In the valley’s shifting landscape, a bygone bungalow-turned-billet has now become a peeping window of the past.
As its new entrant, Nazir Khan is trying to remodel a heritage house overlooking the venerable ghats of Jhelum in Aali Kadal, Srinagar.
There’s an air of melancholy about the man despite his easy-going nature. The near-sexagenarian is an articulate-curator who can never stop talking about the things and times when “everything was simple and serene” in the valley.
His cultural chronicles resonate in the unruffled chambers of the four-storey house now hosting a growing footfall of art-lovers.
These heritage walks and talks are making the imposing structure a new attraction in town.
But before its museum makeover, the house had witnessed vagaries of weather and woes of the valley. It even witnessed the harrowing history of Kashmir’s medieval madness unleashed by some madcap monarchs. The structure even survived the times when the “dissident-dwellers” would be skinned alive and hanged from the nearby bridge.
That history returned to haunt the edifice when it became an address of “storm-troopers” who eventually left the keys behind and paved way to an art-gallery.
Despite these regular departures and arrivals, the clock inside is fixed to forgotten times. A freeze frame encapsulates the nostalgic mood and makes it some somber relic for those trying to understand their cultural roots.
Everything about the building is a reminder of days gone with the wind. There’re dozens of paintings—hypnotic landscapes, portraits of women in traditional attires, and the sketches of old Srinagar—hung on parrot-green walls.
The colour is a living-room shade of many old city homes—now a desolate debris of past. Fading hues and fraught dwellers now tell the tale of times gone rough.
The sense and sensibility of the Srinagar’s shifting sands makes this cultural cradle on the ghats of Jhelum a feted microcosm in an otherwise neglected macrocosm.
Nazir curtly draws one’s attention to the rug long pulled out from under the natives. “They were cool mats unlike the current carpets scorching our soles,” the caretaker says. “These so-called outdated things were scientifically sound. We shunned them for the sake of some showpieces.”
All the rooms are brightly-lit and interconnected with doors. In one of the rooms, books rest on some old wooden shelves. The paper smell reminds one of the slow death of books, waiting for readers.
The main art-gallery is on the third floor, where Nazir acts as its consultant. While he scribes notes, half of the room remains occupied by the traditional loom installed for artisans to weave the carpet.
The curator has a co-worker. Her name is Rumaisa. At 28, she works as a coordinator at the art-gallery.
“In this museum of inheritance,” she says, “visitors will have glimpse of everything that their forefathers were using as a source of amusement, wearing and utensils for making food.”
The scent of classic artifacts takes one into another world of Kashmir when things were pure and far from being plagued by politics and polemics. Beautifully engraved copperware cooped up on the shelves—taakhs—displayed for visitors.
The gallery is full of antique ornaments, carpets, traditional dresses, clay pots, wooden utensils, copperware, musical instruments and portraits.
“We’ve opened this art gallery to exhibit centuries’ old things as an initiative to revive Kashmiri art and heritage,” says Nazir with an art warden’s throw.
But years before its advent as an art-gallery, the brick house was built by an influential Kashmiri Pandit, Ram Joo Kaul, in 1850. The original dwellers left in the historic huff, some decades ago, handing over the rights to a Kashmiri Muslim.
And then, according to a newstall owner operating under the shadow of the shelter, came the combatants who converted it into a war-lodging.
The last regular, as per the news seller, left the house in 2011—the year National Conference government led by Omer Abdullah decided to decongest the city from bunkers and barracks. Behind the decongestion drive was the previous year’s upheaval and some quick rethink in security setup to “normalize the militarized landscape” of the valley.
A decade after the military departure, the heritage house was opened for visitors as an art-gallery. Nazir credits Help Foundation for restoring the building.
“Bait Ul Meeras is a work in progress,” Nazir says. “We’re updating it with different items and articles. We want schoolchildren to visit us to know more about their glorious past. The idea is to make it a unique art-gallery of Kashmir.”