Art

‘Our skill is our saviour’: Meet master matrons of Kashmir

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The women craftspersons are sustaining the Kashmir Arts with their silent struggle and slog. [FPK Photo/Qurrat ul Ein.]

They’re unassuming, unsung sheroes of Kashmir’s cottage industry.

Checkpora, Chadoora — In this calm countryside pocket planted with wailing willows and longstanding lodgings, Haseena’s skill mastery is quite assertive. The plain-speaking woman’s room is besieged by pherans and suits. Woollens of different shades have arrived for winter artwork. 

But what looks like an emblematic workplace is sustaining the Kashmir Art for years now. And Haseena being a silent servant of the skill—that empowered Kashmiris since the dawn of religion of peace in the valley—has been quite enterprising.

Haseena first picked up the threads as a fresh-faced teenager in 1997. 25 years later, her sleep-deprived eyes and dipped face make her one of the unsung craftswomen of Kashmir’s cottage industry. 

“I didn’t receive any formal education,” Haseena says with a straight face. “But yes, I was always curious about Kashmir artwork. So, one day, I went to this lady in my neighbourhood and expressed my desire to be her apprentice. She taught me tilla work at her home.”

Haseena was part of a local girl-group devoted to skill learning. The art-association continued for many years before most of these craftswomen came of age and decided to be their own masters.

“Today,” Haseena says, “I mostly get orders from brides who like my quality of work. And that’s why they let me handle their big day.”

From an apprentice once, Haseena has now become a master artisan, throwing her weight behind a craft centre.

“If there’ll be a tilla centre in my area,” she says, “many girls will be able to learn the craft. Unlike home workshops, such centre will be able to provide resources needed for the skill learning.”

Kashmir handicraft is known for its intricate depth and details. [FPK Photo/Qurrat ul Ein.]

Badipora village of Budgam has one such centre—where women learn and market their artwork. 

The school dropouts and unschooled women flock the space for learning and earning. Among them is Shugufta Akhter, a self-taught artisan, now working in the centre. 

Shagufta is proficient in tilla and aari works and has only progressed with these artforms over the year.

“The Kashmiri artwork is the best way to conserve our culture and earn our livelihood,” she says. “In fact, my family and village are very much supportive of this skill spirit.” 

Most of the girls in Shagufta’s village know the traditional art, from needlework to tilla work. Many more are joining, she says, and growing the tribe. One of them is Fiza.

Seven years back, this girl in her mid-twenties suspended her studies due to poverty. She devoted her time to get empowered in the skill which made her foremothers brave some harshest periods within four walls of their home.

“This work takes a lot of effort and energy,” says Fiza. “We’re now working to improve our means and market.”

The hand-tilla work takes a great toll on women artisans. [FPK Photo/Qurrat ul Ein.]

The story of Haseena, Shagufta and Fiza might appear familiar, but the script makes it a spirited saga of Kashmiri eves silently sustaining the art and culture of Kashmir. 

The celebrated art might be still in vogue, thanks to chic interventions by new generation, but the real upholders are lost in translation. These unsung craftswomen are however fighting back and wearing the art as their identity in the times of academic unemployment in the valley.

“When we practice this art, it gives us a feeling of liberation,” Fiza says. “The art is very important for girls of my village as it helps them to earn and save our cultural identity.”

For a married woman, the skill is not only enterprising but also empowering. 

After getting married, Mysa wanted to play her part in giving her children a good education. 

“So, I decided to learn the skill and eke out my living,” she says. “It streamlined my marriage and gave me a purpose in life. Our skill is our saviour.”

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