Noorbagh – its labyrinthine roads are jam packed by houses of primitive Kashmiri architecture, a common wall between neighboring houses being a characteristic of this close knit area, where ties to neighbors are as good as blood relations. It is in these lanes that a group of Aari artisans lives, works and crafts skilled pieces of brilliance. The group is headed by Manzoor Sahib, a 62 year old gentleman, clad in a grey phiran made of tweed. He meets me at the gate of his workshop, Karkhana as he calls it. Manzoor Sahab has established his workshop in an old battered house, where one can find artisans from various genres of Kashmiri art working at various floors. As I climb through its steep and narrow wooden staircase, he tells me about himself. “I started working as an artisan of Aari when I was merely 12 years of age. I graduated from Abdul Gani Sheikh’s Karkhana as his apprentice. Later I established my own workshop”, he says. At the end of this dark tunneled staircase, I finally get to enter the Aari Karkhana – a place where I am about to meet the most skilled and courteous old men, who craft my favorite pieces of ethnic apparel and accessories.
The floor is divided into 2 main compartments where the artisans form an assembly line to work wonders. Manzoor Sahab takes me through the latter first. It is a dimly lit room where a group of artisans silently work. All of them carry the air of learned old men – and why should they not. They have lived almost 40 years of their lives, mastering the screw like hook called Aari and crafting wonders out of it. The room in itself is full of finished and half done stacks of ethnic suits, sarees and kaftans, which would then go to the handicrafts intermediary and sell at rocketing prices in foreign markets, while the real heroes behind their making plunge into the darkness of poverty day by day.
Manzoor Sahab heads a group of 5 artisans – Mohammed Ismael, Mohammed Amin, Abdul Rahman, Mohammed Ashraf and Ghulam Mohammed. All of them must be in their late 60s and master the skill of hand embroidery with a specialized hook type needle called Aari. “We begin our work at the break of dawn and end at dusk. We do not earn much out of it - barely 115 Rupees a day. It is not even sufficient to sustain a family of 5. However, our heart is stuck with this craft. We do not want to let it die”, grimaces Manzoor Sahab. He then takes me through the simple, yet meticulous process with which each Aari Embroidered piece is crafted.
“It all begins with the Naqash (designer)”, he tells me as he walks me into the compartment where this process of designing and tracing is done. A strong smell of kerosene mixed with ink and paint fills the air. There is a series of counters in this room on which the designer draws the design over the trace paper, and perforates this paper with the help of a specialized needle, the process being known as “Trombun”. Meanwhile, his assistants prepare the white and blue inks, by mixing sand from the river of Jhelum with some kerosene. “The kerosene is used to make the ink seep in through the trace paper”, says the Naqash after I shoot him a quizzical look.
The trace paper is placed carefully on the cloth and a paper weight placed over it. It is then that a duster dipped in ink (blue for dark shaded cloth and white for light shaded ones) is passed. The result causes prints of chinar leaves, paisleys and different types of Kashmiri flowers to befall these pieces of plain cloth.
This piece of cloth is then passed on to Manzoor Sahab and his colleagues.
He uses a specialized needle called Aari, which has a slightly thicker pointed head known as “Kaante”. He inserts this needle over the top of the fabric in quick circular motions of the thumb and index finger. I watch him closely as he stitches and secures each knot of embroidered threads so that they do not come out. He chooses the colors palette himself, which he calls “Rang Baste”. “The speciality of handcrafted Aari is that its threads are not clipped. And even then, they do not come out or wear and tear because of the way they have been secured by the artisan,” says a proud Manzoor Sahib.
Once embroidered, he sends this piece of apparel or accessory to the “Doub”, the one who washes and irons it for the ink and the smell of kerosene to come out.
The resulting piece is full of evergreen charm and grandiose and Manzoor Sahib is more than proud to have conjured not one, but thousands of such pieces.
Handcrafting in the Modern Times
When asked about how he is adapting to the advent of technology in Aari Kari, he frowns and then goes on to say, “Machines cannot replicate the effect which a human hand casts with the help of this magic tool called Aari. The handmade product has its own charm, it is more long lasting in that it’s threads do not come out as they are secured into knots manually by the artisan. In a machine embroidered product, this is not possible. It might be cheaper in cost and quicker in product ion, but its life is as short as the machine. However, handcrafting in these cruel times is not easy. It fetches us very less money. All the profit is consumed by the intermediaries and we are left with nothing. My fellow artisan here does not even have the resources to repair his broken spectacles. But we do not work for money. We have fallen in love with this craft. To us, it is like breathing. The mind says it is futile for it doesn’t fetch us money, but the heart does not budge.” He smiles, reliving the days of his youth, recollecting the times when artisans like him were cherished and respected and lived a decent standard of life. “Times change”, he concludes.
As he and his group of confidants bid me farewell, I feel a deep sense of awe take over – for the life of simplicity and dignity that they have opted for.