The Mohatta Palace Museum unveiled its latest exhibition titled ‘Paradise on Earth: Manuscripts, Miniatures and Mendicants from Kashmir’ on Sunday as an ode to the courage and resilience of the Kashmiris and the artistic traditions they have graced the world with.
Mohatta’s 20th exhibition highlights the relevance behind Kashmir which cannot be denied, a piece of land which has for long divided and united people and continues to do so.
To inaugurate the exhibition Sardar Masood Khan, president of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, was present and expressed his wonder and delight while viewing the exhibition. However, he shared how he also felt sorrowful while viewing this treasure trove because Kashmir, which was a cultural, artistic and a tolerant society where Muslims and Hindus lived together in peace, is no longer.
“Kashmir, which was once considered to be paradise, has become a killing field where you can no longer see such artistic gems emerge. However, there is still hope as the people of Kashmir profoundly love the arts.”
Sardar Masood also took the opportunity to reiterate that Kashmiris wish to “become a bridge between Pakistan and India in the areas of trade and foreign relation and not be a matter of conflict and contention. But for this we must ask the people of Kashmir what they want, and then only can peace prevail in the region.”
He also extended his complete support to the museum for bringing the exhibition to Muzaffarabad.
Curated by Nasreen Askari and Fatima Quraishi, the exhibit acknowledges the very many influences on the culture of Kashmir and tries to harness them together.
For Ms Askari, this was truly a daunting task. “As a curator, Kashmir was particularly fascinating as every time I looked at something I knew that it was indigenous, but it had also been influenced from the outside. The arts and crafts traditions of Kashmir invite excitement and attention.”
Amid the historical and political importance of Kashmir, care was taken by the curators to not allow the artisans and their work to be overshadowed.
“I find it mysterious how Kashmiri craftsmen are supreme in their skills. They can take anything and adorn and decorate it and they take great pride in this decoration. For them decoration is like getting close to God which is a very Sufi sensibility,” she said.
She also expressed her wish that all those who come to view the exhibit take away the knowledge that Kashmir is an area which is very rich in culture and artistic traditions. “With Kashmir’s background of turmoil and continuing violence, there is a silver lining where people, despite extraordinary hardship, sustain their skills and be artistic.”
Quraishi, a specialist in Islamic art history, recalled her initial research on manuscripts of Kashmir from the 19th century. “I realised there is a wealth of manuscripts and that is where the project began. My greatest joy in working on this project was discovering the collection at the National Museum of Pakistan and showcasing part of it. It is the largest collection of objects in the country and doesn’t get half as much attention it should.”
At one end of the room various copies of the Quran were at display which Kashmiri artists had worked on, many of which were especially commissioned by nobility or as religious heirlooms and were passed down generations.
One Quran was from the late 18th to 19th century from the collection of Syed Nizam Shah and Nasreen Shah. Commissioned by the custodians of the Naqsbandi silsila in Kashmir, the Arabic text is accompanied with Persian translation and commentary in the nastaliq script.
At the other end of the room the Shahnama (Book of Kings) was on display, written in 1010CE with ink, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi. It was from the collection of the National Museum of Pakistan.
Kashmir also boasts of a well-established tradition of the decorative arts and several types were displayed in cases. Some were objects fashioned from wood, including cigar and pen boxes, as well as objects from copper such as serving trays and bowls.
Hameed Haroon, managing trustee of the museum, also spoke at the unveiling and said: “Kashmir has always had a major role to play in the psyche of Pakistanis today as well as in the psyche of united India and before. This is a rare moment when a federal museum in Pakistan located at the heart of Karachi has been able to excavate the mind, the skill and the craft of the Kashmiris.”
Originally published in Dawn, February 13th, 2017