Artisans of Kashmir

Kashmiri Tapestry: How Maqbool Revives The Dead Craft

Samiya Andrabi | 11/12/2018

Passing by heritage houses with old battered windows, through primitive bridges which sprawl across the quietly flowing waters of the Jhelum, connecting the old city of Srinagar lie a jigsaw puzzle, across shopkeepers discussing their routine chores over a cup of Chai in match box sized shops, across wee knit neighborhoods, we reach his house - the home where the one of the last remaining artisans of Tapestry lives.

He peeks his head out of the door and welcomes us home. Mir Maqbool is a 60 year old craftsman with a smiling demeanor and a pleasant aura. He leads us through his dimly lit house and a heritage green winding staircase which opens into what was once his Karkhana.

He takes a seat, draws in a deep breath and starts narrating the tale of his life and that of Tapestry making in Kashmir.

“My father and uncles were small scale traders of Raffal shawls, crewel and Chainstitch embroidery. It was their dream to educate me. I earned myself a seat in engineering but because of extreme poverty, could not carry on with the dream field. However, my situations could not deter me from pursuing me dream - of education. I pursued a Bachelor’s In Science and post this, my father sent me to work with the greatest businessman to have lived in the Valley in 1985 - Jamal Siraj.

Jamal Sahab was a humble and honest mentor. I would sit in his ancestral home for hours at a stretch. Apart from the principles of accountancy and the basics of craft which I learnt from him, what mesmerized me the most was his principles. He was true to always true to his word and trade. There are 3 things which sum up his personality - a clear vision, a clean tongue and a clean heart. I would earn around Rs 300 around that time. That amount was huge for me. It would help me sustain my household needs and some of my own ones. Today, my fellow artisans call me Bab (master of the trade). This is because of the principles of honesty and integrity that Jamal Siraj imbibed in me.”

He took a brief pause during which the sounds of distant cars, ringing cycles and little kids playing in the adjacent alley filled the silence. His vibrant silhouette was highlighted by a bare streak of light making its way through a polythene covered window and emanated reminiscence    as he proceeded with his story,

“Back in the 70’s, Srinagar city would be brimming with craft. Fatehkadal and Nawabazar were the hubs of tapestry makers. The markets would be flooded by a high quality and variety of tapestries and foreigners would pay high prices in recognition of the artisan’s meticulous effort. Not only artisans, but other people would also make tapestries. They would do it part time. Imagine the quantity and variety we used to have in those days. However, after every pinnacle, there is a descend.

Today, nobody wants to make tapestry. The reason for this is quite simple - an artisan who would earn Rs 100 back in the 80’s still earns the same amount for his skill and craft. That time, the 100 Rs would suffice his needs. We would get all the household groceries and even save with that amount of money. But this time, Rs 100 fetches you absolutely nothing from the market. Our tapestry artisans have switched to carpentry and fruit vendoring because it fetches them more wages (around 1500 per day). There must be around 100 tapestry artisans spread across Srinagar city but none of them make it anymore, which is the saddest thing that could have happened to this craft. Everyone has resorted to easy-money occupations. And I don’t think they can be entirely blamed for it. One needs to survive and sustain.

I have always believed in working hard and always said no to monetary shortcuts. It fetches us nothing. Even though I have little, I am content with the type of work I am doing. It brings me so much happiness when I see tapestry artisans

There is another dimension to why tapestries died out - that is the political turmoil that struc us in the 1990’s. Before militancy struck our homeland, we were prospering. Foreign traders and luxury designers would visit the valley and purchase directly from the artisan. However, when situations turned bad, the demand for all Kashmiri crafts crashed down. Our buyers would not visit us. It turned really bad. Maqbool rejects the popular notion that intermediaries are responsible for the less wage. He firmly believes that only and only the political turmoil led to the downfall of the tapestry. Also, adding a final nail to the coffin, China made cheaper duplicates of the tapestry. Had the situations in Kashmir remained stable, our Original Tapestry would have thrived. There is no match to it - it is truly a “Sounne Kaar” (a golden craft).”

When asked about how they would process a tapestry back in the golden days, his eyes suddenly twinkled with cheerful memories and a passion for his dying art form.

“We used to begin with creating a makeshift frame. It could be anything, ranging from basic planks of wood to paper weights or stones to merely 4 people sitting along the 4 corners of a canvas. This canvas is then fixed to the ground with nails and a hammer.

Next, a Naqash (designer) would begin tracing floral and faunal designs over a trace paper. He would then gently prick the outlines of the design for further tracing. This, in the native Kashmiri language was known as Trombun. The Naqash would then place it carefully over our canvas and pass on a duster soaked in temporary ink over it (Chaamp Traavun). Our canvas would be blueprinted in eclectic designs and ready for embroidery.

We would get 2 ply or 9 ply woolen yarns from the market and dye them into the colors we need. Once our Rang Baste (color combination) for ready, we would begin embroidering our canvas, threading it in cross stitches or petit point. This is then sent to the Dhobi Ghaat for washing. And thus is made the tapestry - a colorful and completely handmade wall and floor decoration.”

We observed some differences in the finesse of the tapestries. On enquiring, Maqbool Sahab told us that since the threads are of varying finesse, so is the final art form. There is a type in which only thich 9 ply wool is used. This gives a bolder and more embossed effect. There’s another type in which only 2 ply wool is used, this kind is more fine. Then there is a third variation which combines these 2 types of wool. All of these are artistic additions which have evolved into tapestry making for the past 6 decades.

We asked him if there was anyway we could bring back our long lost tapestry back to life. He contemplated for a while, his slightly wrinkled face turning more thoughtful and then said,

“Why not! There are 2 things that can bring back the craft - any craft. One is purity of the heart of the ones trying to revive it and second is better wage that at least suffices the basic needs of it’s artists. How can we ask our fellow artisans to work with us when the craft doesn’t fetch him enough wage to feed and educate his family. Most of the artisans have resorted to send their children for well paying government jobs rather than pursue the craft. It at least runs their household. And why will they not? Eventually what feeds the stomach? What runs households? The wage!”

We agree with Maqbool and as we take leave, he takes us through heaps of Tapestry and woolen yarns lying across his Karkhana, now gathering dust. These have been here for over a year. There are no more takers for this once glorious art.

Today, over a 100 tapestry artisans have switched to other occupations in order for basic sustenance. If not revived today, the know how of this craft will never reach the next generation and we will lose an art form which has made its voyage from Turkey to Kashmir.

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