In a newly constructed five-floor commercial building full of computer repair shops and offices of private firms in the heart of Srinagar city in Indian-administered Kashmir, the third floor houses Kashmir’s first privately owned art gallery, established by an urban planner and his wife, who is a doctor.
Aesthetics Art Gallery was conceptualized and established 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 about three decades, the couple wanted to establish a small platform for local artists and photographers where they could display their works and get to meet and collaborate with other artists. The gallery was thrown open in March this year after the couple purchased the space, later refurbishing it into an art gallery.
“Since the gallery opened in March, we have had people from different walks of life come here and all of them said that they felt relieved after looking at all the nature paintings and photos of Kashmir’s wildlife and rare birds which made them forget their worries for a while,” Naqshbandi, a welcoming person by nature, told Hyperallergic.
“That was also our idea behind creating this space which 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 government departments, Naqshbandi likes to spend some 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 a mere business venture but something both of them envisaged for a long time for the welfare of Kashmiri artists.
“We both wanted to create something different where art lovers would come and unwind themselves from the stresses of daily life,” she said, adding that they’ve managed to create a “pleasing and conducive place where artists and people of all age groups and from different spheres of life are welcome.”
“We also wanted to create a platform where young and budding artists could display their artworks,” she adds.
The gallery currently displays several landscape paintings made by Naqshbandi, some works of calligraphy artists, among them Aslam Naqshbandi, and works of wildlife photographers like Reyan Sofi and Umar Naqshbandi, who have diligently captured images of rare bird species inside Kashmir’s shrinking wetlands and lakes.
“I’m surprised by the young talent here from photographers to artists. All they need is some encouragement and some platform like this gallery where they can also sell their work,” Naqshbandi said.
After completing his engineering degree from a local engineering college in 1974, Naqshbandi shifted to New Delhi in 1984 to pursue a Master’s degree in urban planning. By the end of the 1980s, he moved to Saudi Arabia where he worked for British and French companies in the telecom sector, holding senior positions over the years.
In 1999, he returned to Kashmir to work with the state government as a consultant for the upcoming telecom sector. In 2004, he again shifted back to Saudi Arabia with his family where he worked his way up to some top positions in several telecom companies.
In 2018, Naqshbandi was visiting his daughter, who is based in Dubai. Knowing that he loved painting, but hadn’t painted for many years, she bought him a canvas so that he could spend some free time painting during his stay there. He made several oil paintings, each taking about a week to complete, depicting Kashmir pastorals, natural surroundings, and pristine lakes as he remembered them as a child. It was a cathartic experience for the engineer. Some of these oil paintings show forests, fresh streams, and lakes on display in the gallery. Naqshbandi calls himself an amateur painter, engaging in it as a hobby whenever he feels like picking a brush.
“I painted from what I remembered seeing in Kashmir as I was growing up,” he said. “The forest cover, wetlands, and lakes as they existed during my youth are no longer the same anymore. I wanted those who see my paintings to realize what we have lost and conserve what’s left of our natural resources.”
Naqshbandi said the idea of opening an art gallery was to make a small space where established artists and young and upcoming artists could come together and showcase their artworks. He is hoping for more engagement with young artists and photographers in the future. The couple also wants to organize art workshops for school children.
“We want to make people more conscious of their natural surroundings and environment after seeing the works of our artists and wildlife photographers on display here,” he said. “We want them to leave the gallery with a better appreciation of our environment and natural resources which are fast depleting.”
Reyan Sofi, a 26-year-old wildlife photographer who is passionate about capturing images of birds in their natural habitat in Kashmir, has some of his photography of bird species displayed in the gallery. He said he has seen and clicked images of some 282 different bird species, including some rare migratory bird sightings in Kashmir.
Sofi was friends with Naqshbandi on Facebook for the past few years. When he came to know about Naqshbandi’s plans to establish a private art gallery, he got in touch with him to display some of his bird photography in the gallery so that more people could see his work.
Sofi feels that giving space to works of wildlife and nature photographers can also help in creating awareness about the environment and help in preserving Kashmir’s rich biodiversity.
“We always needed such spaces here in Kashmir as it gives a platform for talented artists and photographers whose work can be seen by more people in one place,” the young photographer said.
“We also want people to buy these artworks in one place which will also benefit the local artists,” added Naqshbandi. “If they can’t sustain themselves and their families through their work, then 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 artists and photographers from Kashmir. He dreams of seeing the gallery as a hub of artistic creativity, and a meeting place for exchanges of ideas that can also lead to collaborative work among Kashmir’s artists, photographers, and filmmakers.
“For now I’ll be happy if visitors leave the gallery with a greater appreciation of Kashmir’s natural environment, wildlife, and bird species,” he said with a typical smile.