Sunday, 15 March 2015

To Keep it Relevant

On a fine day, we shall choose to talk about art.

But right now, we shall talk of something else.

On January 12, 2015 when a bunch of artists opened the first art gallery of Kashmir, Gallerie One, it generated a small buzz in a very profound city. There were bureaucrats in long overcoats and golf caps, in shawls and stoles admiring the art work. Some old shriveled-looking artists explaining the works and their meanings.

Gallerie One was the brain child of Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, a twenty something Goldsmiths art graduate. Its website (which is quite beautiful in itself) describes it to envisage as a space for artists to express and create. The gallery, the website shows the gallery as a spacious lit up room of khatambad ceilings and minimalist furniture. While I never visited the gallery, I did intend to go. Soon.

That seems difficult now. On February 23, a few officials from the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation hit the gallery and not for admiring the art. They took away the furniture, some equipment, destroyed a few art pieces and wanted to call it a day. The gallery managers documented this on mobile phone videos and put them on Youtube. The owners allege that no prior notice was served for closing down the gallery, and the actions of the officials amount to hooliganism.

The video is infuriating in parts, but Kashmiri to the core. There is a sense of unaccountability with which the ‘department people’ handle the issue ordering their men about which bespeaks of years of government service where the only accountability is to the officer above you.

There is a young woman who decides to inject some discipline in the tense air and says, “Please keep your tone down!”

Her simple reply to questions of vandalizing the properties of artists is “We also respect art. We will put it back.”

“What is your qualification in art? What do you know about art?” yells a frustrated person from behind the camera. I agree, but can see reason in her words. We rarely respect art – artists and their expression. For her, they might have just torn down a canvas or broken something made of plaster of Paris, something she can just seal over and it still would be good enough to put in a corner of her drawing room. That’s the idea of respect for art.

The idea of art is more and more alien to the urban youth. It’s something the  students who could not study science or commerce do. Or something which can be purchased from a handicrafts shop. The idea of academic excellence is excellence in science and mathematics – not literature, not arts.

A small stocky man comes forward and seems to have only one answer for every question. That it is his will and that is the way things happen in Kashmir. Also, he adds without failing, that it is the government’s policy. Then he moves on, giving orders to his men to take things and throw them out.

The question here hardly seems to be of artistic freedom as there was no issue raised on the content and the art works– though one can’t be very sure. It’s more of the official morass that stifles every aspiration in Kashmir. In a place like Kashmir, you cannot escape censorship of one way or the other. But vandalism, is unwarranted. Official hooliganism has no place in a civilized society. If there was a policy decision to remove the art gallery, the officials should have given a prior notice. A month’s prior notice, to say the least. But the gallery owners have consistently denied this. At one point a person asks the small stocky man, who identifies himself as Joint Director – Tourism, feels offended at being asked who he was, refuses to talk and sulks away like a school bully.

The art gallery owners keep asking for paperwork, and the officials keep denying it. Was there an eviction order? Apparently, the officials turned up on the spot without any warrants to evacuate the space. I also wonder, why no one (neither the officials nor the artists) call the police in.

Official high handedness is not new in Kashmir. Or news worthy. It’s a corrupt place, run by corrupt officials. What I admired in Gallerie One was the attempt it purported to be – to make contemporary art from Kashmir visible. To make art relevant to the everyday life of Kashmiris. And that is exactly why a gallery was important. And the fact that it was an indigenous attempt, made it all the more admirable and relevant.


I hope the gallery opens soon. 

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