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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Exclusive: The Other Side Of Kashmiri Craft 'Pashmina'

By Arif Wani | Srinagar

SPECIAL REPORT Kashmiri crafts have been omnipresent from street to luxury yet least geared for new fashion markets. This is likely to change soon.

At a crafts display at New Delhi’s India International Centre, Mahvash Masood from Srinagar displays stoles with hand embroidery so delicate that only a magnifying glass can zoom into the details. “I want to tap into the global luxury market with these,” says Masood, who is working with a development consultant to price her designs.
At the next stall, Shabir Ahmad Lone from Baramulla district has modified the kani shawl weaving loom to make it light and portable. Lone, who has the demeanour of a soothing village doctor, has developed new training methodologies for weavers. His looms are used mostly by unemployed women reluctant to migrate for work. “From the 10,000-odd kani weavers, only 2,000 are left, so it is important to sustain them where they are,” he says.

Then there are those like Arifa Jan and Waseem Afzal. After visiting weaver groups from other countries, the former has tweaked traditional namda (felted) rugs in new patterns and sophisticated colours to catch global interest, while Afzal has created a first line of tweed and silk handbags with Kashmiri embroidery, leather details and papier-mâché handles.

They are students of the Craft Development Institute, Srinagar, chosen to receive monetary aid and design guidance from the Commitment to Kashmir Trust (CtoK) to develop Kashmiri crafts for modern markets. CtoK, a trust inspired by the ideas of Gandhian economist L.C. Jain, was set up in 2011 by a few like-minded people,with veteran textile expert Gulshan Nanda as its chairperson. It chose six designers for its first batch of grantees. We met them in New Delhi in February.

All their products underline the modern impetus given to old traditions to push marketability. Exactly what Tanira Sethi aims to do with her new cashmere saris displayed at Made in India...Samskara, a recent design exhibition held in the Capital, the launch event for global philanthropic organization Be Open’s global project on handmade. A final-year student of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) in New Delhi, Sethi’s saris in muted colours are handwoven in Kashmir and are an imaginative revival of the doshalas (two identical shawls stitched back to back) that can be traced back to 15th century Mughal influences on Kashmir’s shawl industry. Despite luxury pricing of above Rs.60,000, she already has more than a dozen orders.

In tune with this theme, when you see fine pashmina shawls displayed like wearable art at Mumbai’s fashion, design and interiors store Le Mill, or designer Zubair Kirmani’s prêt line Escape, dedicated to Kashmir, shown at the recent Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week, you know that the old Kashmir story is growing new leaves.

These innovations will soon penetrate the vision of Kashmiri crafts that most of us have—rugs, tea cosies, papier-mâché objects, carved wooden boxes, jackets with aari work and a staggering range of shawls herded under the word “pashmina” even if they have been machine-made in Ludhiana.

Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar, a society for craftspeople, and a trustee at CtoK, agrees. “Despite rich craft traditions and highly developed hand skills, Kashmir has not had its share of contemporary design interventions. This is due to the unsettled socio-political situation, but also a little because there is too much Kashmiri craft around to attract designers and entrepreneurs—it’s on every pavement, hotel arcade, tourist kiosk and craft bazaar—looking clichéd and boring,” says Tyabji.

While global interest in hand-made luxury has created buoyancy in India’s artisanal work, egged on by persevering NGOs and craft gurus, Kashmiri craft has been hobbled by an old vocabulary—Mughal, Persian, Iranian and French influences combined with old methods of production. This is one of the biggest incongruence in our crafts sector.

Kashmiri crewel work, suzani and jamawar embroideries and hand-spun woollen drapes resonate as global luxury, but back home they barely show up in fashion. Had it not been for designer Rohit Bal’s passionate interpretations of the lotus as a symbolic design motif in his body of work, and his high-selling couture, which includes embellishment techniques like resham aari, chain stitch, delicate crewel work, French knots, zardozi and badla from his home state, Kashmir would have been starkly absent in fashion.

“Unlike other crafts clusters, Kashmir is a political idea; the artistic and poetic Kashmir has become dormant,” says Pramod Kumar K.G., managing director of Eka Resources, which plans archives, museums and cultural complexes. “Let’s not discount the fear of life everyone feels about working there. Design mentors haven’t invested in Kashmir because they don’t know when their production may close down,” he adds.

Unhindered supply and availability can be a problem with Kashmiri work. “No one wants to take a risk working in or from Kashmir since no one there can guarantee when or even if they can produce anything. No matter how incredibly talented Kashmiri artisans are, they cannot work within any kind of timelines. Fashion being all about deadlines, so seasonal and time-bound, it becomes impossible to depend upon the Kashmiri craftsman,” says Bal, who infuses the Kashmir quotient in his brand DNA with simpler gestures like packing his finest couture in large papier-mâché boxes made to order in Srinagar.

Kirmani agrees. “It is like a cottage industry in clusters. The scattered pursuit of education alongside employment doesn’t allow young talent to be nurtured in any one way for a design dialogue to sustain. Since everything is handmade and time-consuming, prices can be rationalized only if there is regular work,” says Delhi-based Kirmani. He launched a fashion store in Srinagar two years back under his label Bounipun. For Escape, each garment was made in Kashmir, taking inspiration from the architectural idea of khatamband (geometric patterns on the ceilings of Kashmiri houses) in tila embroidery work.

Any attempt to understand modern artisanal Kashmiri work would be incomplete without a visit to Kashmir Loom, a specialized store in New Delhi for shawls and bespoke garments. Launched in 2000 by textile historian Jenny Housego and her Kashmiri partner Asaf Ali and his brothers, Kashmir Loom supplies to European fashion giants like Jim Thompson, Bergdorf Goodman and the Takashimaya stores in Asia, as well as stores at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Metropolitan Museum in the US. 

Once you see the pashmina dorukhas (two-sided shawls), woven with gold, silver or bronze threads on one side, and interpretations of suzani or papier-mâché embroidery (known by that name because of a medley of colours and tiny patterns), the phrase “contemporarization of craft” acquires meaning.

There are also derivations from Jodhpur paintings on Kashmiri shawls, stoles with designs of modern paintings, light, warm and soft drapes in unusual colours. There is an outstanding shawl in natural-coloured pashmina with fine, navy-blue checks all over, with the thinnest of borders woven in deep pink. The border looks as if it has been drawn with a felt pen.

Modernization is clearly about weaving interventions, with old textures being altered to make them luxury-worthy for the new world.

Ali showed us some shawls wrapped in muslin and kept for a fashion show to be held in the US later this year. They are a story in themselves. “Craftsmanship is like meditation in Kashmir. They chant, weave and do needlework. But in the last 18 years or so, there has been little design input, no motivation to compete with global brands, no interaction with designers,” says Ali. He adds that the Kashmir government must take ownership to prevent pashmina from getting debased and protect its copyright so that all kinds of wool from merino to angora and local varieties made in Ludhiana don’t get grouped under it.

Others cite production problems. “Crewel work is a luxury item in the West, attracting large orders to decorate entire homes but supplying enormous yardage in the same colour and embroidery is not simple,” says Tariq Kathwari one of Srinagar’s veteran traders and founder of the website Kathwari of Kashmir, which sells carpets, crewel-worked fabric, and Kashmiri shawls. “Irregular electrical supply forces artisans to embroider in candlelight, with drops of wax falling on silken fabric difficult to erase before selling in global markets. Dyers still mix dyes in clay pots without modern calibration techniques, resulting in inconsistencies in the final product,” says Kathwari, who works in New York and Srinagar and also supplies to the European market.

His expertise is carpets—in antique designs as well as modern European paintings recreated by local artisans—and he admits that orders which boomed in the 1980s have fallen over the years because supply can’t keep pace with demand.

While Kutchi artisans, Ikat karigars from Odisha or Chanderi weavers from Madhya Pradesh, for instance, are flexible towards design and entrepreneurial guidance from crafts promoters and designers, their Kashmiri counterparts tend to resist change.

Disillusioning stories abound. “Kashmiris are an unhappy people. If earlier their work was about flowers, trees and fauna in happy colours, it stemmed from stability and the beauty of natural surroundings, but today they create abstract designs in brooding palettes that could be likened to the ‘war carpets’ of Afghanistan,” says Kathwari.

Then there are cultural impediments. “Kashmiri artisans are very proud of their heritage, resist bowing down to market needs and their inherently luxurious work can’t be converted to cheap labour,” says Mushtaq Khan, the former deputy director of the Crafts Museum in New Delhi, who knows master craftsmen and conducted workshops at craft training centres as part of his work at the Crafts Museum. “When I argued for modernization, the artisans opposed it, asking me why we wanted to bring down the standards of their heritage by changing it,” he says.

Moreover, Khan points out, suzani embroidery or kani weaving are men’s crafts. Thousands of Kashmiri families have lost their male members to terrorism, and some villages, like those near Sopore, are largely or only left with women.

The number of craftsmen has diminished drastically. That’s why, says Tyabji, crafts sustenance must also fill cultural and emotional vacuums. It’s one of the reasons why, eight years ago, Dastkar chose to back an NGO like Nai Kiran, which works with women from Baramulla district. “During our initial work we found male Kashmiri weavers closed to change and women suspicious and negative, refusing to travel to cities to display in exhibitions or connect with buyers. In the first few years, Dastkar had to handhold them. But then things began to change,” says Tyabji.

Eventually, 20-25 chosen families were given a three-year crafts course and taught to work with fabrics sourced from weavers of other states to challenge their use of colours. Today, they are among the top-selling Dastkar artisans.

CtoK’s aim is to enable young Kashmiri craftspeople to become independent and sustainable. This is why the first lot of six grantees were given Rs.4 lakh each to set up businesses and access new markets, explains Shruti Jagota, CtoK’s project coordinator. CtoK hopes to give more grants every year.

Market interest zooms as soon as a product is modernized. The orders received by youngsters like Sethi, Masood, Afzal and Lone prove the point. On the other hand, when Good Earth introduced Farah Baksh, a collection of Kashmir-inspired décor items, clothes and accessories in 2012, its popularity made the case for continuing production of some designs. Among them are the Nageen Nakashi (papier-mâché) range, Farah Baksh cushions and design journals, Nishaat dining and bed accessories and jewelled glasses, all available even today. 

Yet, everyone believes that changing mindsets in Kashmir, empowering artisans scarred by violence and finding buyers who pay them what luxury costs globally, will be a slow task. “We encourage spinning and weaving as a respectable profession with clean money; it has therapeutic value, is not harmful for health, while stoking their ancestral pride and offering work stability to women,” says Ali.

Every expert offers solutions. “Kashmir needs big, local factories that employ large numbers of karigars, where they get fair wages, good working environments and dependable employment instead of seasonal work,” says Kathwari. Kumar K.G. says that it is also about rebuilding Kashmir. “I am all for concerts like Zubin Mehta’s last year and such events—after all, craftsmen can’t be motivated in a cultural vacuum.”

Tyabji says every stakeholder must see it as a national issue. “In no other state is such a high percentage of the population dependent on craft for livelihood. And in no other state are so many young people without other economic alternatives,” she says.

It is time perhaps to examine the other side of pashmina and locate the finer stitches that hold it together.
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