In a newly constructed five-storey commercial building filled with computer repair shops and private business offices in the heart of the city of Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir, the third floor houses the world’s first art gallery Private Kashmir, created by a town planner and his wife, who is a doctor.
The aesthetic art gallery was conceptualized and created by 63-year-old Iajaz Ahmed Naqshbandi and Dr. Samia Fazili after they returned to Kashmir from Saudi Arabia in 2018. Having lived and worked abroad for around three decades, the couple wanted to create a small platform. for local artists and photographers where they could exhibit their work and meet and collaborate with other artists. The gallery was opened in March this year after the couple bought the space, later renovating it into an art gallery.
“Since the gallery opened in March, people from different walks of life have come here and all said they felt relieved after looking at all the nature paintings and photos of Kashmir’s rare wildlife and birds. , which made them forget about their worries for a while,” Naqshbandi, a welcoming person by nature, told Hyperallergic.
“It was also our idea behind creating this space that could soothe the nerves of people who are otherwise living stressful lives in a conflict-ridden place like Kashmir,” he added.
Whenever he gets time from his consultancy work with different ministries, Naqshbandi likes to spend a few hours in the gallery, meeting young artists and photographers who want to showcase their work in the space.
Fazili told Hyperallergic that the art gallery is not just a business venture, but something the two have long envisioned for the welfare of Kashmiri artists.
“We both wanted to create something different where art lovers could come and relax from the stresses of everyday life,” she said, adding that they had succeeded in creating a “pleasant and conducive place where artists and people of all ages and from different walks of life are welcome.
“We also wanted to create a platform where budding young artists could exhibit their work,” she adds.
The gallery currently features several landscape paintings by Naqshbandi, works by calligrapher artists including Aslam Naqshbandi, and works by wildlife photographers like Reyan Sofi and Umar Naqshbandi who have diligently captured images of bird species rare in the wetlands and lakes of Kashmir.
“I am surprised by the young talents here, from photographers to artists. All they need is encouragement and a platform like this gallery where they can also sell their work,” Naqshbandi said.
After graduating from a local engineering college in 1974, Naqshbandi moved to New Delhi in 1984 to pursue a master’s degree in urban planning. In the late 1980s he moved to Saudi Arabia where he worked for British and French companies in the telecommunications sector, holding senior positions over the years.
In 1999, he returned to Kashmir to work with the state government as a consultant for the future telecommunications sector. In 2004, he again returned to Saudi Arabia with his family where he rose through the ranks to senior positions in several telecommunications companies.
In 2018, Naqshbandi was visiting his daughter, who lives in Dubai. Knowing that he loved to paint, but had not painted for many years, she bought him a canvas so that he could spend some free time painting while he was there. He made several oil paintings, each taking about a week, depicting Kashmiri pastorals, natural surroundings and pristine lakes as he remembered them from his childhood. It was a cathartic experience for the engineer. Some of these oil paintings show forests, cool streams and lakes on display in the gallery. Naqshbandi calls himself an amateur painter, taking up it as a hobby whenever he feels like picking up a brush.
“I painted from what I remembered seeing in Kashmir when I was growing up,” he said. “The forest cover, wetlands and lakes as they existed in my youth are no longer the same. I wanted those who see my paintings to realize what we have lost and conserve what remains of our natural resources.
Naqshbandi said the idea of opening an art gallery was to create a small space where established artists and young and emerging artists could come together and showcase their works. He hopes for more engagement with young artists and photographers in the future. The couple also wants to organize artistic workshops for schoolchildren.
“We want to make people more aware of their natural surroundings and surroundings after seeing the works of our wildlife artists and photographers on display here,” he said. “We want them to leave the gallery with a greater appreciation for our environment and our rapidly depleting natural resources.”
Reyan Sofi, a 26-year-old wildlife photographer with a passion for capturing images of birds in their natural habitat in Kashmir, exhibits some of his photographs of bird species in the gallery. He said he saw and clicked pictures of some 282 different bird species, including rare sightings of migratory birds in Kashmir.
Sofi had been friends with Naqshbandi on Facebook for a few years. When he learned of Naqshbandi’s plans to establish a private art gallery, he contacted him to exhibit some of his bird photographs in the gallery so that more people could see his work.
Sofi believes that giving space to the work of wildlife and nature photographers can also help raise environmental awareness and preserve Kashmir’s rich biodiversity.
“We have always needed such spaces here in Kashmir as they provide a platform for talented artists and photographers whose work can be seen by more people in one place,” said the young photographer.
“We also want people to buy these artworks in one place, which will also benefit local artists,” Naqshbandi added. “If they can’t support themselves and their families through their work, they can’t pursue their art seriously.”
Naqshbandi hopes to see more visitors to the gallery in the future, including artists from outside Kashmir and young Kashmir artists and photographers. He dreams of seeing the gallery as a hub of artistic creativity and a meeting place for the exchange of ideas that can also lead to collaborative work between Kashmir artists, photographers and filmmakers.
“For now, I would be happy if visitors leave the gallery with a better appreciation for the natural environment, wildlife and bird species of Kashmir,” he said with a typical smile.