Walls Do Speak

A group of artists joined hands to restore abandoned structures in tourist hot-spots across Kashmir. But that is not all they intend to do. Saima Bhat reports the idea behind Alif foundation

Next time you visit Gulmarg, don’t forget to stop and admire the newly painted murals on run down huts and houses on way. The first one, a woman with sheep, is in Tangmarg, some 35 kilometers from Srinagar.

Painted by Arts and Life Initiative Foundation (Alif), a group of fifteen local and non-local artists, it took eight days to complete. The appreciation that followed earned the group their first formal assignment: ten murals at different locations up to Gulmarg.

“It was a great moment for us,” said Arif Bashir, 34, the founding member of Alif.

Arif wanted to become a filmmaker but started working as a reporter instead, after graduating in Mass Communication. “However during my studies I got a few chances to stay in touch with filmmaking.”

These chances soon translated into opportunities where he assisted some Bollywood filmmakers in Mumbai. “But after gaining ample experience I came back to tell my stories from Kashmir,” said Arif. “My other team members have somewhat same experiences.”

The Alif team includes, Basharat and Mahesh Chand, both graduate from Jamia Millia Islamia (Delhi); Nadeem Mushtaq, an arts student from Shantiniketan (Delhi); Rahulla, a trained cinematographer from USA; Suhail Rehman, Tanveer, Tasneem, Rehaan, Jebeena and Mudasir Ahmad, all freelancers with different organizations.

“The group was formed after deliberations and discussion to have a common platform to express ourselves,” said Arif. “We were working together even before we formally registered Alif.”

The group started its activities by visiting government run schools in far flung areas of Baramulla district. “We conducted art workshop for ten days in those villages,” said Arif.

The group was shocked to see the condition of these schools as most of them lacked basic facilities like proper classrooms.

“But their artwork was great. They just needed a drawing sheet and colour pens,” said Arif.

Their artwork was later exhibited in the auditorium of Jamia Milia University, Delhi, where professional artists gave their feedback.

“We got overwhelming response. They were amazed to see the work of kids. The ideas were rough but creative,” said Arif.  “One boy had drawn an electric transformer with a cap. For him it (transformer) was a living being rather than a lifeless creature. It may look absurd to a layman but not to an artist.”

Later, team Alif saw more artists from Delhi and Bangalore joining them. “We then decided to visit more schools and orphanages,” said Arif.

Arif believes that visiting orphanages was very important as painting acts as catharsis for them; and Kashmir as a whole needs it.

“Everybody has an interesting anecdote to share in Kashmir, but what they lack are the weapons of expression like creative writing, painting etc.,” said Rahulla. “We wanted to give them courage to express.”

Unlike schools in Srinagar city, students in rural areas lack means of expressing themselves. Alif is working to introduce courses like cinematography, creative writing etc. “We are also working on student exchange programs. All this will be happening from rural areas where these facilities are like a dream,” said Arif.

For student exchange programme Arif and his team is in communication with Oxford and Berlin universities. “There are a few Indian universities as well,” said Arif.

Recently Alif has turned a private space at Tangmarg into a reading room cum library. “We are requesting people to donate books for the same,” said Arif.

Also an audio-visual studio is in the pipe-line where students will be encouraged to revive the traditional art of storytelling, locally known as Dastaan Gohi.

The artwork of Alif tries to highlights the issues like preservation of wildlife as well. “The idea was to highlight the concerns faced by the wildlife because of massive concretization of jungles,” said Arif.

Arif wants students to see wildlife and nature as part of their extended social setting, rather than something alien. “We tell students about extinct animals so that they raise questions like who killed them,” said Arif.

Arif’s love for walls dates back to his university days when he was working on his dissertation about the history of graffiti art in Kashmir. “It dates back to the days of Silk Route,” said Arif.  “I am in love with barren walls or you can say toilet walls. Walls that belong to people but they don’t want to own them.”

For Basharat Bashir, 29, an artist and a member of Alif, there is a difference between paintings in studios and murals on walls.

The themes revolve around Kashmiri culture, heritage and wildlife.”

Basharat who has worked on murals in Delhi as well, feels the concept of wall paintings in Kashmir is still in its evolving stage. “However, it was good to get feedback from locals in Kashmir,” said Basharat.

“These walls promote art in true sense as we lack public galleries in Kashmir to showcase art.”

The murals created by Alif are done in such a way that an observer gets a three-dimension feeling. “With every new mural we are learning. We have learned to look at the corners with more fineness,” said Basharat. “We have learnt to create three-dimensional effects.

In future Alif plans to collaborate with educational institutes and NGOs and take art to villages in Kashmir. “We want to encourage young people to take up art as a vocational activity,” said Arif.

Alif’s first assignment of ten murals was sponsored by the J&K Cable Car Corporation. “We have been approached by the state tourism department for similar murals at other locations,” said Arif.

For their next assignment Alif is planning to move their laboratory to Pahalgam and Sonmarg. “We just change the outlook of abandoned structures without disturbing any building with historical importance,” said Arif, recalling their formative days when they struggled to get out of their studious. The Alif members distribute 70 percent of their earnings amongst themselves while the rest is kept as reserve for the foundation.

“We have lots of things on our wish list,” said Arif.

Once the foundation becomes self sustaining Arif intends to start village walks, heritage walks, discovering Kashmir, travelling and trekking and other such programmes. “The idea is to bring people closer to Kashmir’s culture, history, nature and ambiance,” said Arif.

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