Basharat Bashir

Crafts of Kashmir: WALUTWOOD CARVING

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Wood carving is one of the oldest forms of art from the Stone Age and because of its durability, availability and plasticity it has remained common art form  to every culture since then. Art of wood carving includes sculpture in wood, from the decorative bas-relief on small objects to life-size figures in the round, furniture, and architectural decorations. The woods used for carving vary in hardness and grain. Different types of woods are used for carving according to availability in the region, the most widely used type of woods include mango, deodar pine, pear, walnut, willow, sandalwood, oak, and ebony. Wooden handicrafts from India are famous all over the world for their beauty and durability and wood carving in India has been around since ancient times, started as a temple art and as a means to decorate palaces. Various centers of wood carving emerged over the time with its distinct style and patterns Kashmir is the most famous of all.

Kashmir, the paradise on earth, a famous phrase is not only meant for its beautiful landscapes but also for its traditional and astonishing handicrafts. Along with many other art forms, Kashmir is also famous for its distinctive style of wood carving. There is a popular narrative about the introduction of handicrafts in the valley. Once a scholar from Iran named Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadan visited Kashmir and got amazed with its beauty but, at the same time he was disappointed and disturbed by the miserable economic condition of its people. To pull Kashmiri people out of poverty Shah Hamadan decided to bring artisans from Iran. Seven hundred artisans from Iran scattered across the valley and started spreading their knowledge of crafts, of which walnut wood carving was a part. Walnut wood carving is a decorative and delicate craft process that is unique to Kashmir due to the clusters of walnut trees in this region. Later, it is believed that Walnut woodcarving was familiarized in Kashmir by Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom during the reign of Zainul Abdideen in the 15th century. The art was also promoted by king to improve the economic conditions of the valley. The craft was initially restricted to the creation of elaborate palaces and houses. History records the elaborate wood carvings of Zain-ul-Abadeen’s great Razdani palace. Several fine examples of intricately carved buildings, shrines and mausoleums are still survived in Kashmir like, the shrines of Noor-ud-din-Wali at Charar-e-Sharif, the Naqshaband mosque and the shrine of Nund Rishi. Walnut carving is protected under the geographical indication (GI) of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. It is listed at item 182 as “Kashmir Walnut Wood Carving” of the GI Act 1999 of the Government of India with registration confirmed by the Controller General of Patents Designs and Trademarks.

The wood used for the fine woodcarving is obtained from a walnut tree known as ‘Doon Kul’ that is cut only once it matures to an age of 300 years. Carved walnut wood-work is among the most important crafts of Kashmir. Wood of walnut tree is extremely hard and durable, its close grain and even texture allows artisans to create fine and detailed work. Walnut trees are of four types- ‘Vont Dun’, ‘Dunu’, ‘Kakazi’ and ‘Khanak’. The wooden planks obtained from these trees are added up and piled upon each other with a layer of a gap between each for passage of air which helps in the process of seasoning. It also creates visually appealing effects with even meagre plain polished surfaces. The Kashmir craftsman, however, rejoices in carving intricate and varied designs. A variety of carved products bear repeated motifs of the rose, lotus, iris, bunches of grapes, pears and chinar leaves. Dragon motifs and patterns taken from kani and embroidered shawls are also found in wood with deep relief carving. Decorative wood panels for ceilings, arches and doorwaysis one of the special craft of Kashmir and which is called Khatamband. Several other products such as toys, bowls, platters, jewellery boxes, wall plaques and table lamps, bedsteads and larger items of furniture with intricate details are also a speciality of this region.Four main types of carving are usually practised in Kashmir that include raised, engraved, undercut and plain. The carving of furniture and smaller items is an elaborate process and involves high degree of skill and craftsmanship. These intricate detailed carvings on wood are totally done by hands with the help of small indigenous tools and it definitely takes a lot of patience and precision. The master carver, popularly known as Naqqash, starts by etching basic patterns on the wood and then uses delicate chisels and a wooden mallet to enhance the design profoundly to make it emerge as an embossed surface. The carvings that are done on assembles of furniture and delicate items is a very sophisticated and elaborate process that requires the ultimate set of skills and traditional craftsmanship. A Karkhana or workshop is headed by an Ustad or Master and those who work alongside him are called Karigars.

The art of wood carving is centred in the city of Srinagar. Downtown Srinagar is spotted with walnut wood workshops where craftsmen, renowned for their carving skills, bent over the wood, chiseling and polishing. The craftsmanship of walnut wood carving includes three sub-categories of craftwork such as joinery or carpentry, carving and polishing. Hence, a karkhana or factory requires these three skills, and each Karigar or craftsman holds expertise in either of them. Each one of them has undergone a proper training to acquire his respective skills.

However, modern challenges, such as inadequate funds and a decline in the number of craftsmen, threaten the future of walnut wood carving in Kashmir. To meet the demand, traders often collaborate with artisans in Saharanpur, a town in Uttar Pradesh known for its wood carvings influenced by Kashmiri designs. This collaboration has helped sustain the tradition and cater to the market, albeit with concerns for the future of the craft in its place of origin.

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