Regal Gallery

After putting in more than three decades working in faraway offshore destinations, the Naqshabandi couple has launched the first privately owned art gallery. They told Khalid Bashir Gura that the idea helps them relocate their roots and the Kashmir of yore at a time when the emerging young talent is seeking space for displaying their art

Aesthetic Art Gallery, Real Chowk, Srinagar

As one opens the door of the newly established private Aesthetic Art Gallery at Srinagar’s Regal Chowk, the canvases on the walls are the cynosure of all eyes.

Anyone walking into the gallery floats willingly into the world of misty cool mornings, magical sunset evenings, green vast pastures, sparkling waterfalls, shimmering streams, coppery Chinar leaves falling reluctantly, and the valley sleeping under the white snow blanket.

In them, Kashmir’s natural landscapes and all seasonal hues are in pristine form. “This is a drone view of Kashmir of my childhood,” said Iajaz Naqshbandi, 63, the gallery founder, pointing towards one of his canvases.  Born and brought up in Srinagar he worked as an urban planner in Saudi Arabia and other countries for more than three decades.

Cathartic Canvas

As he grew up around pristine Dal Lake, decades later he picked the brush and childhood memories rushed back. He had his cathartic moment.

“I represented my private school a couple of times in on the spot competitions,” Iajaz said. “Later I went to engineering college and my passion for painting relegated itself in the backyard recess of my mind. After engineering, I went to School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi and due to academic schedule, I could not commit myself to artistic endeavour.” In his post-graduation, he studied forests and pastoral settlements in the high alpine pastures of Kashmir.

He sighs while looking at his oil paintings depicting the past. “The spots I visited in the 1980s in Achabal have no forest cover now or any pastoral community,” he regretted.

With a master’s degree in hand,  Iajaz soon left for Saudi Arabia to work in the construction industry, leaving the canvass blank for three subsequent decades. Meanwhile, he travelled across first world countries, imbibing and learning their balance with nature and development.  His idea behind the initiative is to preserve Kashmir in its natural form without urbanisation. Three decades later, he returned home where the increasing human interferences in nature distressed him. His art is his catharsis and lament.

“I painted Kashmir the way I saw it when I was a kid. I am trying to connect what we had and where we are heading,” he said as he wants to create awareness in the next generation to save the fragile environment. “It is not I am anti-development or regressive but a balance has to be struck.”

Back to Roots

With an eye for new talent, in a first of its kind in Kashmir, he has dedicated the private art gallery to Kashmir artists. “As Kashmir lacks a springboard for artists, the registered gallery will catapult undiscovered talent to the world,” he hoped.

The idea according to him was conceived during Covid19 lockdown when his daughter handed him a blank canvas and brushes. She knew how to rekindle the artistic creativity and childlike curiosity in her ageing father who had grown up around Dal Lake in the lap of mountains.

During pandemic triggered lockdown he could jog every day through his memory lane and paint Kashmir of his childhood on the canvass.  It was in his childhood, the sparks of his talent became palpable. “In 1977, I painted through my imagination; the migration of Prophet Musa with his flock of cattle,” said the self-taught painter.

“Some paintings would take a couple of weeks, some months. And it was during those days, a realization dawned upon me to set up a platform for budding artists in various forms like paintings, photographs, calligraphies,” he said as he considers his paintings a rediscovery of Kashmir and himself and imagining pristine future.

Iajaz’s 24 oil paintings are depicting old serene Kashmir suffused with greenery and pristine water bodies. “I get angry and it pains me to see what Kashmir has been turned into. It has been denuded of greenery and even the resilient old, traditional architecture is vanishing,” he said.

Kashmir’s architecture bears resemblance to many central Asian countries. Even though they have managed to preserve it we are bulldozing, he regretted.

According to him, his art depicts loss and hope. In one of his paintings, he has portrayed Brari Nambal, a city water channel reduced to a stinking lagoon,  pristine and full of beautified surroundings, akin to a water channel flowing in any developed country.

Distinct Physiography

The new generation, he said, needs to preserve our legacy, whether in natural beauty or architecture. “Nations are known by art and architecture. We have distinct physiography. We are surrounded by mountains and rivers and our architecture has developed along these river banks,” Iajaz said, as in other civilizations.

The old city and its rich heritage can be converted and developed into a tourist attraction spot which can boost the economy.

“I wanted to start with mine first. I am leaving the field for others to come. We are trying to revive our rich, distinct traditional architecture and artwork,” Iajaz said, insisting they are trying to rediscover roots.  As the old heritage houses are brought down in the old city, and new constructions are sprucing up, the people according to him prefer old doors and windows as they are testimony to the fact of resilience and rich architectural work.

There is a need to bring a sense of belonging among people and tell them that they are not without any history, he said. “People lack opportunities and platform. People have talent but do not know how to groom it. We want to be facilitators,” he said.

Iajaz Naqshbandi with his Dr Samia Fazli Naqshbandi in their newly created art gallery in Srinagar

A Family Initiative

However, he admitted that his venture may not have been possible without his family and wife’s support. Dr Samia Fazili Naqshbandi, his wife, sits next to him and has been a companion on his new journey. She is the Director of the art gallery.

“Besides launching talent to new platforms, it will help in distressing students,” Dr Fazili said. However, in the art gallery, there are pictures captured by his son, an IT graduate, Umar Naqshabndi who is based in Malaysia and also by independent photographers. “He is interested in entomology and birds,” she said with pride gleaming in her eyes as she stares at her husband’s and son’s frames in the gallery.

“Kashmir has a self-destructive mode,” the doctor said, and I have seen the pain in his eyes for the loss. “It is those memories and Kashmir I saw him painting. He is depicting Kashmir of the 1970s and ’80s.”

Besides generating awareness, of the diversity of flora and fauna in Kashmir, the couple expects art to be on the walls of educational institutions and other public and private spheres. “The diversity of natural resources, which are captured in photos and paintings are the tip of the iceberg. These should be in the corridors from school to universities,” he said as pictures may imbibe awareness of nature and may give birth to future artists.

As the Kashmiris natural landscape is changing fast and its green gold is depleting, Naqshbandi’s art is a dirge and clarion call she said.

The First Gallery

Even though art in Kashmir continues to survive in the absence of art galleries and institutional support, the Aesthetic Art Gallery will fill the much-needed vacuum. Pertinent to mention, the state art gallery following a controversy in 2015 was closed by the Tourism department in the erstwhile state. This new art gallery has painted glimmers of hope in the stifled artistic world of Kashmir.

In changing the Kashmir landscape, as constructions are sprucing and is becoming a concrete jungle, Naqshbandis’ hope and lament simultaneously. “I am still living in those times when the natural landscapes were untouched. Now I am coming to terms with painful facts,” he said.

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