In the backdrop of the room with minimalist ethos and light interiors, lay a number of paintings,one of which is incomplete and the color palette lying nearby contains the colors of the four seasons of Kashmir.
Aftab Ahmad, a senior painter from Srinagar has been painting for years and has displayed his art in international exhibitions in Italy, Germany, Japan etc.
The Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Anthony purchased his state award winning painting after getting mesmerized by his art collection at an exhibition in Tagore Hall. Bollywood star Ashok Kumar bought his painting during the shooting of his film, Aap Ke Deewane.
From the bustle of the old city, Srinagar to the lush green forests of Bader Wah to the narrow alleys of Delhi, wherever he goes, he paints the scenes in his art book.
Aftab said, “The surroundings in Kashmir are conducive for an artist to evolve. Thick forest, mountains, four seasons and their different colors transform people into good artists, poets and musicians.”
Since the resources were limited, he said that despite the artists of the bygone years used to draw with charcoal and pencils, their drawings carried a number of hues and tints because the inspirations were countless.
Talking about inspirations of his paintings, he quoted, “Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast (If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here). This has been rightly said. The colors, forms and shapes of the artists of Kashmir were original because unlike today we weren’t influenced by any source so our thoughts and its presentation were original and pure.”
However, he feels that it's important for an art to change and evolve. “Every artist has a mannerism which can take either a lifetime or some years for an artist to discover. When a person wanders, he imbibes different shapes, forms and architectural elements. The art goes on changing and the change is must,” he added.
For the artistic style or mannerism to develop, he said that the artists of the past would do research with the help of books, interact with elders and experts.
“If you study, you can get the unique way of looking at things which we are lacking right now. Right now, we look for short cuts. We don’t think but imitate the idea. One should find personal expression by analyzing things,” he said.
For him, art is an expression but it’s equally important to be pleasing to the eye. He said, “Then it should talk about philosophy and one should know where to stop. Don’t spoil your art by overworking on it."
He said that art has a connection with literature and other subjects. “English literature and painting have a connection. For studying western aesthetics from Aristotle to contemporary aestheticians, we need to study literature so that your expression gets strong because your paintings have some philosophy behind it,” he said.
An experienced artist, Aftab has memories of bygone years as fresh as the colors on his canvas. While pursuing bachelors in Science from SP College Srinagar, he would often practice art and draw paintings.
In the college library, he recalled, he was going through some art books and his class-fellow who was also an art enthusiast, asked him about his painting skills. Both of them being self-taught artists started sharing knowledge which not only made them learn about art but also made them good friends.
Luckily, the teachers would support the students to pursue parallel activities. As time passed, more artists evolved that led to the full-fledged art scenario. An artistic club was formed which was probably the first one in the college where the artists would exchange their thoughts and also exhibit their work.
During the time, he said, Ghulam Rasool Santoosh, Abdul Rashid Jan, Bansi Parimoo, Trilok Kaul were some of the well-known artists of Kashmir who were admired by various art critics across India.
After college, he joined the institute of Music and Fine Arts and learnt more about arts. The artists from outside Kashmir used to come and interact with the students there. The institution had few female counterparts as well.
The institute initially started functioning in the houseboat. Then it finds its place as a temporary rental accommodation in the residential place of a well-known orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Farooq Ashai who had enrolled himself in the institute to learn Tabla. Aftab said that during his years of practice in Iran, he used to perform Tabla in the shows which were broadcasted on television.
“The standard of the art institute would match with the reputed art colleges across India. Ghulam Rasool Santoosh was a famous artist from Kashmir who used to live in Delhi. He used to come and exhibit students’ work outside. The institute despite lacking a permanent place polished every one of us,” he said.
Serving as a teacher and later as the Head of the Department, Paintings and Graphics in the institute, he said, “We thought we are the Picassos of that time. The then vice chancellor of University of Kashmir used to sit with the artists, poets, painters, musicians in a coffee shop and interact with them. Sometimes we would fight and sometimes appreciate each other. The scenes were the same as the coffee shops in Europe.”
He said the biggest struggle they had to do was fight for the affiliation of the institute with University of Kashmir. He recalled, “to protest we made a white elephant and moved it over the cart. Also, we made posters protesting for the affiliation of the institute. After that the degree courses were also started,in addition to diplomas that were being offered earlier.”
He still feels that more is to be done for the younger generation and an art gallery should be constructed for the exhibition of ancient and contemporary works.
Aftab suggested that in museums, there should have a space for the paintings so that people would see and know about the artists of Kashmir and another place should be for the day-to-day exhibition of paintings.
“In Emporium Garden, for some time, the exhibitions have been going on, which is a good thing. The royal Emporium Garden is majestic, the building is worth watching and the craft is aesthetically rich. I have been inspired by it very much,” he said.
He paints in water colors but he specializes in woodcutting and etching techniques which is not done today because of the tedious nature of the job. An artist from Jordan visited SP college where Aftab was also called to guide the art students. The Jordan artist got one of his woodcut prints exhibited in the exhibition in Jordan.
Apart from paintings, he works with the landscape architect Nazir Ahmad Khan and has designed spaces like Badamwari, Children Park, Dara Shikoh Park etc. Also, he has received awards for IKEBANA and Pact of David Camp for flower arrangement.
Ahmad has also received state awards multiple times for his paintings. He concludes with the note, “The art is in our blood. Whatever I did, I am satisfied. Though the journey is on, there is much. There is much more to learn. Nevertheless the canvas is an imaginary place for my dreams and desires.”