The Shaw Brothers On the Inheritance of Loss

The Shaw Brothers On the Inheritance of Loss

Vanishing master craftsmen and a slow but visible loss in fine hand skills may not be the only losses in the story of Kashmiri crafts inheritance

Last week, I met the Shaw Brothers at their store cum office in Delhi’s Defence Colony. This was my first meeting though I had formerly visited the store as a curious customer of Kashmiri creations and heard much about Mifi and Mubi Shaw, as the two brothers are known.

The Shaw Brothers are well-known traders and exporters from Kashmir, now in the fifth generation of their family owned business. My meeting was for our Kashmir Series to highlight how the crafts and textiles ecosystem gets repeatedly hurt given the socio-political climate of Kashmir.

Mubi and Mifi introduced me to the latter’s daughter Mahoor currently interning with them. Over hot cups of kahwa, I tried to put across questions regarding the state of Kashmiri artisans, where the Shaws stood in today’s climate as business people and if there was a future for Kashmiri arts and crafts.

A “sensitive” interview on the “delicate” subject of Kashmir is largely a diplomatic affair. Both sides—promise conversation but it doesn’t have the comfort of any prior meeting, the soft thawing of thoughts or trust. So if I could sense an initial restraint on the part of the Shaws, I wasn’t surprised. What surprised me more was the way in which they slowly opened up and shared their loss and disappointment, without ploughing me for details about how I will use it.

In their story of the loss and gain of inheritance— lay some deep insights.

The Sustainable values of a Cottage Industry

We would rather work like a cottage industry than industrialise our working systems,” say the Shaws. The uniqueness of Kashmir’s crafts industry lies in its cottage appeal. “Industrialized manufacturing units with separate sections for dyeing, embroidery, design, weaving and finishing can be easily set up but we don’t want to do that. We learnt this from our father—that one way to sustain our uniqueness is to continue with traditional processes in traditional settings. This is how we have survived for the last 300 years back,” say the brothers. Since the law and order situation mostly makes it difficult for craftspeople to work from anywhere but their homes, a cottage industry is the only answer. It also suits young girls leaving family professions like fishing or looking for profitable employment to work from home, they explained.

Mahoor, a millennial, didn’t disagree either.


Mifi and Mubi Shaw.

The decline of the Vastrakar

“The “ vastrakar” or the mastercraftsman who was once the most important part of the crafts ecosystem in every village has almost disappeared,” said Mifi with sadness. Especially in embroidery and weaving where the vastrakar would determine the design of a shawl and its colour palette before it was sent for production.

Though there are a few who pursue embroidery by the evening (and engage in an odd job by the day). “High prices of shawls that are unacceptable to a large number of customers seeking cheap goods or who compare them with machine- made work sold across India reduces the demand for the work of a fine craftsman,” said Mubi.  Whereas, Mifi talked of the diminishing patience of the younger craftspeople—to sit and learn with a master. “It is our biggest loss,” he says.

Innovation, not marketing

“Crafts NGOs or even the Craft Development Institute of Srinagar need to teach design innovation as the top most skill. Instead, they focus on marketing,” say the Shaws. Innovation—as every person interviewed for The Kashmir Series told The Voice of Fashion—faces a huge loss. Which is why most Kashmiri shawls including those from our grandmothers’ closets look more or less similar to what is available today. There are exceptions but “eighty per cent are regurgitated designs, only 20 per cent are customized by embroidery pattern, colour and effect,” says Mifi adding that it would be hard for Kashmiri work to survive without innovation.


A group of artisans at the Shaw Brothers workshop.

The Machine as the “Other”

Hand-made aari work as well as crewel embroidery are now available in machine made replicas, the originals are rare, rue the brothers. The Shaw brothers say they are disappointed by the rise of spinning machines which have taken away hand spinning almost entirely from a pure pashmina shawl. “Our grandmother and every single Kashmiri woman of that generation used to hand spin wool on a traditional charkha. Earnings from it were a woman’s pocket money. Ninety per cent households in all villages had the Gandhian charkha. The spinning machines have robbed us of that exceptional nature of the pashmina shawl. What is available now is machine spun even if its hand woven, quite like Khadi,” says Mifi.

That’s why according to the Shaw brothers, the quality, warmth, and intricacy of a pure pashmina shawl has spiraled down but its price remains between Rs 7500—12,000–unchanged for the last 25 years. “The spinning machines have created havoc. So many spinners, mostly women who would earn an average of Rs 8000-Rs 9000 have lost their livelihoods.”

Customer Wants Logos, not a piece of Heritage

Will fine embroidery survive? Are young people in Kashmir happy to be a part of the crafts industry? “Embroidery will only survive till we have patrons to buy shawls. The young generation is also learning yes, but the finesse the old craftsmen had is missing. What troubles us is that clients don’t understand the difference between a very fine product and regularly embroidered shawls,” says Mubi. The brothers and Mahroor pointed out how a majority of customers are unwilling to pay the price for what takes months to embroider. “People are ready to pay for logo holding Louis Vuitton bags which are seen as status symbols. But they refuse to part with that kind of money for a painstakingly hand embroidered Kashmiri shawl. Customers argue with us on prices but we never argue with artisans. In fact, we pay three times the rate for an exceptional piece,” says Mifi.


Handmade Kashmiri shawls.

The life and soul of the Kashmiri craftsman

It is a unique case study. “Even we can’t understand how our artisans make what they do in the given circumstances,” said the brothers. We are distressed and don’t want our future generations to go through what we did,” they say in unison. “You never know if you will be back home or not in Kashmir. But we have so much at stake. We are, after all, responsible for the few thousand artisans who directly or indirectly depend on us for their livelihoods. This is something our father taught us: ‘always meet the Karigar. Never say you are busy or unavailable,’” said Mifi. Both brothers however emphasized how well the Kashmiri crafts people were paid, lived in good houses and could afford more than basic amenities unlike the rest of India where crafts livelihoods suffer from neglect and exploitation. “A valued, skilled Kashmiri artisan can make up to Rs 70,000 a month, while almost everyone will earn between Rs 8000-Rs 16,000.

Fashion Will Help

Fashion collaborations, training and innovation by international designers, commissioned work by India’s top designers or manufacturing giants will really help. “Years back when designers from international luxury houses would come and live in houseboats for months, work on patterning and colour combinations of Kashmiri shawls—it went a long way in upgrading the work. There is no doubt fashion can help a great deal,” say the Shaws.

Post Script

As I found my way back after meeting the Shaw Brothers and Mahoor, their nostalgia admittedly left me with a sense of heaviness. If the inheritance of loss becomes the overriding story of Kashmiri crafts, every Indian will lose a thread or few of what this country stands for,

We must find a way to turn the stitch.