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By | Syed Safa Chishti 

Srinagar: Handicrafts and Handlooms in Kashmir have played a pivotal role in building its socioeconomic structure. Comprising of paper mache, pashmina, pottery, zari works, carpet weaving, etc., this sector has been one of the major forces in attaining Kashmir’s recognition globally. However, in recent times, the sectors have faced some setbacks in their functioning amongst their constant battle between making ends meet and keeping the shrunken tradition relevant due to inattentiveness on them. 

Hailing from South Kashmir, Farooq Ahmad Mir worked under the cyclic sounds of a spinning wheel, Charkha for 90 years. He narrates the tale of witnessing his family’s long business dying in front of his eyes with a heavy heart. “The government had established handloom development department to look after handloom operations but they don’t pay much attention toward us now. We are compelled to work individually on our own as we buy raw materials from local dealers then sell them to brokers”. He further emphasizes the additional issues highlighting the matter. “One piece of original Pashmina Kani shawl ranges from one lakh to 5 lahks, people now don’t prefer to buy such costly cloth even internationally because of the inferiority mixture in the raw material,” said Mir.

Mir’s heart fully reveals how his once steady line of income has now unfortunately turned into a boon for them. “My children express their dissent over wanting to continue this profusion. I don’t have the strength to watch my ancestral profession dying” he said.

Like Mir, many traditional businesses are slowly witnessing a phase of decline in their work. For the past 70 years, Abdul Rahman ran his traditional handloom business in Pulwama. The work initially came to a halt and now has stopped coming their way as opportunities, as Rahman mentions seem to have vanished. “I had followed in my family’s footsteps in this business. Initially, the work went well, but after a couple of years, there is a dearth. Rarely do we get orders from outside. We have nothing to look forward to. Had there been centers dedicated to us, we would have received more work. Now people are opting for different work streams and opportunities because there is no scope left in this sector. When there is no raw material what do we do? Our only stream of income comes from the only days that we work, he explains.

National award-winning artist Maqbool Jan from Srinagar calls out the department’s system for not giving enough thorough insight into laying the foundation of the art by inculcating it within children who would have opted for such arts as their future. “Had the government cared about the work of the artisans, they would have come up with long-term plans for securing the future of this art and thereby artisan by introducing it into our education system and further making measures to protect this art. Otherwise, what does just a degree do without any scope?”

Jan believes the department’s weakness lies in the very fact that despite being aware of these details, no seriousness is seen from their system. “The foundation of this industry in Kashmir valley was built by artisans because of the income it brought to Kashmir. Tourists came and showed their limitless interest.  The department recruited people and officials who even today receive their salaries and have secure retirement plans. What did it do to us though? Where do we lie after bringing so much recognition through traditional art to the Valley?” He interrogates.

Like Rahman, Mohammad Akbar and his son Arshid have given decades to this industry too. “It has been a couple of years since the government has not been taking interest in this sector and now it’s slowly dying. In a year we have worked for only one month and not for the next eleven months. No raw material has made us unable to work”

The shrunken functioning has made them helpless and unemployed, explains Arshid, “We cannot work without help. We are unemployed right now. I cannot look for different work because what can I do now? I cannot learn a new skill at this point.  Initially, the state handloom corporation used to flourish. Now we seldom work for private. It’s sinking now compelling us to look for alternative jobs. There are just these looms that are now empty. We have no other option than to leave it”, he said.

Kamal Qureshi (name changed), runs a showroom in Lal Chowk and has been in the business for about 25 years. Kamal feels that buying and selling products do affect their sales too, although much of the consideration must be laid on the ones affected by it the most. “Traditional handloom society and machine-made pieces are both sold by us. However, more consideration towards the seriously hit workers in this industry affected is surely worrisome because we face having the advantage to suffer the losses and enjoy profits both when rates fluctuate every 6 months. But the work of the traditionally hit artisans needs attention too.”

Raising doubts over insecure the future of this art, Maqbool Jan questions the notion of only artisans’ children must carry on with the tradition forward as vague. “Had art been studied and taught in schools from lower primary classes to university levels for those who wish it take up, Kashmiri art would have done wonders than where it is today. We have so many talented people from this land. Earlier the artisans were present in lakhs, now the numbers have gone down to 1600. Apart from Biscoe, Mallinson, and DPS, hardly any other schools have included it in their course. Let our children choose but give them the avenues for them too”

He deliberates on how the dearth of valuing Kashmiri art has been lowered more by a lack of know-how from its people. “I once was invited to visit a University and they had no idea of what handicrafts are. It becomes clear henceforth as to nobody values us. Even my children will take this art up only when artisans will have a respectable future ahead in Kashmir. Education in any form in any manner needs to be valued”

Maqbool Jan highlights how the reception and treatment of art in other countries prioritize such sectors with utmost importance. “Here it has no value. Paper Mache, handlooms, and handicrafts exist here because artisans have kept them alive. Truth be told, that’s how even the handicrafts department came into force

Director of Handicrafts & Handloom Kashmir, Mehmood Ahmad Shah deliberated on the matter stating the methods and attempts to enhance both sectors to an elevation are equally being prioritized through serious approaches. “The department has been merged into handicrafts and handloom. Both of them were initially segregated at first but now we have one department looking after both of them because we don’t differentiate between them”. He further informs, “All the schemes which have been initiated in the last two years have laid emphasis equally on both of them. We have financial assistance to look after the societies where we aggregate provide the artisans with the required assistance”

Under the national scheme Pradhan Mantri Weavers MUDRA Yojana, Mehmood informs that the department offers adequate financial support to the artisans and weavers. “We provide artisan credit cards scheme where the 7% interest subsidy on the loans is covered by the department which offers loans to the artisans. Education scheme charges of two children are also managed henceforth”. 

Mehmood Shah agrees introduction of power looms has led to the marginalization of handloom workers. “To ensure that the pieces made on handlooms are given the deserved importance through GI tags for markets helps to recognize and sell the handmade pieces. That explains that the ones apart from the GI tag are made on power looms. For this, we are focusing on the advertisement and promotion of GI at airports, hoarding, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. The aim is to explain why people should purchase handmade instead of machine-made” 

Geographical Indication tagging or GI-tag officially ensures that none other than those registered as authorized users or the pieces that correspond to a specific location or origin allow using the popular product name. GI tagging thereby offers a solution to safeguard Kashmiri handicrafts, and artisans, ensuring the genuineness of the products. 

He further explains the initialization of other schemes too. “There was a scheme were we had to establish a raw material bank. There has been put a fresh proposal to the government to offer funds for establishing raw materials. That project will be complete by March this year. Raw material banks will correspond to wool and for pashmina”

The art of handicrafts involving paper mache was introduced to India in the 14th century by the Persian mystic Mir Syed Ali Hamdani. Having existed for centuries, the art has however struggled to stay relevant among people amidst the advancement with time as per Maqbool Jan.

Maqbool shares his experiences with the department that made him realize how art has already vanished in the Valley. “Registration clerks have kept me waiting for long hours by themselves sitting idly just to renew my card”, he added. “When I was going to receive an award for my work, I went to get some formalities done at the offices where their clerks asked for a bribe. It made me question repeatedly about what kind of an award was it worth for?”

He stressed that the current generation must know the value of an artist since they are clueless about what artisans do and offer to Kashmir. “Our presence is only needed when they need us and our pieces for displaying to represent the face of Kashmir. Foreign artists who do the same work are attended to and showered with extravagances but artisans from their land must ask for even a little respect from our department to watch over us. What is the difference between them and us?” he asks. “There’s no passion or care for their artisans. When the Divisional Commissioner once had asked names for artisans in order to recommend handicrafts, it’s hard to believe that the same department took about one year to respond to them properly”, Jan complains.

Maqbool shares how even in events when asked to represent Kashmir to display their pieces, brings them losses. “I went to Dubai where not only I was not allowed to sell my goods. I was asked to stay in the hotel which became a rat trap for me. What was the fun of me taking it there then? It cost me so many expenses plus I missed those days of work unnecessarily. Just for the demonstration I had to skip my actual work. Everyone received their salaries working for the department and took charge of their expenses. What did I earn?”.

Maqbool urges the department to look into the issue by motivating the students through education in schools to take up this art before it dies forever. “The award I won for making a map of Srinagar City, the glass paintings or fabrics are just products to people here. People need to know about Kashmiri art. I got to know about this too from my fathers. Someone has to start worrying about the future of this traditional art too because I and artisans like me may not live for that long”

He hopes for this sector to flourish and progress for that future generations witness it too. “Art does not die even if the artisans die, but sadly with no knowledge of what the art is and what it stands for, death of these traditional arts may become the unfortunate fate of Kashmiri handicrafts and handlooms”