How the Baghdadi clan is keeping copperware relevant to Kashmir

One of the pioneers of copper works in the Valley, the Bagdadi family of the old city in Srinagar, is keeping the copperware relevant to Kashmir by introducing new market-driven designs and innovation. 

At a furlong distance from the 13th July (1931) Martyrs—resting in the placid lawns of the Naqeshband Sahab Sufi Shrine—scores of men are busy hammering, shaping, molding the copper.

These coppersmiths of the old city’s Hamambal locality are no usual coppersmiths – they otherwise appear. Locals say that they are the chip of the dynastic copper block and the progeny of one of the oldest families, who introduced the copper craft in Kashmir.

These days, the Bagdadis, a household name, are giving a different creative touch to copper. The idea is to keep it relevant to the times, by maintaining its own dynastic stroke. For that, the copper legends of the old city are doing various innovations, permutations and combinations on the brown metal.

In an otherwise sleepy neighborhood of Hamambal, thumping resonance of metal emanate from many copper workshops, tucked in serpentine alleys, criss-crossing into narrow lanes and by-lanes. Such workshops dot the length and breadth of the old city, but only Hamambal has a distinction of housing the Bagdadis — “the first among the equals”.

Coppersmiths, locally Thanthar, here are sticking to their routine with hammers and chisels. The depth of their skillful hands is quite noticeable. They draw quaint and bold patterns on traditional copperwares like Samavar, Tram’me, Sarposh, Kenczh, Toorh, Doolh, Tash-Naar and others.

Apart from these well-known traditional copperwares, the craftsmen are making ice-cream bowls, flower vases, bathtubs, fountains and other items that find place in modern homes. These lately introduced copper objects are now gracing many copper shops—especially on the Zaina Kadal and Maharaj Gunj stretch—the copper street of Kashmir.

Over the years, these new items have improved the copper market and led to mushrooming of many such outlets in the City and elsewhere.

At the heart of the change sits a septuagenarian Ali Mohammad Bagdadi. On his copperware outlet inside a maze-like alley in Hamambal, the senior Bagdadi commands a ‘Big Papa’ sway in his entire clan.

Over 60 years of experience gives him a typical wousta (a masterly) attitude—synonymous with the old city artists and its craftsmen. Today, the elder is one of the oldest coppersmiths alive, ably supported by his two sons in his line of work.

“I was only 10-year-old,” says Bagdadi, reclining on his seat with reminiscence, “when my father passed away. Since then I have been associated with this art.”

As a restive kid who became a default family patriarch at the very young age, the immediate challenge for Bagdadi was to keep the kitchen flames going. It was a difficult era. The socio-political space of Kashmir was changing after the fall of the Dogra Raj. The old city being a bastion of politics could never stay immune to the change.

But for this fatherless boy, this was not to cloud his focus for taking his legacy forward, and do much-needed interventions, to keep the market alive and responsive.

“Those days,” he says, “we used to make simple copper items as the market wasn’t that demanding.” But over the years, that changed, after he and his coppersmith class upgraded, introduced new designs and incorporated new copper items.

“A new change took over after we began exploring, entering new markets,” he says, “both Indian and overseas.”

This knack of copper creativity not only makes the Bagdadis masters of their craft, but also the masters of the market.

Copperwares and its craft being deep-rooted into the Kashmiri culture and tradition, has been motivating them to wallop the wares at will. They delve into the common Kashmiri psyche that makes copper investment a safe and secure deal. The Bagdadis won’t tell it, but for years, this has remained their own self-styled Wall Street tenet, thus thriving their trade.

But like every other trade, this copper clan is mindful of what they are pitching. For them, the patterns they draw on copperwares in the form of designs must become an eye-candy for customers. Chinar motifs and other indigenous environmental impressions make for such unique patterns. They even have Mughal era designed wares engraved with such patterns—like in case of Samvars, a tea-kettle that has embers burning inside, to keep the tea boiling.

Samovars being one of the oldest copper utensils usually comes engraved with Chinar leaf designs. This ember-fuelled kettle of Kashmir also comes in different designs. Introduction of new and innovative patterns make these traditional kettles relevant to fresh markets. And for this, the Bagdadis are leading with an example.

“The idea is to create a link between the customs, traditions and aesthetic charm,” Ali Bagdadi continues. “But before coming to the markets, these copper objects pass through a detailed design process, involving a lot of fine art.”

In Hamambal, the Bagdadis keep it no secret.

Inside, the smoke-filled workshops reek of strong acid, the craftsmen oxidize these designed copper objects to make them durable. Known as Naqashi, this artwork determines the price of the object, as does the weight.

Then comes the role of Kandkari. In this, the designs are engraved on copper utensils with geometrical and calligraphic motifs. It’s an exclusive copper craft mastered by these copper artists of Kashmir for over many centuries now. But then, as a Mushtaq Ahmad, a Kandkari artist explains, it’s no walk in the park.

“Basically it’s like playing with fire,” Mushtaq says. “Any wrong move can prove deadly to the entire design and structure.” But this is where an artist can also play with the basic design and come up with different patterns.

After coming of age with their craft, the Bagdadis are now eying on exposure and trade fares to take their art out of the confines of the old city and make it global. If many countries can improve their tourist footfall with such craft, they say, “why can’t we?”

Talking on similar lines, another senior pro, Ahmad Bagdadi comes across as a no-nonsense wusta when saying that only change can sustain any craft.

“Consumers over time have developed different tastes,” he says, “so we are only responding to the change.”

By sundown, the Bagdadis cease hammering out that change — only to resume it by sunrise, when the copper thumping returns to resound the Hamambal.

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