Masood Hussain, the famous Kashmiri painter, is pained at seeing Lal Chowk – the commercial and political hub of Kashmir – in ruins.
“Lal Chowk doesn’t attract me,” he said.
Hussain is known for painting remote areas and the summer capital Srinagar’s deep downtown.
“I don’t love concrete,” he said. “I think nobody has clearly painted the City Center.”
Hussain thinks artists have a sense of aesthetics, which is missing from Lal Chowk due to the successive government’s failure in preserving the heritage and the indigenous architecture of the area.
When the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad was the chief minister of the State, the government had roped in Hussain for Lal Chowk’s beautification plan.
J&K Bank had agreed to sponsor the beautification plan and the bank’s former chief executive officer Haseeb Drabu had shown keen interest in the project.
Soon Hussain started work on the project and came up with some drawings and a three-dimensional model.
In his view, the Ghanta Ghar or the clock tower, which had emerged as a political symbol only two decades ago, after being built by Bajaj Electricals as an advertisement, did not represent anything about the place and people or its culture and heritage.
Hussain had given a concept of calligraphy and proposed a 40-feet structure on the pattern of an almond structure carved out of stones inside Badamwari (Almond Alcove) in place of the old Ghanta Ghar.
“The proposal was approved during the tenure of Ghulam Nabi Azad as the chief minister of the State,” he said. “Even the then City Mayor Salman Sagar approved the proposal.”
Noted poet, writer and satirist Zareef Ahmad Zareef has nostalgic memories of Lal Chowk.
“Lal Chowk used to be a place for hanging out of elites and some people from the old city would come here to have Lipton (sweet) tea as people then only used to drink pink salt tea at their homes,” he said. “Others would come to Lal Chowk for watching movies, purchasing watches, clothes for the groom, shoes and radio sets.”
Zareef informs Lal Chowk was named so by noted undivided Indian communist Sajad Haider and his followers from India as well as Kashmir.
Zareef said, influenced by the communist takeover in Russia in 1946, Sajad Haider and his other communist followers unfurled a red flag near Palladium Cinema and named the area Lal Chowk.
On November 2, 1947, after the division of the subcontinent on religious lines, Sheikh Abdullah, the former prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, along with Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India addressed a massive gathering in Lal Chowk on the banks of River Jhelum.
In 1947, Sheikh Abdullah was made the Emergency Administrator from Lal Chowk and later went on to become the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
Abdullah too inspired by the communist revolution had used red color for his party National Conference flag and plough as a symbol.
Noted Kashmiri historian Fida Mohammad Hasnain said communists like B N Bazaz, P N Jalali, Gayasuddin and G M Sadiq would often meet at now Court Road in a building owned by Ghulam Mohuiddin Karra’s family.
“The place was called Study Circle and often influential communists like Faiz Ahmad Faiz would visit there,” he said.
According to Hasnain, these communists had decided in 1938 to name the area Lal Chowk, which over the years went on to become the nerve center of the economic and political activities of Srinagar.
However, with haphazard constructions, urban pressure resulting from vehicular traffic, lack of civic amenities and a general erosion of the architectural fabric of the area, the present day Lal Chowk encounters many issues.
Lack of proper parking, no proper pedestrian system, abandoned and half-demolished structures and disproportional assembly of shop signboard are some of the issues Lal Chowk faces.
Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) Chairman Ghulam Nabi Qasba said the corporation was working on beautification of Lal Chowk.
SMC has placed flower vases in the entire area so that tourists and people visiting the city center like being around.
The government is also planning to implement some developmental schemes to give a facelift to the area.
Minister for Urban Development Nawang Rigzin Jora said he would soon hold a review meeting on Lal Chowk and see what schemes the government could implement to develop the area.
“I only took over the ministry a few months back and will soon look into the development of Lal Chowk,” he said.
Few years back, Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) came up with a ‘Heritage Conservation Plan for Lal Chowk Area’ in a 31-page document suggesting development of road with central verge toward southern side of Lal Chowk, construction of a pedestrian plaza, development of erstwhile Palladium Cinema site for public facilities, declaring Lal Chowk as parking-free zone, restoration of damaged heritage buildings and uniform color scheme of all building facades.
“There is no architectural continuity between one building and another building,” INTACH Kashmir Chapter Convener Saleem Beg said. “Lal Chowk development is construction-centric.”
Beg said they had proposed the government recommendations for the beautification of Lal Chowk, which were not taken seriously.
However, Nasir Aslam Wani, the Member of Legislative Assembly for Amira Kadal constituency of which Lal Chowk is an important part, said the government used INTACH’s inputs for Lal Chowk’s development.
“When I took over as MLA Amira Kadal in 2008, Lal Chowk had lost its identity and tourists standing in Lal Chowk would ask where Lal Chowk was,” Wani said.
After Wani took over, Lal Chowk got street lightening, work on walkways was undertaken and Ghanta Ghar was rebuilt with a new design.
Though Lal Chowk has remained the emotional and sentimental heart of Kashmir, it has not caught the fancy of its musicians, filmmakers or its artists.
Famous Kashmiri singer Waheed Jeelani said there is almost nothing on Lal Chowk in Kashmir music, lyrics as well as videos.
“Kashmir music though finds mention about Mughal Gardens, Dal Lake, Pahalgam and Gulmarg,” he said.
Playwright and filmmaker Arshad Mushtaq shares Jeelani’s views.
“Kashmir’s photojournalists have captured Lal Chowk to a considerable extent, but in theatre and films, not much has come up about it,” he said.
“Much literature has not come on Lal Chowk directly although it should have been at the centre stage for the past 60 years,” Mushtaq said.
While Lal Chowk does not find mention in the works of local artists and writers, various international writers have written elaborately on it.
Even Salman Rushdie in his book ‘Shalimar the Clown’, writes elaborately about Lal Chowk, the Bund and the strangely named shop – Suffering Moses.
Ghanta Ghar (The clock tower)
Bajaj Electricals built the Ghanta Ghar in 1980, only for commercial reasons, in the city center. It was a huge advertisement opportunity for Bajaj Electricals in Lal Chowk. In the beginning the clock tower was nothing more than a fancy construction and a popular landmark with no political symbolism for the residents of Srinagar.
The clock tower attained political relevance in 1992 when the then Bharatiya Janta Party chief Murli Manohar Joshi came to hoist the Indian national flag at Lal Chowk.
What makes Lal Chowk the City Center
Important Landmarks: Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower), The Bund, River Jhelum, Polo Ground, Ahadoos, Pistonji Building (Now Hotel Residency), Khan News Agency, Abdullah News Agency, Akhara Building, Hotel Lala Rukh, Palladium Cinema, Makroo Building, The Saddar Court, Residency Road
Areas: Koker Bazaar, Maisuma, Amira Kadal, Sheikh Bagh, Hari Singh High Street, Abi Guzar
Shops: Coffee Shop, Mahatta, Suffering Moses, Sunchasers, Blue Fox, Shakti Sweets
Lanes: Polo View, State Bank of India lane, Lambert Lane, Regal Lane, Press Colony, Abi Guzar Lane, Forest Lane, Court Road
Bridges: Budshah Bridge, Amira Kadal, Foot Bridge over Jhelum
Parks: Pratap Park, Municipal Park
Faisul Yaseen can be mailed at email@example.com