A veteran in the hometown of Kashmir’s patron saint tells a charming chronicle of craft and culture.
The good-old radio and hookah is all what Ali Mohammad Dar needs to make the finest firepot of Kashmir.
Artisans of his repute are known for their reclusive routine. They drift into their zones for conceiving some charming object. As men of few words, they sustain the Kashmir handicraft industry with their underpaid skill-slog and yet being dismissed as “high-headed men” otherwise struggling for means.
Out of his secluded space, Dar produces a decorative piece known for its appeal and appearance.
The engagement is exhaustive, but the septuagenarian skill-man is ensuring that his patron saint’s town totem continues to charm and warm Kashmir.
His hometown Charar-i-Sharief is buzzing with meditative moorings. The old souk that survived the conflict conflagration of 1995 is packed with devotees and drifters. The overcast day is sending arctic vibes and making the marketplace a cold storage. Snow and shower forecasts are being discussed, as peasants and punters shop for the native delicacies.
Adjacent to the bustling bazar, the mood inside Dar’s workroom is melodic and misty. Multicolored wickers are scattered all around. Stacks of earthen-pots are resting at a corner.
The old artisan makes the town’s speciality with his devotional commitment as reflected from his body language. His white beard and aged face makes Dar as one of the oldest craftsmen active today.
“Our Kanger is different from others,” says the craftsman with certain throw in his tone and tenor. “It’s known for beauty and brilliance.”
Dar’s speciality is Charar Kanger, the totem being attributed to Nund Reshi by townspeople.
“Charar Kanger is considered as tobruk [lucky charm],” Dar says. “People buy it more often than any other Kanger because of its connotation with Sheikh- ul- Aalam.”
Also known as Nund Reshi, Sheikh Noor Ud Din Noorani is considered as the patron saint of the valley. His Sufi philosophy of life and prophetic poetry makes masses his ardent followers. They consider Charar-i-Sharief as their “venerated Vatican” they flock on the saint’s annual Urs. They bring home a special object: Charar Kanger.
Dar has been weaving the same specialty for the last 40 years now. He learnt the art from his neighbourhood master, Khazir Mohammad Malik.
“Back then, Kanger was the only heater in the valley,” the craftsman continues. “No heating devices were there to keep Kashmir warm except this ember-stoked wicker beauty.”
As a novice, Dar even learnt about many more types of Kanger from his mentors. “But after their demise,” he says, “the craft of Kanger lost many techniques and treatments.”
But despite that diminished depth and dexterity now, Dar is proficient in forty Kanger designs—selling them between Rs 300 to Rs 1000.
“People mostly prefer Charar-e-Kanger for marriage purposes,” Dar continues to weave the firepot yarn. “That’s why it’s also called ‘Bride Kanger’. People grace their happy occasions with this firepot, burn izbandh in it during their auspicious events and also present it as a gift to their loved ones.”
The beauty of Charar Kanger comes from its bigger frame festooned with mirror work, captivating and colourful elements. Wicker is given more artistic look as craftsmen spend days to shimmer it like a bride. The whole process is a journey itself.
“First the wicker and earthen pots are brought from upper reaches of town,” Dar says. “Wickers are sundried before coloured and crafted around earthen pots.”
But despite these decorative details, the old are struggling, while the young stays indifferent in this Kashmir handicraft as well.
“We do it because we’ve faith,” Dar says. “The young aren’t up for it as they look at this profession as some roadside business when it’s a skill-based art which everyone can’t do. It’s part of our culture and we should practise it. But to inculcate that sense and spirit, we should catch them young.”