On a dreary March day, wouste (master) Ghulam Rasool Najar sits ready to craft a new houseboat with a grand artist’s devotion. Frequent hammer thuds on wood echo through his derelict houseboat yard in Kashmiri capital Srinagar’s famed Dal Lake. Najar’s snow-white beard, parched face, and intense looks give away his gravity as a veteran craftsman struggling to retain the vintage-looking houseboats — the floating marvels, called a shimmering specimen of Kashmir’s rich artistry.
The feisty octogenarian occupies a quintessential carpentry workplace in the middle of a lake bereft of tourists. The long-faced locals here own houseboats having no match in the world.
Many call this part of Srinagar an “amphibian world.” It houses the famous Hanji community of Kashmir in a loose cluster of hutments and houseboats. A meandering corridor from the bustling Dalgate side — a prominent sightseeing area in the mountainous region — takes one into the backwaters filled with both pity and pollution. Many here have been forced to give up on their glorious vessels, which now sit vacant.
But one man — Najar — standing tall beyond his retirement age is making it sure to continue to make houseboats the pride of Kashmir.
The art of houseboat-making started long before Najar’s birth, back when World War I was raving empires across the globe. Sometime in 1918, a bunch of war-weary Imperial British had arrived in Kashmir as duck-hunters and sightseers.
To live closer to the lake full of ducks, they constructed houseboats. The construction process needed local manpower and expertise. Srinagar, being an artisan hub, played its great role in beautifying these floating houses. Among those artists were the houseboat carpenters.
“Houseboat carpenters are completely different from other carpenters,” Najar says, between his intermittent silences and frequent metal thuds. “The art of making houseboats involves three different teams who work in tandem. One team forms the base, the other one makes the whole structure, while the third team chips in with the interior designs.”
One among those pioneering carpenters was Najar’s father, Mohammad Hanief. “My father was considered as the finest artist of his times,” he says, with a faint smile.
Among Hanief’s craft marvels is a Sufi shrine in Srinagar – a place known for housing some revered and carpentry-rich shrines. But after Hanief’s sudden death, Najar, then a Class 2 student, had to step into his father’s “big” shoes.
It was 1952, and Najar got his first gig as an apprentice of his father’s friend for a shrine repair in Srinagar. It was the beginning of his long carpentry journey, which would shortly pass through the lake for houseboat-making.
“I made my first houseboat in Srinagar’s picturesque Nigeen Lake,” Najar recalls.
Being a relatively less crowded water body, Nigeen Lake was famous among foreigners of yore for its meditative calm. Later Najar would make a houseboat called Khyber in Dal Lake. After that, there was no looking back.
Today, nearly 70 years after Najar started his rare carpentry, houseboats in Dal Lake have become mesmerizing art pieces. But at the same time, the perpetual political problem in the region has taken a huge hit on the industry.
Kashmir is the site of the world’s oldest United Nations-registered dispute, between India and Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed young Asian neighbors have waged three wars on the disputed territory. Today, both countries control Kashmir in parts and claim it in its entirety.
When India got its freedom from Imperial Britain in 1947, its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, soon took the Kashmir dispute to the UN and promised the regional leadership the Right to Self Determination.
After New Delhi failed to fulfill its promise, Kashmir exploded in an armed uprising against Indian rule during the late 1980s. The war brought the region’s high-end foreign tourism — the lifeline of the houseboat industry — to its knees.
As the armed conflict dragged on, the government imposed a ban on building new houseboats “to prevent pollution” in Dal Lake.
“It was a bizarre decision,” Najar says. “Instead of coming to the rescue of the conflict-battered houseboat community, the government imposed sanctions on it and shattered the once-thriving industry.”
With the result, many houseboat carpenters were forced to switch over to other means of living. However, a handful of carpenters, including Najar, stayed put. His obscure tribe managed to prolong their ties with the fading art by subsisting on occasional houseboat repair work orders.
For his amazing skill and dogged resilience to keep the artistic heritage intact, Najar, the elderly wouste, holds great sway over and admiration from the houseboat community.
Around 45 percent of the houseboats in the lake are his creations, he says. It usually takes him around 15 months to make one houseboat.
“Back in the day, when Kashmir was peaceful and packed with tourists and travelers, we used to work endlessly, without compromising on quality,” he says. “Even today houseboat owners seek my services. Yes, the demand is less, but I’m still very much passionate about my work.”
His keenness as a craftsman saw him producing some exceptional floating artifacts.
In 1983, Najar made a now-famous butterfly houseboat in Nigeen Lake, based on one foreign tourist’s description. “It took me four years to complete it,” he recalls with a glint in his eyes. “That is one of my masterpieces.”
Today, only a few good looking houseboats — a symbol of rich Kashmiri artistry — are left in the lake. And most of them are Najar’s creations.
“From once 2,500, the number of houseboats has now come down to 915,” says Manzoor Pakhtoon, owner of a group of houseboats in Dal Lake. “The houseboat decline can be prevented by supporting the skillful houseboat carpenters, like Najar. These veterans should be engaged in training sessions and workshops, so that the next generation grappling with biting unemployment could earn their decent living and take their legacy forward.”
But inside the houseboat yard, Najar sulks over the state of affairs.
“We’re into different times now,” he breaks a fleeting silence. “Earlier, foreign tourists knew the value of art and artists. But today, this craft has just become a mere formality.”
Sadly, even the lake he helped make shine with his skill is fast losing its sheen. There is rampant construction going on at certain places right under the nose of the regional authorities. Residential houses, concrete buildings, and black tops have already made inroads in the lake. “Dal Lake was once the cleanest water body in the valley, but its slow death and the government’s apathy has marred its beauty,” Najar laments.
However, the wouste continues to hold court, even on a lake lacking the buzz and business of yesteryear. But what happens next, after the master departs and abandons the yard completely? That is the question haunting the already distressed houseboat community of Kashmir today.
Wasim Nabi is a multimedia journalist from Indian-administered Kashmir.