The unfinished carpet—Inside Kashmir’s abandoned workplace

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The unfinished carpet. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

After losing his workforce and workplace, a master artisan is trying to make a relic out of one last piece.

He nonchalantly headed towards the cowshed of his old home on top of which lies the last piece of unfinished qaleen. Hidden behind the intertwined white threads like a wound, the carpet is still held to the loom in the attic of his wrecked workplace.

“Shifting from this place was heartbreaking for me,” Rehman begins on a somber note. “There were big bags of old radios, tape recorders and equipment that had to be given away to the rag picker for an exchange of a few hundred rupees.”

Rehman’s wife Sadre wanted to detach the carpet from the loom and give it away along with the bundles of threads. “She thought we can use the piece of qaleen in our new home but I resisted,” Rehman continues. “I wanted to keep the remains so that memories can last. So we put it on the cowshed.”

The year devastating floods struck Kashmir, Rehman was drawn to his own deluge. The departure of workforce was rendering his qaleen vaan redundant in that fateful fall of 2014. After having given nearly three decades of his life to carpet weaving, he had to give up on the last piece of his work. 

It was an 8/11 blue carpet for which the dealer had already paid him an advance of Rs 80,000. He later repaid the amount by taking loans from people.

Nearly a decade later, Rehman is trying to settle in a room full of glum air. His only identity—artisan—has waxed and waned. The dull-faced and dipped-eyed sexagenarian carefully rests his back on two drawn and dusty cushions. Drowsy from the balmy summer day’s heat, he nearly dozed-off when one of his grandchildren threw a glass at the window which barely missed his head. He takes out a Foursquare cigarette from his shirt’s front pocket and smokes in the room reeking of concrete from the unplastered cement brick walls and turmeric from the scraps of leftover food on the floor. There’s a pile of bedding on the other corner and a few random things scattered here and there. A radio is playing in the background. However, the chuckles of the children playing outside are making those voices fainter.

A woman enters the room complaining about water leakage from the walls of the upper room. The old man holding the cigarette gently in his shriveled hands presses it against a broken cup putting it off and then places it back inside his pocket. 

“It has been nearly two months since he has not gone out for work,” yells Rehman’s wife from the other end of the room. “He worked as a construction labour in our neighborhood. The work was completed by the end of winter. And since then he has been at home. He feels too weak to work anymore.”

The artisan who once employed dozens of men in his carpet weaving workshop is now struggling for living as a construction worker. 

Residing in a village called Tengjen located at a distance of 10kms from Wanpoh Kulgam, Kumar Rehman as the surname suggests, belongs to the lineage of potters. His grandfather was a potter but his father Shaban Kumar switched to farming. His parents expected him to study and pursue lucrative careers, but fate had different plans for him.

Due to poverty and lack of facility in his village, Rahman at the age of 12 was sent to his grandparents for formal education. However, due to a lack of interest in conventional studies he soon ended up in a carpet weaving center in Wachi, a sub tehsil of Shopian district. 

To his delight, ‘qaleen baff taleem’ not only suited his interest but also helped him to make a good amount of money. “Our teachers in the center were very fine and skilled artisans which made the process of learning a great experience for us,” recalls Rehman. “I was also paid a sum of rupees 60 a month.” 

10 years later, Rehman returned home as the master artisan.

The weaver’s woe. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

It was Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin who’s believed to have invited the carpet weavers from the kingdom of Persia and Central Asia to Kashmir in the 15th century. The locals of Kashmir then took an interest in the art and business and learned the tradition to pass it from generation to generation.

Rehman was the first man in Tengjen to learn the art of carpet weaving. He introduced it to his village as well as to the outskirts. Due to a lack of avenues there, villagers got into the job of qaleen baafi for making their ends meet.

The fading carpet abode. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

As per an economic survey, the twin sectors—Handlooms and Handicrafts—are the major and the oldest sectors in Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, Kashmiri carpets along with other handicrafts involve about 3.5 lakh craftsmen and artisans in the valley. A study conducted to find out the relationship between employment and production has revealed that Handicrafts is the second largest industry of Jammu and Kashmir.

The loose threads. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

As part of this sunshine enterprise, Rehman was making a decent living. The peak of his career came during Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s reign. The PDP founder and the former chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had doubled the wages of artisans. That upliftment, Rehman reckons, boosted the artisan class and wooed many youngsters towards the cottage industry.

“It was a much-needed state support,” Rehman says. “But it never lasted in the long run.”  

The worried homemaker. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

Rehman’s battered better-half who recently recovered from an illness, stepped in with a cup of Nun Chai for him. A 10 kilogram bag of Nun Chai today costs around Rs 8,000, the struggling artisan’s wife joins the conversation. “The same would cost Rs 1200 back in the day.” 

Sadre drew the parallels to score a clear point. The homemaker used to make endless cups of Nun Chai for Rehman’s workers per day. It’s beyond imagination now. “Back then,” she continues, “I would prepare one quintal sout every month at home and serve it to the workers with tea.” 

The carpet weavers would assemble in the morning and seat themselves in Rehman’s qaleen vaan. The workplace would soon come alive with buoyant conversations and radio bulletins. The scent of threads, yarn and hot tea brewing in the samovar would fill the air. These men would occasionally sing folksongs and narrate folklores to lighten up the mood. And by nightfall everyone would head back home. 

It would take these men one entire season to complete one 9/12 sized carpet. “He [Rehman] still has a habit of listening to radio the whole day,” says Sadre, pointing towards the radio lying next to Rehman. 

The old sound. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

Taking a walk in the fields surrounding his home, Rehman points out at the houses of men who would once work for him. He still remembers how and when they were built.  

There were around thirty men working for Rehman and he would pay Rs 200 to each of them per day. In case of any financial urgency, Rehman would pay their wages in advance. And the same amount was paid to him by his dealer. “The dealer couldn’t say no to me,” he says. “I was the Baadshah of the artform.”

Carpet weaving was not merely a means of survival for Rehman. It was something he felt at peace with. “With a radio playing in the background, a pillow under my seat, a jajeer in the room and a samovar of Nun Chai prepared by my wife,” he says, “I could go on weaving for months together.” 

Hands that no longer serve. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

Carpets take a very long time to get ready. It’s not a matter of days or weeks but of months and sometimes years. Each carpet has an average of 200 to 900 knots per square inch and the job is anything but easy. It requires one to master the art of intricacy and focus along with skillful handling of the sequence of colours to be used. A patient maneuvering of the threads is not easy but the love Rehman had for the job made it a pushover for him.

But given the times he was living in, his artform faced a market crisis. As per the 2011 Directorate of Handicrafts report, the value of production of the handicrafts decreased from Rs.154 crores in 1988- 89 to Rs.150 crores in 1989-90. The production further dipped during the turmoil years in the valley. The comparative analysis of the production of handicrafts with that of the other Indian states reflects that this industry has suffered to a huge extent in the last three decades. 

In the same distressed atmosphere, Rehman eventually lost his workforce and workplace. And now, he’s trying to make a relic out of one last piece.

Solitary walk. [FPK Photo/Muzzamil Bashir.]

Inside the attic reeking of dung and disparity, the carpet master tries to detangle the threads behind which lies his most precious piece of art. After brushing off the dirt from the qaleen with the sleeve of his shirt, Rehman’s eyes glisten upon the sight of the timeless shine of the sapphire blue carpet. 

“When I’m older and weaker and not in a position to recall the good old days of life,” he says with a sense of sentiment, “I can come back to this piece to remind myself that these worn out hands once possessed the skill to create things of value and finesse.”

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