Haroon Reshi

Kashmir’s art and craft faces existential threat

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Golden hands that would create artistic wonders are turning rusted as there is nothing to do, however, authorities are optimistic that Handicrafts and Handloom Policy 2020 has a promise for all artisans.

Kashmir has been a land of skilled artisans for ages. The proficient hands creating artistic products – like qaleen, namdas, shawls, crewel embroidery, sozni embroidery, phool kari, woodwork, Paper Mache and so on – have always been in plenty here. And the arts and crafts have been one of the main sources of the local economy for centuries.

This unorganized industry provided livelihood to the generations of artisans – both men and women and even children from poor families, who would produce these wonderful objects. Also, the trade gave riches to the traders and exporters, who have been selling these products in domestic and international markets.

However, at this point in time, Kashmir’s heritage arts and craft is facing a great challenge because the traders and exporters, who have succeeded in building financial empires for them from this trade over the years, have failed to take care of the artisans in the tough times posed by certain factors, most importantly the pandemic and the government too has failed to come to their rescue.

A large number of Kashmiri artisans, who have been pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into this cultural heritage, are grappling with unemployment and acute poverty these days. The main reason: pandemic has badly hit the national and international market for Kashmir arts and crafts. Given the economic meltdown caused by the Covid, purchasing objects with artwork and handicraft items is no longer, at least for some time now, a priority to the customers anywhere in the world. Since there are no sales or fewer sales, there is no demand for production from the artisans.

According to the government figures, Jammu Kashmir has about 2.50 lakh artisans. However, if the concerned people are believed, a large number of them, seeing no demand for their skill, have shifted their traditional line of work during the past two years. Many of them had already lost their interest in their traditional job because of meagre wages.

Given the present scenario, there may be fewer artisans available, once the impact of the pandemic goes away. Eventually, the shortage of artisans might push the Kashmir arts and crafts to the brink of extinction. Experts say that if Kashmir’s ancient arts and crafts are to be saved, taking care of the artisans is the first thing to do.

To know more details about the causes and reasons for the distressful situation facing artisans, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with some concerned people. Here are the excerpts:

Mahmood Ahmad Shah
Director, Handicrafts, J&K

Until last year, we did not know how to go about helping the artisans. But thanks to the Handicrafts and Handloom Policy 2020, it has provided us a definite road map to protect the crafts and help artisans. The policy also guides us on how to transfer skills to the younger generation.

Further, the handicrafts and the handloom departments were merged, and then both Jammu and Valley, were given separate directorates, last year. All these developments will ensure help to the artisans and help promote crafts. We have already started the implementation of policy guidelines. For an instance, we have started establishing cooperative societies consisting of artisans. The policy gives us a target to form two thousand such societies every year. Each co-operative society is supposed to be consisting of at least ten artisans, and each society would get Rs one lakh as financial assistance. In this way, each artisan would get around ten thousand rupees as working capital to get raw material. Since last year, we have created about 1700 co-operative societies of the artisans and some three crore rupees have been provided to them.

Moreover, we are running skill development training centres, where youngsters are taught skills of various crafts. Some of them get one-year training in elementary centres and others get two-year training in advanced centres. Each trainee gets Rs 1000 to 1500 as monthly stipend. Our department spends Rs 12 to 13 crore annually for providing stipends to these trainees.

We have also Karkhandar scheme for the development of the craft sector. Under this scheme, we have notified the Karkhanas (factories) of national and state awardee artisans, who would be provided incentives for teaching the skill to youngsters for six months. Each trainer would get Rs 2000 for teaching an aspirant, and the trainee also would be given the same amount for learning the skill. This scheme is meant to create young artisans with the skill of weaving, shawl making, sozni, Paper Mache and so on.

Furthermore, we initiated Credit Card Scheme for artisans and weavers of handicrafts and handloom sector last year. Under this scheme, we provide loans of up to Rs 2 lakh to the aspirant artisans. Additionally, under a national scheme called Pradhan Mantri Weavers MUDRA Yojna, our department provides Rs 1 lakh to 2 lakh as financial support to the unit holder artisans.

We will also resume holding exhibitions in the various states of the country and outside as well, where artisans would be able to sell their inventory pile up. We had stopped the practice since the outbreak of the pandemic early last year.

Here, let me also say that this is sad to see that some of our own people are selling machine-made shawls from Amritsar in the name of Kashmiri shawls. This practice has bought a bad name for our craft. Such practice also damages the credibility of our products. Our department has decided to go for GI (geographical indication) tagging to the Kashmir Carpets and Pashmina shawls to ensure this practice is stopped.

I am sure, all these initiatives would help the artisans, and protect our craft.

Abrar Ahmad Khan
Chairman, Genuine Kashmir Cottage Handicraft Protection Forum

In 2019, our data collection survey report revealed the fact that the per capita income of an average Kashmiri Pashmina artisan is merely Rs 2747, not even one-fourth of the national index.  Obviously, the situation further deteriorated due to the pandemic.

In view of the shocking revelation by the survey, we submitted a memorandum to the then Lieutenant Governor (LG) Girish Chandra Murmu, requesting him to initiate some effective measures to ensure the protection of the Pashmina artisans and the centuries-old craft. We urged some reformative masseurs including the creation of Pashmina board; creation of raw material bank at district levels; waiver of loans and refinance to the artisans; endowing artisans with markets; construction of artisan houses in all districts; imposition of ban on the use of Pashmina on power loom; MSP (minimum support prices) backing to the production of charkha spinners; and so on and so forth.

In our memorandum, we explained to the LG administration that how Pashmina craft and the concerned artisans were on the brink of extinction if required masseurs to support this industry are not taken immediately.

This is not the case only with Pashmina craft, look at our wood carving and Paper-Mache sectors. They too are dying because their market has reduced due to certain factors, over the years. If nothing is done to help these indigenous industries, they will die their own death; and, eventually, we will not be able to bring our arts and craft to our next generation.

In fact, we have already started losing skilled artisans, who have changed their line of work in recent times, seeing no gains in their traditional job. Take for example Srinagar: this city used to be a hub of artisans in the past. One would find lakhs of artisans here. But most of them have closed their looms now. Unlike their forefathers, the present generation of artisans has not transferred the skill to the younger generation, because their skill does not hold a promise of a decent livelihood anymore.

Earlier, these indigenous crafts would not only provide employment to the lakhs of artisans; but the trade also used to give us large quantities of foreign exchange. Huge money has come from the export markets of this industry over the decades and centuries. However, most of these dividends have been siphon by some particular families, a maximum of fifty or so in number.

These exporters have turned into big giants, over the years. Some thirty years ago, both – the artisan and the exporter – would ride bicycles for transportation.  Now the exporters have got BMWs and Mercedes cars for themselves, while the poor artisan does not own even a bicycle anymore.  They are not even in the position of paying bank loan EMIs.  As per our survey, an average artisan gets Rs 85 a day as wages, while skilled labor in the rest of the country earns at least Rs 730 per day.  We do not have the Minimum Wages Act implemented here.

The government needs to initiate some effective and serious measures to safeguard the craft here. A task force should be made to ensure proper and immediate initiatives. And the stakeholders should be taken on board in the solution process.  A lot can be done to ensure the growth of Kashmiri crafts and to help the artisans if the government wishes to. Our traditional craft is full of potential. Even a little push would help running the wheel of this indigenous industry. For example, business tie-ups with corporate houses could prove a game-changer. One can see how the hand-woven Zari Sari industry grew after the TATA group decided to help the Varanasi weavers.  Now, all the stock from these weavers is purchased by the TATA group. Why such tie-ups can’t be done with Kashmir crafts?

Parvez Ahmad
President, Kashmir Artisans Rehabilitation Forum

Kashmiri artisans have never been in a situation like they are in since the outbreak of the pandemic. Even the conflict-related situation during the past thirty years or so had never affected their work much. The artisans would continue their job in their homes, even in the days when all other businesses used to come to the halt due to the hartals and curfews.

However, during the past two years, the same artisans are sitting idle because there is no demand for their production. Since the Covid impacted every part of the world, thus, the sales of non-essential goods dropped to zero. Eventually, the artisans also lost the demand for more production. Many of them have changed their line of work during the past two years.

I can tell you with authenticity that the Kashmir art and crafts industry has never experienced the distressing situation in the past five hundred years or so like it faces these days. I say this because there has never been a time when international markets got closed as they did in the Covid pandemic. Soon after the virus started spreading, early last year, the market halted abruptly and even the placed orders for the goods got cancelled.

Although the government took a few initiatives to help the artisans in these crises during the past two years, they did not prove of any great help. For example, the government has created cooperative societies of the artisans and provided financial assistance of Rs 50,000 for each society comprising of ten people. This way, each artisan received assistance up to five thousand rupees. Is this enough? How can this meagre amount help an artisan to sustain the crisis he is in, for the past two years? Sadly, the authorities did not take us on board while crafting the handloom and handicrafts policy, which was announced last year.

We, as a delegation met Darshana V Jardosh, the Union Minister of State, for Textile & Railway when she was in Kashmir recently. We explained to her the situation and challenges facing artisans and urged her ministry for some effective initiative to help this weaker class. We have demanded waiving of bank loans to the artisans, and also granting of soft loans for them so that they would be able to re-establish their looms. We have also asked for the MSP and market facilities, to ensure their products are not piled up because of low prices or lack of market.

I hope the government would wake up to support the artisans before it is too late. You will not find Kashmiri carpets, shawls, and other items in the future if the artisans are not bailed out from the bad condition they are in at this point in time. In the future, we will have enough orders for Kashmiri goods in the international market but we will have no artisans to produce these goods. To protect the Kashmir arts and crafts, we have to protect an artisan first.

Parvez Ahmad Naqash
Manufacturer and exporter of Kashmir’s handicraft & handloom items

As one of the biggest exporters of handicraft and handloom items, I have been getting ‘top exporter awards’ constantly for the past six years. But the fact is that I have been able to send goods only in fewer quantities outside country since Covid started spreading early last year.

Before the pandemic, I used to send my goods to at least twenty countries across the world. As many as 500 artisans were engaged in manufacturing of these goods. However, since my inventories are piled up, I have stopped further manufacturing at present, thus all the artisans who would be otherwise working, are jobless these days. Many of them are now doing other jobs. I know a number of artisans who are now working with private security agencies. You will find many artisans working as guards at JK Bank ATMs and car parking areas in the city.

Unfortunately, some of the manufacturers started exploiting artisans after Covid affected their business. For example, there is an item called the Christmas Bowl, which is made of Paper-Mache. Earlier, an artisan would get Rs 30 to make a Christmas bowl, however, now the same artisans is offered just Rs 10 for making the same bowl. This kind of pathetic approach disheartened the artisans and thus forced them to leave their traditional work. The Paper Mache art is dying here with every passing day. We will not have sufficient artisans to meet the production demand in the future.

Showkat Ahmad Mir
Pashmina shawl weaver

I am the third generation of my family in the line of shawl weaving. My grandfather taught the skill to my father, and he passed on it to me. The trade fetched a decent livelihood to my elders in the early days, to the extent that my father quit a government job in the fire service department in the 1980s to sit hunched over a single handloom with his father. I am told that my father’s salary at the fire service was Rs 84 at that time, however, he used to earn at least a thousand rupees, spinning as many as four pashmina shawls a month. That is why his father advised him to quit the government job and concentrate on the weaving business. And that was a good decision at that time. But for me, it would not be advised to ask my son to take up shawl weaving for his living. Things have changed over the years.

The Pashmina industry was in trouble much before the Covid started last year due to certain reasons. The pandemic has only worsened the situation. The main reason for the deterioration of this centuries-old indigenous industry is the induction of machines in this trade. Even though weaving Pashmina shawls on power looms is prohibited under the Handloom Protection Act, yet the practice is on in the Valley for years now, and the concerned officials are watching and facilitating this illegal activity. Machines have badly hit the handlooms.

Also, the lack of a market is a reason for declining of the pashmina industry. Although Handloom and Handicraft Policy 2020 has some promises for the benefit of the industry, this policy is yet to be implemented. For example, the department has announced MSP for pashmina products but it has not started purchasing goods at the decided rates.

Due to all these reasons, many artisans have been changing their traditional work for the past few years. A friend of mine, also a pashmina weaver, has been working with a contractor for past more than two years. Usually, an artisan weaves as many as four shawls a month, which fetches him the wage of Rs 10,000. After deducting his factory expenses, he gets around 8000 in hand. How can you expect an artisan to like his son to take up this work for a living?

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