A group of woman move through an alley nestled between traditional shops with wooden shutters and heritage houses leading to historic Jamia Masjid in Downtown. This is one of the paintings on display at an exhibition here showcasing glorious past of Downtown popularly known as Shaher-e-Khaas.
“This painting is close to my heart as it reflects the aura of Downtown,” Iftekhar Ahmad Wani, a Saudi-based Kashmiri artist told ,To showcase his works, he has organised a three day exhibition ‘A Tribute to Shaher-e-Khaas: Our culture and landscape’ at SP College here
Originally from Apple town Sopore in northern Kashmir, 50-year old Wani spent his youthful days in Srinagar. His father, Ali Muhammad Wani, was posted as an executive engineer in the summer capital.
“My father loved Downtown and its shrines. He used to take me along to shrines of Makhdoom Sahib, Dastigeer sahib, Khankah-e-Moula and Jamia Masjid,” he recounted.
His paintings depict different facets of Downtown including shrines, heritage buildings and Jhelum river meandering through it.
“I was so enthused by culture, architecture and people of Downtown that I spent most of my time in alleys and shrines there. Painting was my hobby and I tried to put different facets of Downtown on canvas,” he said.
Whenever in Kashmir, he ensures to visit Downtown. “I vividly remember every lane and bylane of Downtown. The place is unique. It has shrines, exclusive markets for spices, copperware, gold and traditional delicacies like Harissa, Nadr-Munje, masala roti.”
Asked how do Kashmiri diaspora in Saudi react to his paintings, Wani responded with a smile.
“Whenever I have an exhibition or do live paintings, I usually paint Kashmir’s landscape and life in Downtown. Saudis are happy to see my paintings depicting water, mountains and trees in Kashmir and click picture and videos,” he said.
“Some of Kashmiris who originally hail from Downtown turn emotional. A friend told me that his maternal home featured in one of my paintings. Many Kashmiri expatriates also visit my house with kids and show them my paintings on Kashmiri landscape,” he said.
Wani’s other works include paintings about rural life of Kashmir, traditional Kashmiri kangri and samovar. He has also exhibited a painting of a masjid in which noted poet and philosopher Allama Iqbal had prayed in Nigeen.
Wani has done his graduation from Sopore college and MBA from Bangalore. Presently, Wani is working in Saudi Arabia’s Yanbu Industrial City. “I am also certified H2S trainer and impart training to various petrochemical plants and refineries and oil drilling rigs in H2S and hydrocarbon gas safety as lot people die due to exposure to toxic gases,” he said.
As he was planning to celebrate Eid-ul-Adha in Kashmir, the idea of organising an art exhibition struck him.
But it was an ardous task for him to organise exhibition here. “I had made all these paintings in Saudi. It was a difficult task to pack nearly hundred paintings and bring them to Kashmir. I had to pay for extra baggage to airlines and also frame these paintings here,” he said pointing towards his exhibited works.
Wani maintains that he has no “commercial interests” in exhibiting his works. “I just want to show to the world rich culture of Kashmir especially Downtown. I want to highlight Kashmir’s natural beauty.”
However, he laments that “drastic changes” have taken place in Downtown from past several years.
“The place is more commercialised now. Old structures are being destroyed and new business complexes are set up. It is painful to see old architecture being destroyed,” he said taking a deep breath.
“Downtown is losing sheen. I see traditional shops selling junk food, chips and cold drinks. Old lattice windows and wood carved doors are being replaced with plywood doors,” he added.
The exhibition was inaugurated by principal SP College Khurshid Ahmad Khan. A large number of research scholars, students and art lovers were overwhelmed to see the paintings. “It is good to see architecture and culture of Downtown through art,” said a student.
“Thank you for promotion of Kashmir’s culture,” wrote Robert of United States on the visitor’s book.