Handicrafts that gave Kashmir a global foot print are on a shaky ground.
A few days ago, I came across some official information about Handicrafts of Kashmir- an art and industry- that provided succor to its people in times of distress over centuries. There are now very few people associated with the craft and the forwarded and backward linkages have also fallen off. My assertion on the subject is partly based on the official data and somewhat on my personal experience. I gained familiarly with the subject during my reiki for some high quality but low budget short documentary films for Tourism Department before 2019, the “ill-omened” year of Kashmir’s political history that according to our political class has pushed to cliff its exclusive ethnicity.
Despite providing quality products I was put to loss by a dark administrative system that has been sapping us collectively since the tyrannical 18th century Afghan rule. But like every ordinary Kashmiri I too have grown stoic and “zulmparast” of this bureaucracy that is predominantly inefficient at core, arrogant at mind and corrupt in practice. Despotism extending centuries has taught us that those unaccustomed to survive by wits perish. Like the rest of my folk, I also have learned some instincts for survival and moved on, anticipating a better day after today.
During Preproduction of the films, I came across stories of suffering of the handicraft artisans on a vast scale. The craft was introduced here by the Central Asian Muslim missionaries who started coming to Kashmir by 13th century. The era was marked by political disorder, social depravation and economic impoverishment. The simple and well-read Muslim missionaries put across a message that put the mankind on an equal footing. Majority of the local population were tired of a dehumanizing treatment by a set up defined by caste and privileges. The new ideas and precepts came like a fresh breeze that instilled a new life to a decadent larger social structure. Thus, was created the edifice for what the historians call as Islamic golden age in Kashmir marked by stability, intellectual, industrial, and social development. The new technology, crafts brought in by the missionaries played a momentous role in helping the common folk scale up the socio-economic ladder.
While producing the films on a variety of handicraft items I found that very less people are now associated with the craftwork The pale and frail craftsmen who gave us a global foot print are consumed by a life full of deprivation. They have a sub human life style but the governing elite does appreciate them by offering some petty annual awards at imperial functions. I talked to certain old craftsmen who during the productive years of their lives created unparalleled masterpieces of art that only benefitted their middle men, carriers and exporters. The chains of skilled laborers and artisans associated with the handicrafts have been unable to afford modern education to their children. A large number have switched over to other vocations for sustenance.
I have pleasant nostalgic memories of my childhood years when my mother and aunts would spin wool on charkha for the shawl makers or at times for blankets (chadars) for our personal use. The spinning was an additional income for lower middle class income groups like ours. Although we had sufficient land assets but spinning was a gainful and respectable economic activity of our social class. It contributed in our education that catapulted us to a dignified world. The nostalgia is of the pre- 1990’s, when Kashmir was yet to be gripped by a violent uprising, a story of suffering on a larger scale, more particularly on the educational front. The violent uprising was a period, which an intellectually honest Indian political theorist describes as one where “both sides had no compunction in using the worst forms of violence, even as they resorted to the language of human rights”.
During my film making experience I was horrified to see the 553 government run training centers paying a stipend of Rs 100 to 200 to trainee per month. The bureaucrats that devised this mechanism of training to replenish the ageing workforce might be using government billed tissue papers equivalent to this stipend a day for their personal consumption.
During the turbulent times when life had befallen with their roughness, the crafts offered the people of Kashmir a succor. During 1889- 90, when Kashmir was under the lash of Dogra repression, it exported blankets and shawls worth Rs 1, 42, 600 (The Valley of Kashmir). In the years of militancy in 1995-96 it sustained its poor and the Valley exported carpets worth Rs 260 crore which reached to Rs Rs 649.02 crores in 2007-08 (Digest of Statistics 2019).
Actual value of the export of Kashmir’s handmade goods in 2013-14 reached an all-time high of Rs 1695.65 crores. But data reveals that the activity of making the elegantly attractive objects and then selling to overseas buyers has fallen to a degree of worry. The Valley’s magnitude of exports in all its existing crafts in previous fiscal was only Rs 635.
Whatever is left of our craft identity is shaky. The downward spiral is on and on. It seems the concerned local and central government agencies are simply presiding over the loss of a craft, an identity. There has to be a policy response based on diagnosis. The craftsmen, the skilled workers and people in different linkages be taken on board before an honest response, if any.
The writer is Associate editor of Kashmir Images