A distinguished son of Kashmir, Mr. Saleem Beg is a passionate cultural activist with a substantial body of work in advocacy, conservation and writings on history and culture of Kashmir. He is a dedicated crusader of Kashmiri heritage- arts, architecture and archaeology, crafts.
35 years of selflessly serving Kashmir has led him to be fondly called ‘The Heritage Man of Kashmir’.
Mohammad Saleem Beg was born in Srinagar, the Capital of Jammu and Kashmir, in 1950. He grew up in Old Kashmir or Shaher-e-Khaas. This is where we find original residents following their daily pursuits, thickly congested and thriving on its own culture and heritage.Saleem sir was deeply influenced by his surroundings and developed a passion and desire to protect his natural environment and heritage.
Places with iconic heritage value like the shrine of Shah-e-Hamadan on the banks of Jhelum, Khanqah-e-Maula always inspired him to protect and conserve what came down to all Kashmiris through generations. He felt emotionally and morally responsible to see that the intangible and tangible heritage properties are preserved for future generations to feel proud about.
He completed his education through the, SP college, Gandhi Memorial College and the University of Kashmir. Even as a young growing adult, his focus was clear. He was determined to work and see Kashmir brought back to its historic and cultural glory.
During our interaction, he threw light on his growing up years in the downtown Srinagar and its urban setting. He stated that the Srinagar of 70s had a vibrant cultural spread where crafts, literature, festivals and other aspects of heritage were thriving in a manner that created an enabling ecosystem for many of the young persons who had inclination towards working for societal causes within the community space. Friendships were a unique mix of school mates, crafts persons, children from the families of shrine keepers. Craft shops along the river and occasional tourists who would engage with local boys were a familiar sight. He counted his reasonable command of English an asset that exposed him to a melange that included crafts persons, merchants, men of letters and social and political activists.
Growing up in this intensely inquisitive environment, led him to understand the human capital that Kashmir has and that has given it an identity and a brand.
He joined the government services in 1975. He knew that if you want to bring change, then working from the inside is the best solution. In the government system, he got an opportunity to work with the sectors like handlooms and handicrafts, local industries, and tourism, which he calls an inner calling.
Saleem Beg served Kashmir’s handloom sector for 18 years where he focused on the promotion of textiles and crafts.
These were happening years in the country when handicrafts and handlooms were a thrust area and therefore prioritized for promoting its essentials, the traditional technologies, cultural skill base and employment.
It was also during this period that the J & K Government sought assistance from the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation, CFTC, London for revival of Kashmir tweeds.
Along with Scottish tweed specialists Mr. Martin Hardingham, Saleem sir was put in charge of this project and made the local counterpart specialist. This project was a phenomenal success which, apart from design support for the tweeds, also provided it with backward and forward linkages in utilizing the local merino wool, mainly from the traditional weaving belt of Pulwama and Chadoora.
The manufacturing and design process of the tweed was based on the world-famous Harris tweed. He also extensively traveled through the tweed country of Scotland for familiarization with the essential features of the tweed industry.
During this time, another major initiative was the UNDP assistance for promotion of woolen processing and given the forward integration through CFTC project, Kashmir tweed became a brand in its entirety.
He vividly remembers visits of great promoters of the crafts, especially handloom sector like PupulJaikar, L C Jain, Rehmatullah Khan, Rajeev Sethi, Jaya Jaitly and others whose seminal role is part of the history of revival of creative sectors and cultural industries.
His contribution and work in Kashmir was nationally noticed and the Textile Ministry requested for his services and he was placed in charge of a National level promotional organization, Association of corporations and societies of handlooms (ACASH) in the office of Development Commissioner Handlooms at Delhi.
This, he states, “became a major springboard and an enabler to devise programs and activities with a national outreach”.
He was awarded an EEC Funded Fellowship in 1988 at the University of Leuven. Belgium, primarily for understanding the changing markets for traditional textiles. He finally got the opportunity to work with the artisans, understand their issues, and find solutions to preserve these art forms. During this stint, he worked on marketing projects for the glorious Indian textiles.
During his tenure at Delhi the most significant market outreach for Indian Handlooms, the Festival of India, was launched that provided him with an opportunity to work with designers, crafts persons, exhibition specialists from different textile centers in the country and then coordinating with agencies and design.
After his return from the deputation from GOI, he was posted as Managing Director for Handlooms, also for some time Handicrafts, Sales and Export Corporation, positions he held for 6 years.
Kashmir, around this time was recovering from a long spell of militancy and the State government put a lot of emphasis on revival of Tourism. He was put in charge of the Tourism Department and posted as Director General Tourism in 2002. This was the recovery phase of the travel industry in Jammu and Kashmir that involved sensitive handling of promotion, publicity, infrastructure and reconstruction. The programs devised during this period had a positive and productive impact with phenomenal results.
Retired in 2008, after a long tenure of serving as Director General of Tourism, life had other plans for him. The vast experience in crafts and tourism could not be allowed to wither. He was always exploring newer avenues and options to take his mission of public service forward.
He formally opted for Heritage Conservation by opening the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). He took over the responsibilities of convenor INTACH J&K chapter on a full-time basis after his retirement.
(INTACH) was founded in 1984 in New Delhi with the purpose to spearhead heritage awareness and conservation in India. Today INTACH is recognized as one of the world’s largest heritage organizations, with over 150 Chapters across the Country.It is running programs for training and capacity building in all aspects of heritage conservation and management.
He worked as Convener INTACH for around a decade. During this period, he supervised mapping of cultural resources of Srinagar and its built heritage. He set up a mapping protocol based on the all India pattern developed by INTACH that has recorded the architectural details of over 800 structures for the city of Srinagar.
This was subsequently expanded to other parts of the State. In the case of major monuments/structures, this mapping was followed by detailed documentation and digitalisation in such a manner that in the case of any damage or destruction, the same structure can be reconstructed from scratch.
In fact, this documentation and digitalisation was put to test after the unfortunate fire at Dastgeer Sahib shrine, Khanyar when the State Government entrusted INTACH with reconstruction of the shrine. The Intach team took up this onerous task and the result was the most faithful reconstruction to its original shape, size along with all the architectural features.
Apart from these, the chapter also worked on monuments, shrines, and heritage sites that were decaying due to neglect. Most structures, centuries old, like Aali Masjid, Manasbal Temple, Gulmarg Palace, and Mughal Gardens were once again brought back to their grandeur and fame.
Apart from major restoration projects which led to the conservation of Kashmiri heritage, the highlights were the restoration of Mughal era camel hump-shaped OontKadal in the middle of Dal Lake and Aali Masjid the 15th Century mosque and 17thThagBaab Sahib (RA) shrine in Srinagar, both with financial assistance from international agencies.
A major intervention in heritage education under Saleem sir’s supervision was a broad-based art integrated learning program implemented with support of Dorabji Tata Trust, Mumbai, in 100 schools in the Jammu and Kashmir province in the year 2010.
The program ran for three years and resulted in creating a capacity and a pool of trained teachers in heritage preservation and education through the medium of arts. The project software and methodology was developed under the guidance of eminent experts in this field.
Saleem Beg sir led from the front and INTACH emerged as a prime organization in the promotion of art and culture. Its credibility and validation made its presence felt in all circles, which had an impact on the heritage of Kashmir.
With the treasure trove of knowledge and experience, he worked with various Universities like Jamia Millia Islamia, Kashmir University, Central Universities at Srinagar and Jammu and the University of Illinois, USA which provided the foundation for high academic credentials in art and heritage.
His dedication and the struggle to resurrect, restore, protect, and refurbish Kashmir’s heritage and legacy, led him to be noticed by State and Central governments and various international bodies.
In 2013, he was appointed as a whole-time member and Chairman of the prestigious National Monument Authority(NMA), a statutory body set up under an act of Parliament to preserve the nationally protected monuments and their historic setting.
UNESCO, the United Nations educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has the mandate of promoting international cooperation in its defined fields by promoting knowledge sharing and free flow of ideas to accelerate mutual understanding among the communities.
In India, a tangible intervention in preservation of heritage led to establishment of the trust, Indian Heritage Cities Network, IHCN, with an office at Bangalore. Based on his work and understanding of the complexities of urban heritage he was made a founder trustee of this trust where he was also listed as UNESCO expert on heritage.
UNESCO initially awarded a project to the J & K Chapter with him as Convener for documentation and restoration of SPS Museum Srinagar. The detailed report by the chapter was highly regarded by UNESCO.
The chapter took on the responsibility of preparing the dossier for inclusion of Srinagar in another of the UNESCO programs, Creative Cities Network. This dossier brought out the strengths of the city for its enlistment supported by surveys, research and documentation.
In 2021, the dossier was accepted and Srinagar joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN).This huge achievement was mainly due to the efforts taken by Saleem sir.
The cities which are part of this, commit to sharing their best practices and developing partnerships involving the public and private sectors as well as civil society in order to strengthen the creation, production, distribution and dissemination of cultural activities, goods and services. They also pledge to develop hubs of creativity and innovation and broaden opportunities for creators and professionals in the cultural sector.
The work done under the guidance of Saleem sir was highly acclaimed, earning praise from the highest authority of the land. This inscription led to improving the brand Kashmir, in crafts and folk arts. The city has a history of producing finest of the handicrafts like shawls, carpets, wood carving, papier mache etc. This global recognition has opened new vistas for the sector and also, recognition of the deftness and ingenuity of its crafts persons.
Saleem sir says,” We prepared the dossier to highlight the genuineness of Srinagar’s claim to be recognised as a UNESCO heritage city”
His sentiments were echoed by several others including Jammu & Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha who labeled it an “ultimate recognition for artisans & weavers of J&K.” Junaid Azim Mattu, the city’s mayor also lauded the achievement drawing attention to the fact that Srinagar was now the only Indian city among UNESCO’s list of ‘Creative Cities of Art and Craft.’
Hard work and the right approach always opens pathways, if you believe in yourself and your cause.
In lieu of his exemplary public service and dedication, the State government bestowed him with the Lifetime Achievement Award in the year 2016. This award was an acknowledgement for 35 years of his service. He is also known as the Heritage Man for his decades of hard work in the field of culture and heritage.
Awards and recognition kept flowing in throughout his career – totally well deserved.
Apart from the above, he has been awarded by a number of Universities, and NGOs for his path-breaking work in the field of research and documentation.
Knowing his need and desire to keep working, I was eager to know his future plans for Kashmir. In an informal interaction, he laid out a vision and a broad outline of the future course that he has charted for himself and for the larger cultural fraternity.
He detailed out the promotion and resetting of the creative industries, the arts and crafts that are a key to economic uplift as also giving an identity and dignity to its practitioners and the community they represent.
A newer and hitherto lesser explored area, the documentary heritage of Kashmir, will be the focus, while he prepares for networking and identifying partners locally for this. He believes this heritage will, in future, form part of the UNESCO program ‘Memory of the World’.
A major initiative in this direction was taken when a week-long exhibition, panel discussions and awareness and familiarization of Persian heritage of Kashmir was organized in Srinagar in November 2022.
He expressed that another thrust will be to work toward rehabilitation of the vernacular architecture through informed follow-up on the implementation of the related laws on their preservation, providing professional support to the line organizations like Municipalities and ULBs and expert services for restoration, conservation and wherever needed, sympathetic expansion.
He sounds hopeful that institutional interventions by various governmental bodies like Smart City Program, heritage restoration by the department of Culture are shaping up well with the right kind of approach and implementation. He also sees healthy interventions in the public awareness in the environmental and other sectors due to efforts of credible local NGOs who have been doing some exemplary work for some time now.
The Amir Khusro famous quote on Kashmir “Gar Bar-ru-e-ZaminAst; HaminAst, HaminAstHaminAst.” has justified the splendor of this place in the most perfect way calling it Paradise on Earth”.
It is because of passionate and dedicated people like Mohammad Saleem Beg sir, that the grandeur of Kashmir will be preserved for generations to come. We salute the efforts put in by one man during one lifetime in making India proud of its heritage and culture.
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