Discussions of Kashmir tend to revolve around chaos, border wars and ideological struggle. Since the Subcontinent was divided in 1947, this mountainous region in India's northwestern corner has been the source of consistent conflict, with both India and Pakistan claiming it as their own. The curators of "The Arts of Kashmir" at New York's Asia Society (through Jan. 6) are hoping to change the subject. "Today, when we think of Kashmir, often it seems to equate with political troubles," says Asia Society president Vishakha Desai. "What we don't know is how important the region is as a cultural and intellectual center."
Like Kashmir itself, the show brings together a broad range of cultures. There are Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim works, as well as a small painting of the Archangel Gabriel surrounded with Persian writing and embroidered coats worn by Sikhs in the 19th century. Sometimes there are several influences apparent at once; in a room dedicated to the delicate weavings Kashmir is famous for, there are robes woven for Sikhs, French-designed shawls bearing India's national bird, the peacock, and a Chinese-influenced shawl adorned with dragons. And two pages from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism, which were painted by Kashmiri Muslims on commission, incorporate Hindu and secular imagery. One page shows the Hindu god Vishnu reclining on a lotus mandala—a traditionally Buddhist symbol.
Assembling the works was not easy; it took the Asia Society and guest curator Pratapaditya Pal, a leading expert on Kashmiri art, six years to gather the 138 pieces from 41 sources. "This was one of those exhibits where we were biting our nails until the moment the objects arrived," says Desai. It includes 14 works on loan from the government museum in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar—most of which have never before been seen outside India—valued at $37.5 million. With 12 languages spoken, says Pramod Jain, the officer in charge of arts and culture for Jammu and Kashmir, proudly, Kashmir is "far more multicultural than any other part of India."
Desai says the pieces from Srinagar have been maintained surprisingly well. "Imagine the museum: it has barbed wire, is heavily guarded by militias, and parts have no electricity," she says. "The conditions are very poor, but the staff's spirit is in the right place." Given that 95 percent of the region is Muslim and religion is so key to the current conflict, she says, it's especially laudable that the objects—many of them Hindu or Buddhist—have been so well protected.
While the exhibit asks viewers to see the show as evidence of multicultural harmony, hints of conflict thread through the small maze of rooms. Viewers enter a room full of Hindu sculptures, including a bronze Ganesh and a copper-alloy Vishnu. Here one can see the overlap of Hindu and Buddhist influence, including a delicate copper sculpture from the early seventh century that could be either the creator of all Buddhists, Prajnaparamita, or the Hindu goddess of learning and wisdom, Sarasvati. But in the next area, the art becomes dominated by Muslim works; as a placard next to one painting explains, "By the Mughal period, all signs of Buddhism had vanished, and there were only a small group of Hindu priests."
The exhibit's curators argue that Kashmiris have demonstrated their resilience through art, and the delicate detail, style and form on display show that despite centuries of turmoil, the region gave rise to artists who shared certain sensibilities. "You see a consistency through the works," says Desai. "Whether they're Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim, the body types are similar, the style is similar, and all show a respect and love of the material itself." Visitors will see patterns throughout; the fastidious detail paid to tiny gold calligraphy in a Qur'an on loan from India, for example, echoes the careful attention paid to each tiny stitch in a shawl depicting a map of Srinagar.
Desai hopes that the show, the first of its kind in the United States, will help change Kashmir's image abroad. "We just passed the 60th anniversary of partition," she says. "The Chinese say that you are reborn on your 60th year. I'm hoping that on our 60th anniversary, there will be a rebirth, and wiser minds will prevail." Bringing together images born out of peaceful religious coexistence can only speed the process.