A stunning collaboration among Kashmiri artists will soon adorn the sprawling Terminal 2, scheduled to open in September at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
A mural featuring the arts and crafts of Kashmir was previewed in the state capital, Srinagar, last week before making its way to Mumbai to become part of a 1.2-kilometre wall of murals in the new terminal's arrivals corridor.
Conceived and curated by the Padma Bhushan award-winner and stenographer Rajeev Sethi, the wall of murals is tentatively titled Thresholds of India or Eternal India. It will feature art by more than 28 artists from all parts of India who work in a variety of mediums. The final mural will be the largest public art project in the country, said Sethi, the principal art adviser for Mumbai's new terminal.
Even though Indian artists have made their mark internationally, there is a dearth of public art in the country. Real estate barons and banks might commission large installations within their premises, but these are few and far between.
Sethi, for example, has been trying to recreate the sprawling Silk Road Festival he curated and created for The Smithsonian in 2002 - with little success. This time, he says, he persuaded the GVK Group, which is building the new airport terminal, to earmark a portion of the budget for public art. Since airline terminals are both temperature controlled and have security, it is possible to dream up ambitious projects such as the Kashmiri mural, which uses fragile mediums such as papier mâché to magnificent effect.
The subtly coloured Kashmiri section of the mural was unveiled at a ceremony by the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, with Kashmiri elite in attendance. Called Conjoined Lands, the mural explores Kashmir's place, both culturally and geographically, along the Silk Route.
Sethi has been involved with artisans in Kashmir for the last 30 years. "The Silk Route was humanity's first global exchange, a precursor to the internet," he says. "Kashmir embodies 'Kashmiriyat' - a quality the young holding guns today can barely understand. It provided traders not just a passive transit or a mere conduit in their travels. It was a transformative rite of passage from which no person, institution or religion emerged unscathed."
From the 15th century, when craftspeople from Persia and the Middle East made their homes in Kashmir, there was a confluence of the three religions that percolated through Kashmir: Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. These three faiths were not seen as separate by the people who lived here; rather they were conjoined like the branches of the beautiful chinar trees that stud the region's landscape.
Sethi commissioned two acclaimed Baroda-based artists, Nilima Sheikh and BV Suresh to execute the Kashmir art section. Sheikh and Suresh used Sethi's extensive connections with the artisans in Kashmir to commission works from them.
"Each section was anchored by an artisan who in turn used a variety of other artisans to execute the final product," says Sheikh. "In that sense, it is a completely collaborative and multilayered work with no [artistic] signatorial presence."
The final mural brings to life the interconnected streams and living traditions that are borrowed from Central and South-west Asia. It features all the arts that Kashmir is famous for: papier mâché headed by Fayaz Ahmad Jan; glazed terracotta tiles by Ghulam Muhammad Qumar; walnut-wood carving by Khalil M Kalwal; wood panels called khatamband by Muhammad Yousuf Najar; lacy lattice work used on windows and doors called pinjarakari by Shakeel Ahmad Najar; crafted houseboat designs by Nazir Ahmad Muran.
Each team of craftspeople worked on the project for close to two years. Jan used 12 papier mâché craftsman to create his section of the mural and the process took about a year and a half.
"When we unveiled the exhibit, the Kashmiri people were very happy because it shows the world what is possible in Kashmir," Jan says.
Sethi described Kashmir as a gathering place for the arts and described its role in poetic terms: "Stand anywhere in Srinagar or float on its lakes of paradise, and you will feel the fragrance of Bokhara, the street scapes of Isfahan, the motifs of China or the immeasurable presence of Sadashiva permeate your senses, expanding one's notion of land or being. This is Kashmir."