Holding the fort—Kashmiri craftswomen’s art of resilience

A daily skill session of a Kashmiri woman artisan. [FPK Photo/Saima Shakeel.]

An inside story of how Kashmiri women artisans are struggling to sustain the region’s crumbling craft industry. 

Zehra is making beautiful patterns on a fabric while singing Habba Khatoon’s lament for her exiled king Yousuf Shah Chak. The dirge unwittingly reflects the distressed state of the Kashmir crafts lacking creative and market interventions.

It’s a pleasant spring day in Srinagar and the artisan in her late twenties is literally on song in her living room cum workplace. Doing Sozni work for living underlines Zehra’s faith in skills at a time when mass pursuit of higher studies is only producing an army of “academic unemployed” in Kashmir. 

The young woman is not only confronting her community crisis, but also sustaining the spirit of skills.

“I learned this skill from my father when I was 15,” says Zehra, pausing her song. “It has always helped me in my ups and downs.” 

Zehra’s cheerful disposition reflects from her devotion. She’s well-known for her designs and deadlines. Her mentorship to myriad local women has created a chain reaction in the craft sector at a community level.

“Kashmiri Art is a skill that every woman should have for a decent living,” she says. “A skilled woman will be able to help her family. This is how our foremothers maintained some domestic empowerment.” 

Crafts in Kashmir used to be household things before the protracted strife unsettled its market and unseated its social significance. While the men would traditionally practice the art from workplaces, women practiced it within four walls of their home. Kashmir Art’s feminine factor would support families during trying times. Some skilled mothers including widows and divorces even ensured education and marriage of their children with the craft.

“But with time,” Zehra laments, “people don’t want to do it. I can train many people, but hardly anyone is interested. This skill is a blessing. Every woman should master it.”

Despite feeling so high about her vocation, the young Kashmiri artisan feels the art necessitates a great deal of effort and patience, but the same is not being justified by the wages.

Pattern of patience and persistance. [FPK Photo/Saima Shakeel.]

Zehra and other unsung Kashmiri artisans are today struggling to retain pride and prominence in Kashmir’s craft empire that empowered masses in the valley over the centuries. But now, the lack of market-oriented approach is forcing natives to give up their golden hands. Among them is Rafooza from Downtown Srinagar.

For many years, this woman artisan in her late thirties would train girls in Tilla handicrafts at her center. But since her apprentices couldn’t pay fees, she was forced to wind it up. 

“If you want to be self-sufficient, you’ll need some financial assistance,” Rafooza says. “But the craft we have been serving for years is unable to give us that security.” 

The master artisan holds the government responsible for failing to infuse confidence and a new lease of life in the sector. 

“Some of us made merry when Srinagar was designated as a craft city by the United Nations,” she says. “It was a big feat, but it belied the ground reality. Celebrating craft is okay, but overlooking its dismal state is a big disservice to the cause.” 

Much of this annoyance and anger stems from the poor-pay culture in Kashmir crafts. Most of these woman artisans roughly earn Rs 1000-2000 per month. “But we’re still trying to keep this art alive,” says Rafooza. “But unless mainstreamed with market-driven creativity, the future of this art form looks bleak in the valley which once took a great pride in its golden hands.” 

Before the current craft crisis, generations developed and perfected Kashmir’s needle crafts, such as crewel, aari, chain stitch, and sozni. This handicraft industry would employ a large number of individuals around the region. Many of these silent servants of the art were never acknowledged. And hence, Kashmir silently witnessed a gradual craft exodus over the period of time. 

One way to revive the industry, many say, is to engage young boys and girls, with better packages and stable future. But till the valley witnesses any craft change, many unsung women artisans are holding the crumbling fort.

“Kashmir’s traditional craft industry was massively dented by the turmoil-hit market prompting some young and educated women to come forward and revive it,” says Hameeda, a woman artisan from Pulwama. “But most of those individual efforts failed to mitigate the common craftswoman’s living condition.”

The golden hands at work. [FPK Photo/Saima Shakeel.]

Most of these craftswomen were trained at a locality level where their master or mentor would impart skills to them in a home setting. Under the same roof, they would daily assemble to pick up the threads of the art. 

“That culture is gone now,” laments Hameeda. “Now, only government institutions impart these skills with some incentives, but they’re no match to those home skill-schools.”

But since the significance of skills has changed in the valley over the period of time, the government is trying various permutations and combinations to revive the ‘golden hands’ era. It has set up many craft schools and institutions, but the community-level engagement seems missing.

In absence of new flag-bearers, it boils down to traditionalists like Gulshan to carry the legacy.

A master in aari kaam, Gulshan has been serving the Kashmir Art since her teen years. “Due to poverty, I wasn’t able to finish my studies,” she says. “So I learned arri kaam and became my family support. The skill proved a blessing for me.” 

Slowly, as Gulshan gained experience, she started training her neighbourhood women. 

“Back then,” she recalls, “we used to live in different times. There was no blind pursuit for materialism and there was no mental stress. We used to talk to each other and unburden our hearts. Sadly, those comforting talks have gone, and so have the community pride in the crafts.”

The change that swept Kashmir’s craft empire has now confined artisans like Gulshan to their homes. 

“I’ve seen many stages in this journey so far,” she narrates. “It needs a lot of hard work and patience. But I strongly believe that everyone should’ve a skill to live an empowered life.”

Not only these resilient women support the Kashmir’s cottage industry, but they also put their homes in order with their skills.

“The Kashmir Arts is beneficial to women since they can manage family as well as a decent living at home,” says Fehmeeda, another artisan. “This is a ‘soni kaar’ [golden work] that needs time and effort. This job is suitable for both educated and unskilled unemployed people.”

The shimmering skill. [FPK Photo/Saima Shakeel.]

Fehmeeda comes from old city — the cradle of Kashmir crafts. As a sozni artist, she gets her work-piece from a local merchant. It takes her 15 to 20 days to complete her work project. She later submits it to her trader and gets remuneration. 

“This is how it works,” she says. “Sometimes some relatives, friends, or brides also give me their clothes for sozni work and boost my income. However, I believe the person behind the art is undervalued and underpaid.”

The same concern reflects from Zehra’s voice as she sings Habba Khatoon’s lament on departure and distress. 

“We’ve received these skills from our ancestors,” the young Kashmiri woman artisan says. “It may be passing through some tough times now, but there’s no question of abandoning it.”

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