebble in front of triangular mirror reflecting the row of paintings on display and even simple fine arts certificates consisted of diversity.
Last time such an exhibition was held in Kashmir was way back in 1951 in a coffee shot on the banks of Jhelum River. It was a long wait before all such artists at such a level could converge again in a single place in Srinagar.
Around 5000 people visited the exhibition, which is huge given the fact that such functions are rare in Kashmir. The exhibition was successful in creating a much needed channel of dialogue in the art world, which will definitely help local artists to achieve new heights.
Beyond its showpieces, the exhibition incidentally stood witness to the uncertain situation of Kashmir, how everything can change in a matter of hours. The exhibition was inaugurated by Governor N N Vohra and the then Minister for Culture and PWD Naeem Akhtar. When the 7day exhibition ended, there was no minister of culture, only culture remained.