SRINAGAR: Kashmir may be a hotbed of violence, endless struggle and strife but its paradisiacal environs have inspired some of the most remarkable works of art and poetry – and continue to do so even now. There are several young women in the Valley, who, entranced by the abundance of natural beauty around them and influenced by a rich, varied artistic heritage, have decided to draw on their creative energies to make their mark.

Ever since she can remember Maria Shahmiri’s world has always been full of colour, light, happiness, compassion and love. At an age when girls like playing with dolls she picked up the pencil to draw the bright blue sky, the golden sun, the pretty flowering buds and the gushing silver waters of the River Jhelum. Shahmiri is all grown up today but her passion for painting nature and people is stronger than ever. “I developed a keen interest in painting when I was seven or eight years old. Even as a small child I was observant about the things that were happening around me and used to feel a strong urge to illustrate my thoughts on paper,” she shares.

As this committed Visual Arts student pulls out her stack of sketches – old and new – for a few moments she is lost in her thoughts. “Every time I see my early work I am quite amazed because it has a lot of depth and meaning, which is otherwise unusual to find in a child’s work. I am so glad that my parents recognised my talent and stood by me when I expressed the desire to be a full-time artist,” she says.

Indeed, it wasn’t an easy career choice but she has worked hard to convince her family and friends. “My parents did support my decision but they seemed worried about my future, which I realised was a genuine concern. So I talked to them openly and explained that I absolutely loved to paint and would be the happiest doing that for a living. Since then they haven’t questioned me,” she elaborates.

Shahmiri feels that art has helped her understand life better and develop an optimistic outlook. She explains, “Greek philosopher Aristotle has said that the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things but their inward significance. I truly believe in that. I have learnt to see the positive aspects of life and this hopeful attitude enables me to overcome the hurdles that come in my way. I realise that being a woman in a patriarchal society I will always have people criticising my work and my choices but in my way I will continue to stand up for myself. People generally don’t know much about art or artists so there is bound to be some disapproval. In any case, real human emotions of trust, empathy and hope inspire my work so I consciously want to look for the good in people.”

Most of her pieces are based on her general observations on people, daily conversations and chatter on the social media. “In fact, even while I am interacting on the social media I keep searching for emotions, ideas to formulate my next piece. So far, things have turned out pretty well,” she says. Yes, they certainly have. Shahmiri is extremely happy to talk about the shows where her paintings have been exhibited, “Although my works have been showcased at several exhibitions I am particularly proud of the outings at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC) in Srinagar, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi, Vadehra Art Gallery and NIV Art Centre in Delhi, and the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival (KIPAF).”

Of course, some of the most cherished moments in her life as an artist happened recently. She reveals, “I, along with some fellow artists, was painting murals showcasing rich Kashmiri culture at the Hyderpora flyover in Srinagar, when passersby stopped to appreciate our work. I could see that they were able to identify with what we were creating and that made me feel connected to them.”

The young woman hopes to start her own art institute one day and nurture new talent, “I wish to open an art institute in Kashmir where internationally-known artists can come and share their knowledge and techniques with our students here. The right kind of exposure and opportunities can make a huge difference.”

While Shahmiri has made a rewarding profession out of her passion there are others like Saba Altaf and Amreen Naqash, who are striking a perfect balance between their education and an abiding love for the arts. Arguably one of the youngest artists in Kashmir, at 21, Altaf’s paint brush allows her to express herself beyond the limitations of her business management studies. “Art is my hobby, passion, everything. I always loved drawing and colouring as a child but I have started working on it seriously from the last two years,” she says. Colours inspire her to paint, “To be very honest whenever I think of something great, I think of colours. It may sound abstract but my biggest inspiration is the colours themselves.” Naturally, she, too, is drawn to the wonders of nature which, according to her, is every artist’s ultimate guide. “Most of my paintings are somehow connected to nature or people. When I think of making something beautiful and peaceful my heart and mind both look towards nature. To me, people make for the second best subject. Their personal stories fire my imagination and I bring them to life on my canvas,” she says.

What kind of reactions do her pieces get? “Most regular people are unable to understand the vision. But that’s okay,” she says matter-of-fact, adding, “When people don't understand my art it doesn't demotivate me. Rather, it inspires me to work harder and present something better. The critics give me another story to draw.”

Like Altaf, Naqash, a student of pharmacy at the University of Kashmir, expertly straddles the world of academia and art. She has found her creative outlet in calligraphy, a specialised writing technique. “I don’t know when I developed a fondness for calligraphy but I used to love doing my own fonts for my assignments in school. My friends used to compliment me on this unique talent and suggested that I put up pictures of my work on various social networking websites. I started penning my own poems in a special font and sharing it with everyone,” says the youngster, whose calligraphy pen is among her most prized possessions.

Naqash may have started doing calligraphy purely on instinct but she practices constantly to better her penmanship. “It comes from within; I haven’t learnt it from anywhere. I just pick up the pen, dip it in the ink and start off. I use a set of traditional calligraphy nibs that come in different sizes. I turn to calligraphy when I want to find solace, but whatever I do has to be perfect. Recently, someone asked me to write the ‘Aatish-e-Chinar’, and I have done nearly 30 drafts till now but none of them are perfect just yet,” she says.

Unlike Shahmiri, Naqash is not planning to take up calligraphy in a big way because “it’s a personal thing”. “I like to share my work and even write when I receive requests but I don’t think calligraphy is very popular in India. It’s really difficult to get calligraphy paper here. Often I do it on regular paper but I have to be very careful because there are chances of blotting,” she says.

Whether as a passion, hobby or profession, it looks like the Valley girls are serious about pursuing the arts.

(Women's Feature Service)