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Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving

 
 

The art of weaving was introduced in the Kashmir Valley in the late 15th century by the King Zain-ul-Abidin, who had imported the art from Persia. Kashmir carpets and shawls still follow that tradition of intricate geometric and calligraphic motifs; their beauty lies in the detailed needlework. The art flourished during the time of the Mughals and the tradition continued even during the troubled times of Afghan and Sikh rule. When the British arrived in the early part of the 19th century, a certain utilitarianism came into the art that commercialized the woven products and Kashmiri carpets and shawls became the cynosure of connoisseurs’ eyes all over the world.

The industry suffered a setback when the valley was engulfed in turmoil in 1989. With Indian military forces and separatists locked in a brutal and long-drawn conflict, the ancient craft of weaving fell into troubled times. Export orders dried up and inbound tourism hit an all time low. A lot of artisans fled the valley, creating a void.

Two and a half decades later, the valley has entered another crucial juncture and the lives of ordinary Kashmiris are threatened yet again. For the last four years, there had been a period of relative calm and the weavers and businessmen were beginning to get hopeful for a better future. Now, with escalating violence in the valley yet again, their dreams of rebuilding the ancient craft industry is fading.

And the industry is plagued by other handicaps. The cost of raw materials, namely the wool of the pashmina lambs, has become prohibitively expensive; the market is abound with cheaper domestic substitutes, and, most importantly, the young generation of Kashmiris seems entirely uninterested in mastering the skill of weaving due to the low pay in this sector.

But the singular problem threatening this beautiful craft is the continuing turmoil that saw Kashmir dubbed as one of the deadliest zones on the planet. The people of the valley fear that the ancient craft of Kashmiri weaving may soon be a relic of the past.

Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta and his works have appeared in The Globe and MailAl JazeeraNational Geographic TravelerHarper Collins and Yale University Journal. His coffee table book on Ladakh has been published from Delhi in 2013. Some of his visuals and stories can be found at http://sugatomukherjee.zenfolio.com/

Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Artisans at work with Kani needles.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
A herdsman with his flock of sheep coming down to the plains at the onset of winter. The violence in the valley has led to an infrequent and unpredictable supply of raw materials.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
A small skein of pashmina wool. Last year, 27,000 goats died in the upper reaches of the Kashmir Valley (about 13 percent of their population), resulting in an increase of price from INR 9000 to INR 12,500 per kg, leaving the weavers in a lurch.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Mushtaq Bhat, a middle-aged carpet weaver, is busy behind his wooden loom, a family possession for three generations. But he says that his son is not at all interested in carrying on the family trade.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
A Kashmiri carpet on display. Kashmiri carpets and shawls still follow the tradition of intricate geometric and calligraphic motifs, a Persian legacy that was imported nearly five centuries ago.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Mohammed Sultan Khan is in his 70s and an ustaad (mastercraftsman) of carpet weaving. He opines that the future of weaving industry is threatened and the art may be lost altogether in the next 20-25 years.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
The beauty of Kashmiri weaving is in its detailed needlework, a craft that requires years to master.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Special wooden needles, called Kanis in Kashmiri, are used to make Kani shawls in a highly specialized weaving technique. It takes a year or two to make a Kani shawl. There are a handful of Kani artisans in the valley now.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Kashmiri weaving is largely a home-based industry. Since it is an unorganized sector, it has failed to generate government benefits like subsidies and drawbacks.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
An artisan busy with his needlework in his workshop on the Dal lake.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Sadiq Mohammed Wani, who owns one of the oldest handicrafts business started by his ancestors in 1840, displays a Kashmiri shawl made 85 years ago.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Yarns hanging over the railings of a house in an old quarter of Srinagar. The old mahallas (localities) were traditionally the areas where weavers had lived for generations.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
Hanging by a Thread: The Dying Art of Kashmir Weaving
Aslam Khan, in his ancestral home in Srinagar, squints at brown parchment bearing the cryptic design and color codes of weaving, which are known only to the artist. Aslam says that 20 years back, there were around 100 weaver families in his neighborhood. Only two have remained in the trade.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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