Can we harness this global recognition, will Kashmir crafts go global?
Srinagar finds itself in UNESCO Creative Cities Network
With Srinagar having been included in United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative Cities Network 2021 list as ‘City of Crafts and Folk Art’, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory has become the latest entry that joins UNESCO creative cities network 2021. Now, there are as many as 295 cities in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) across 90 countries. Of them India has six —Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Varanasi, Jaipur and now Srinagar.
Experts say that the incorporation of Srinagar into UCCN was of great significant given the project launched by the UNESCO in 2004, aims to “promote cooperation among cities which recognized creativity as a strategic factor in their urban development”. However, they say that merely getting the tag wasn’t enough unless it is followed by genuine efforts to convert this into a real opportunity for greater development and progress.
What does it mean to achieve the distinction of being a part of UCCN; why is it significant for the people of Union Territory (UT); how would the UCCN tag help the indigenous Crafts and Art to grow further; and what are the follow-up steps that need to be taken to ensure that full benefits are reaped at international levels? To know the answer to these questions, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with some concerned people and the experts. Here are the excerpts:
Earning a UNESCO creative tag is a significant development for any city in the world. The status cannot be earned by chance. To get global recognition like this, a city must have sufficient bases to meet the criteria. And, gratefully, we had sufficient reasons for applying for the tag in the field of Craft, and Folk Arts.
Since we have been now added to UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN), it is up to us to ensure we get the benefits of this significant status. For this, first of all we have to improve the quality of our products; provide financial backing to our craftsmen; ensure availability of sufficient raw material; provide better designs; and so on.
Getting this global recognition is like our craft has got a golden ticket to fly. And now, we have to fuel it up. This status itself gives our crafts a position in the global market, where we negotiate with the buyers. However, it is important that we improve the quality of our brands as better brand means better dividends and, eventually, it will help us improve the wages of the craftsmen as well.
The recognition of Srinagar as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) is, in essence, global recognition of our Crafts and Arts. This is also a global glorification of our artisans, which they so deserved.
Now, with this international recognition, we are all set to aspire for the development and marketing of our heritage, art and crafts. Also, with the UCCN tag, we would be able to add one more component for the tourism promotion. Earlier, we used to market our physical attributions like snow, and Mughal heritage for tourism promotion. Now, we are in a position to pitch our craft and art for tourism as well.
Further, with the distinction of being part of UNNC, we can have tie-ups with institutions like the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), and the National Institute of Design (NID). We can have student exchange programmes with the American and European universities where subjects on crafts are taught. This, in the longer run, would enhance the buyer base of our crafts. And, such initiatives would help us to explore new markets across the globe.
That said, I would not say that the UNNC tag would benefit our artisans overnight. It is a kind of achievement that needs to be harnessed over a period of time. However, we are enthusiastic about Srinagar earning the UNNC tag. It will pave a way for a long journey that would be full of dividends. To begin with, we, for the first time, have decided to participate in a record number of exhibitions across the country, and abroad.
We all are pleased to know that Srinagar has been designated as a part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) in the field of Crafts and Folk Arts. This development is of utmost importance. However, when we look at the ground reality related to our Crafts and Art, it is distressing. The ground realities do not allow us to perceive Srinagar as a creative city in the field of crafts and arts — such as Paper Mache, Pashmeena, Qaleen, Namdas, Shawls, Crewel embroidery, Sozni embroidery, Phool Kari, Wood carving, and the likes— anymore.
Skilled people — precisely the artisans— who have been creating and producing Kashmir’s heritage crafts, are now sick and tired of this line of work. That is because it does not fetch them a decent livelihood anymore. The most worrying part of the situation is that artisans do not want their children to adopt their ancestral line of work as a source of their livelihood. Two years ago, our survey 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. Clearly, this is an exploitation of labor. How can you expect a youngster to be an artisan in this situation?
This simply means that we will have no skilled manpower in the future to produce our traditional crafts and arts. Looking at the situation on the ground; I fear, in days to come, we might have to keep the samples of our crafts in the museum to ensure that our future generations would see what their ancestors used to produce here for centuries. I am not aggregating. We live in a new world, where everything is supposed to be linked with the economy. Our heritage craft would die if it fails to give decent wages to its creators.
Therefore, we need to wake up before it is too late. We can save our heritage crafts and arts by taking certain measures immediately. In this regard, the government has to shoulder its part of responsibility. A number of initiatives need to be taken without losing any more time. For example, minimum wages need to be ensured to an artisan; in addition, they need to be given incentives of various sorts; small cottage villages should be developed in various parts of J&K; handicrafts need to be coupled with the latest technology; All the products need to be brought under GI (geographical indication) umbrella; the practice of selling machine-made products on the name of Kashmir handicrafts need to be stopped completely; and so on and so forth.
Kashmir crafts and arts exporters —who are consisting of a maximum of fifty families or so — are celebrating the recent development of Srinagar earning the tag of UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN), because they see the prospect for more profitability for themselves in this tag. However, let me tell you that sellers are not that important, but the artisans are. The government needs to take care of the lakhs of artisans. You can find the sellers in plenty everywhere, provided the artisans are there to produce the products. Anyone can become a seller, but it takes a lifetime to be a skilled artisan.
I don’t say that the government does not take initiatives for the artisans, but these imitative certainly are not sufficient. A lot more needs to be done to keep them motivated and encourage the youngsters to learn the skills.
Srinagar becoming a part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) in the craft and folk art category is something that every one of us should be proud of. It, indeed, is a development to celebrate.
However, after the calibrations are done; we need to ask ourselves that what would we be doing with the UCCN tag, and how can we justify this recognition?
In my view, we neither have sufficient infrastructure nor the required government policies —related to marketing, raw material and so on— in place to produce quality products, which could be sold internationally.
Look at the other cities having the UCCN recognition and see how they have been able to advertise and showcase their crafts. Take an example of Rajasthan: the state has a place called Chokhi Dhani, which has been developed as a handicrafts village to display the Rajasthani crafts there. Visitors get all the information about the Rajasthani Art and Crafts at Chokhi Dhani. Also, they have plenty of government policies in place to protect and flourish their art and craft.
In our case, we have nothing to explain. Decades ago, we had created an exhibition ground in Srinagar, where we were supposed to display Kashmir Arts and Crafts. This ground has turned into an isolated and haunted place, over the years. Even we have failed to develop a hassle-free mechanism to export our goods, so far. We have been unable to create any Art Village here, which could have been put on our tourist map.
Ideally, our handicrafts department should have been headed by someone acquainted with the knowledge of Crafts and Art. Instead, this department has always been headed by bureaucrats, with little knowledge about the arts and crafts, and no accountability.
If you want to gauge the prospect of Kashmir’s Art and Craft industry, take a look at the condition of our artisans. They are in pathetic condition. We have even failed to uplift these people, who have been pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into this cultural heritage. Today, they say that they would prefer to see their next generation working as peons in the government offices, rather than taking up their ancestral line of work. That is, simply because this job does not get them adequate livelihood opportunities.
You might label me as pessimistic. But I cannot hide the fact to sound optimistic. I don’t think attractive tags would help us unless we change the ground realities for the better. For example, Srinagar has a tag under the banner of ‘smart cities in India. Do you think it is one? Look at the roads and lanes, you will find an exponential growth of stray dogs everywhere. Hour-long rains turn most of our roads look like streams. We do not have public transport available here after 5 o’clock in the evening. Yet, we call this a ‘smart city. That is why I say that UCCN would be another tag affixed to Srinagar; similarly, the smart city tag is attached with it. Barely tags and attribution do not make you great. The government has submitted a dossier and succeeded to get the UCCN tag for Srinagar. But this is not enough. To get benefitted from this attribution, we have yet to go a long way. And it is not only the government’s responsibility to follow up the process. We need civil society to get vibrantly active here, in this regard. But the question is: Does our civil society have the will and capability to handle these things? Do we have sufficient financial viability to protect and flourish our crafts and arts?
Since the day, Srinagar was enlisted to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a City of Crafts and Folk Art; I have been trying to figure out how this recognition to the city would help a poor artisan, who has been in a pathetic condition for quite a long time. And, to be frank with you, I don’t see any hope for the artisans even after this development occurred. I say this because I know that helping an artisan is in the hands of the government, which unfortunately has been reluctant to provide any help, so far.
We have already given our proposal to the UT, and the Union governments. We have been crying since 2014 when the floods damaged most of the Karkhanas (factories); and after the Covid hit us. But it seems that nobody is ready to listen to us. Today, a Kashmiri artisan needs financial and technical support from the government. After the floods in 2014, the then government had promised us that Artisan Credit Card (ACC) would be made equivalent to the Kisan Credit Card (KCC), which assures a financial loan of up to five lakh rupees to the cardholder. Had the government fulfilled its promises to the artisans, they would have not been got disheartened.
Last year, after a thorough assessment, we found that artisans in Kashmir owe approximately Rs: 325 crores to the banks. Given the situation of the artisans here, this entire amount needs to be waived off, to keep them motivated for working and producing the craft.
Lastly, I would say that the government while celebrating the UCCN status to the Srinagar city, is forgetting the fact that the real heroes of this achievement are the artisans —the unsung heroes.