Looms of the valley


Looms of the valley

The surroundings of Imtiyaz Aslam’s weaving centre in Narayan Bagh in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district evoke awe. The deep green of the forest, the undulating terrain, the brook lined by walnut trees, with men in pherans sipping tea by paddy fields, make this the Kashmir of popular imagination. The happy women at the centre infuse cheer that’s not easy to find among people of the valley now. Some are training as Kani shawl weavers, others are employed there. They hum along to Hindi film songs playing on a speaker and laugh as they pose for photographs.

Twenty-three-year-old Aslam, from the Wani community of weavers and in the final year of his master’s in craft management at Srinagar’s Craft Development Institute (CDI), is seen as a game-changer by his faculty. He steered his family shawl-weaving business in new directions—specializing in Kani-weaving and employing more women at their workshop, a path-breaking move. Aslam steered his family business of shawl- weaving and created a working centre for women

Just three decades ago, Kani weaving was on the verge of disappearing, for reasons ranging from a deficit in weaving skills to insufficient demand for authentic, expensive artisanal items. Today, it’s on a clear revival track, though it’s still grappling with issues such as mechanization, low wages, varying quality of yarn, weaving dexterity and fakes.

What’s made the difference is a multi-pronged effort by private traders passionate about Kashmir crafts, non-governmental organizations, the Commitment to Kashmir Trust (CtoK), set up in 2011 to develop Kashmir crafts for modern markets, and the CDI, established in 2004 by the Union and state governments.

Traditionally, Kashmiri women have not been associated with Kani-weaving. As textile anthropologist Monisha Ahmed says: “Usually, where a craft has a certain status and economic value, women play an ancillary role; they assist men. If the final product is sold, the money comes to the man as he was the ‘weaver’.”

That too is changing. Ahmed, who co-authored the book Pashmina: The Kashmir Shawl And Beyond with historian Janet Rizvi, says it is not simply a case of training craftspeople—it’s also one of “gender politics”. That is why Aslam’s workshop, which currently employs 25 women weavers (and a few boys) in the age group of 16-28, is exceptional. Girls working here contribute to family incomes even though they have barely studied till class X.

Each weaver must be above 16 years, with a primary knowledge of arithmetic (Kani-weaving follows an arithmetical graph). They must learn the fundamentals for a year and are then guided by a master craftsman for a few years. They can weave any time of the day as long as they put in 8-10 hours. An artisan is paid Rs.35,000-40,000 for each shawl, in two instalments, an advance and a final payment. These girls cannot afford a self-woven Kani shawl, but Aslam makes sure they are photographed with one when a piece is complete.

The Kani shawl, which got GI (Geographical Indication) status in 2008, is one of the most complex Indian weaves. As a symbol of Kashmiri craftsmanship, it is housed in the world’s finest museums, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the department of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Musée du Louvre in Paris has portraits of 19th century French empress Joséphine draped in a Kani.

Kani means wooden bobbins or small sticks. Shawls are woven into intricate patterns, with the weft thrown across before coloured threads are woven in on a meticulous, coded pattern drawn by a master craftsman. It is woven with pure pashmina yarn in a natural, almond-coloured base or in cream with multicoloured floral patterns, creating a striking offset. Coloured Kanis are woven too, in hues such as red, blue, green and ochre. Kani is the softer version of Jamawar—the latter are long pieces of cloth woven in the same technique. A plain pashmina shawl takes between a fortnight and a month to weave, but one Kani with all-over floral work takes a year if two artisans work on it for an average of 10 hours a day.

While historians like Janet Rizvi think the craft developed in Kashmir, there are references to outside influences during the time of Shah-e-Hamdan, a Sufi poet and prominent Muslim scholar from Persia who came to Kashmir in the 14th century. Among his followers were shawl weavers, carpet-makers, potters and calligraphers.

Kani shawl patterns—vases, creepers, floral designs—can be seen on engravings and hand-painted interiors of the Shah-e-Hamdan shrine. Located in Shamswari, on the banks of the Jhelum in old Srinagar (sheher-e-khas), this is one of the state’s oldest mosques. “Even then, there was trade and commerce, and ideas, designs and products always travelled,” says Ahmed.

The story of the Kani shawl helps track the lives and lifestyles of weavers, and the ups and downs of the shawl industry.

Take 36-year-old Haleema Mir, who comes from a family of agriculturists. She has been carding and spinning pashmina yarn since she was 17. Work was good till five years ago, when such “enemies” as carding machines began robbing them of their livelihood. Haleema, twice divorced and mother of a nine-year-old son, lives in Idgah, a Srinagar neighbourhood once known for its flourishing weaving industry. The family has not had a single order for hand-spun yarn since the floods wreaked havoc last September.

Haleema’s father, 65-year-old Ghulam Mahyuddin Mir, a despondent-looking man, says he earned Rs.3,000 a month about 30 years back and that is exactly what his daughter makes today.

The once prosperous Mirs live in a traditional wooden house with carved doors, wall-to-wall woven carpets in every room, curtains with crewel embroidery and a paddy field outside. It is an idyllic stop for the cultural Kashmir that Majid Mumtaz and Yasir Sheikh, co-founders of the travel website www.almustravel.com , want to popularize.

“Cultural Kashmir” is a “passionate” idea. Mumtaz, who is associated with New Delhi’s Kashmirloom, a design house of fine Kashmiri shawls, and Sheikh, who quit a banking job, familiarize travellers with local people, customs, ceremonies, houseboats, mosques, temples, local bazaars, the spice market, the Mughal gardens and shawl weavers. Horticulture and weaving have sustained the economy in the worst of times, says Sheikh, so it is pivotal to an understanding of Kashmir beyond the mesmerizing beauty of the Dal Lake, its famed kehwa tea and wazwan.

They take us to Noorbagh in Srinagar, where Mohammed Maqbool Sheikh, a Kani master weaver, lives in a narrow lane. Maqbool Sheikh echoes the dejection—dwindling demand, poor wages, no recognition or awards. In 22 years of work, he says, the last year has been the worst. “The general election, governmental apathy and then floods, everything got washed out,” he says bleakly. One of his dozen or so weavers, 32-year-old Ghulam Mohammed, gets Rs.10,000 a month for 24 days of weaving—given inflation, he says, it is like earning nothing.

“Till date, no rural weaver has been rewarded by the local government. Appreciation, if any, goes to traders. So we want to create a platform to celebrate the Kashmiri shawl,” says Yasir.

Lament is a predominant motif among weavers, amplified by the pall of gloom that hangs quite palpably over Srinagar. But as Sajid Nazir, a member of the CDI faculty, says: “Kashmiris have become used to mythologizing loss, and sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, there is an absence of forward mechanisms and leadership apathy, with nobody taking ownership for artisanal work, but that’s why the CDI began design intervention to refocus shawl-making and other crafts to new markets,” says Nazir. The two-year master’s in crafts management, age no bar, is aimed at equipping artisans with entrepreneurship, marketing and technological skills.

Despite the downslide caused by last year’s floods, a temporary setback, Kani shawl-weaving is in no real danger. “The number of weavers has gone up, the demand is stable here and in Europe, the prices have come down too. But the quality of weaving has drastically diminished,” says Asaf Ali of Kashmirloom. Co-founded by Ali and English designer and curator Jenny Housego, Kashmirloom has helped revitalize Kani designs and exhibits antique shawls. “Carpet weavers have migrated to shawl-making as they sell a lot more. Yet when I see the intricacy of Kanis woven two centuries back in private collections or museums, I feel weavers of that era wove them for love, not money. That love and pride in Kashmir is gone,” says Ali.

Contemporary artist Jyotsana Singh, daughter of Rajya Sabha member Karan Singh, echoes some of Ali’s sentiments. “I don’t think the demand for Kani has suffered. I see younger people wearing innovative Kanis; the market has reinvented the technique with Kani stoles and shawls with only woven borders, which are cheaper,” says Singh, the director of Srinagar’s annual Dara Shikoh Festival. Asked if Kanis hold place of pride among elite Kashmiris, Singh says they do—like the antique Jamawars.

The Kani’s current tale lies between truth and rhetoric. “That’s why it needs to be told authentically,” says Yasir A. Mir, a member of the faculty at CDI. Besides political issues and the devastation of last year’s floods, what hurts the industry is fakes, and the irregular supply of pure pashmina yarn, which comes from Ladakh.

From Amritsar-made machine jacquards that ape Kani patterns to a dozen qualities of pashmina, some mixed with wool, others with cheap synthetic fibres; from boatmen hawking “pure pashminas” for Rs.800 to tourists staying on houseboats on Nigeen Lake or Dal Lake to versions sold on high streets in cities ranging from Kochi to New Delhi, fakes are the real demons.

The irony was all too evident in an ad last year for telecom company Idea Cellular’s No ullu banaoing TV campaign. In the ad, which came in for much criticism, a Kashmiri shopkeeper was seen selling a fake pashmina to two customers, who after checking on the Internet on their phone said they knew genuine pashminas could pass the ring test. There were unhappy and critical tweets even from former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah.

The ad was seen as magnifying misconceptions. One, that Kashmiri salesmen are a deceitful lot; two, that a pashmina shawl can be passed through a ring, which is a myth. The fact is that there are indeed some “good” fakes that could potentially confuse ignorant customers.

The CDI has started a pashmina testing laboratory where fibres go through a microscopic examination to detect inauthentic produce. If even one fibre is found to be impure, the whole lot is rejected. But once it clears the test, it is labelled Kashmir Pashmina—a certificate of authenticity like the Khadi Mark or Craftmark. Only registered artisan bodies and weaving communities certified as pashmina and Kani weavers under GI can send samples for testing. There are only 300 or so such certified weavers in Kashmir, according to the CDI, which also houses a pashmina bank that is run by J&K Small Industries Development Corporation, with pure fibre purchased directly from Ladakhi traders. Spinners can buy their yarn from it.

Yet even today, most shawl-weavers working with fragile and irregular hand-spun yarn—tougher to weave than the smooth machine yarn—earn only around Rs.200 per day.

In comparison to such “soft crafts” that use fibre and textile, artisans employed in the “hard crafts”—the architectural khatamband using wood and artists making walnut-wood products—earn Rs.800-1,000 per day, as Yasir A. Mir and Nazir tell us. Both feel development schemes such as MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) have led to a large number of skilled shawl weavers looking elsewhere for higher wages, taking to construction work, lake-digging and building roads.

Aslam, whose family supplies authentic shawls to stores in New Delhi and West Asia, says, “Dubai has evolved as a profitable market for Kanis.” The wholesale price in Kashmir of an authentic Kani shawl with only woven borders is Rs.15,000-35,000. Fully woven Kanis sell for Rs.50,000 or so, and prices double in posh markets (such as Dubai, New Delhi and five-star luxury malls). At crafts bazaars, the price range is between the two extremes. Intricate Kanis in New Delhi stores such as The Carpet Cellar, Ahujasons or Kashmirloom cost more than Rs.75,000 a piece, with the finest ones priced above Rs.2 lakh. For pure pashminas, as Mir explains, the yarn must come from the Ladakhi goat Capra hircus; each strand must be 12-16 microns, handspun and handwoven—these are priced at Rs.6,000-10,000 locally. Layers of middlemen make the rates steeper in cities.

“We don’t have the budget to engage famous film stars as ambassadors, so do write about Amitabh Bachchan’s personal Kani collection; he wears them frequently,” reminds Mir.

Asaf Ali, however, feels recognition for the Kani will need more than celebrities. “We need textiles museums, enviable displays in five-star hotel arcades and art exhibitions that showcase Kanis. Kashmir needs attention, not politics,” he says.

To begin with, the Union and state governments, which have invested in CDI’s pashmina- testing laboratory, should make the Kashmir Pashmina label mandatory for the sale of authentic shawls.

This five-part fortnightly series explores the linkages between new-generation weavers and the fashion and luxury market. This is the last in the series.