These artisans in Srinagar are trying to keep rare handicrafts alive

The government is also steamrolling efforts to revive the handicrafts and showcase it to the world

Kashmiri men doing crewel workers
Kashmiri men doing crewel workers

Anjana Sankar

Published: Thu 20 Jan 2022, 11:41 PM

Last updated: Fri 21 Jan 2022, 7:34 PM

The narrow, dusty lane that winds through the old town of Srinagar is dotted with rundown wood and stone houses, leading to a small carpet showroom — not more than the size of a modest bedroom. A treasure trove of intricately woven silk and pashmina carpets, starkly modern against the setting, is splendidly displayed on the walls and neatly rolled in the corners.

A silk carpet with a dual portrait of the UAE’s Founding Father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, with a price tag of Indian Rs200,000, and a Rs700,000 silk carpet with the name of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) written in Arabic calligraphy and embossed with silver ‘zari’ work are a few of the contemporary creations by Shahnawaz Ahmad Sofi, who owns SS Carpets.

Shahnawaz with his carpet depicting UAE rulers
Shahnawaz with his carpet depicting UAE rulers

is a fourth-generation carpet weaver in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, famed worldwide for its finest carpets and craftsmanship. A graduate in fine arts, Sofi, 38, says he is trying out ‘fresh and contemporary’ twist to the centuries-long tradition in order to revive an industry that has suffered setbacks from Kashmir’s protracted political turbulence and militancy. “We have to move with the times,” says Sofi. “I think these new designs will make a cut in the international market.”

“People associate Kashmiri carpets with the traditional Persian or Central Asian patterns. We are clearly departing from those traditions and trying out bold, new styles,” said the young businessman who is currently exhibiting his wares in the India pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai that is hosting a two-week long Jammu Kashmir outreach programme to promote trade and tourism in the newly created Union Territory. “It is a great opportunity that we could not think of till a few years ago.”

70 year old Ghulam Nabi Dar with his walnut wood carving
70 year old Ghulam Nabi Dar with his walnut wood carving

Sofi’s enthusiasm to reinvent is reflective of a desperation to breathe new life into a dying industry. Add to it the popularity of Chinese-made silk yarn and other fake replicas flooding the market, the unthreading of the Kashmiri carpet industry is hastening.

Holding up against hardships

A handful of weaving houses are still holding up enduring long, difficult working hours and poor wages to keep the craft alive. In the first floor of a shabby, rundown building in old-town Srinagar, Irshad and another weaver sit hunched over a loom. Sunlight diffidently trickles through the glass windows of the stuffy manufacturing unit where they work on the loom 10-12 hours daily. “This is a 1800x2740 cm pashmina carpet. It will take anything between 15 and 18 months to complete with three weavers,” says Irshad, as his fingers keep moving deftly on the two horizontal wooden beams with wrap threads stretched in between. He earns Rs 300-350 (Dh20 approximately) a day — a tiny fraction compared to the Rs 20-25,00,000 that the carpet could fetch. “I have been doing this job for the past 20 years,” says Irshad. “This is the only craft I know. Covid literally wiped out all the jobs in Kashmir last year and we could hardly survive. Now, at least we have work though wages have further fallen.”

Reviving Kashmiri handicraft

It’s not just the carpet industry that needs a breather. Kashmir is also famous for its craftsmen who do wood carving, crewel work and chain stitches but decades of insurgency and lack of exposure has led to degeneration of these crafts. Dwindling number of customers and profits are pushing many to take up other jobs. Seventy-year old Ghulam Nabi Dar, a woodcarver from Safa Kadal, says he has not seen many customers in recent years. “I started when I was 10 years old. I am still learning even after 50 years of being in the trade. This is the only job I know but we’re not getting enough customers,” says Dar. Carved walnut woodwork is among the most important crafts of Kashmir, which is now one of the few places in the world where walnut is still available at an altitude of 5500-7500 feet above sea level.

Craft tours in Srinagar

Dar is hopeful that with Srinagar making it to the list of Unesco’s Creative Cities Network (UCCN) in 2021, the industry will get a new lease of life. The government is also steamrolling efforts to revive the handicrafts and showcase it to the world. For instance, the Department of Handicrafts and Handloom in Kashmir has introduced ‘craft tours’ to offer tourists a sneak peek into the diversity of crafts.

The ‘crafts tour’ that will take visitors through the narrow bylines of Srinagar opens a window into the lives and skills of master craftsmen and weavers whose creations are equally enticing as Kashmir’s apple orchards and snow-clad mountains. Scattered across the old town are small, stuffy sweatshops that the artisans use to create exquisite artwork in wood, cloth or metal.

A Kashmiri wood carver
A Kashmiri wood carver

In one such manufacturing unit choked with dust, Najar, an old craftsman shows off his talent in Khatamband, a ceiling made of wood work in a geometric pattern. “I learned this craft from my forefathers. This is more than just my livelihood.” He says one assignment would take weeks as the wood has to be cut and carved into different shapes by hand, and then designs are fixed on the ceiling in geometric patterns. “It is my passion,” he said alluding to the evolution of his craft and how it has taken him to places far and wide. He added the efforts by the government to promote Kashmiri crafts will create interest and awareness about Khatamband.

Mehmood Ahmad Shah, Director of Handicraft, Kashmir, said the region is home to centuries-old art and craft that needs to be recognised. “We hope these tours will restore the glory of these crafts.”

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