On the banks of river Jhelum lies the old Mohalla of Fatehkadal, its arterial roads branching into each other and paving pay for passersby to explore its depths. In this Mohalla lives a 64-year-old artisan by the name of Nisar Ahmad Bhat. His house is made of worn out bricks and has a bright low Turquoise colored door through which one can only enter hunchbacked. As we enter that vividly painted gate which is symbolic of the treasures we are to discover inside, a pleasant and lively man clad in a white Kurta Pyjama greets us, his beard and hair greyed with passing years.
While we make ourselves comfortable in Nisar Ahmed’s house, an old transistor plays forgotten melodies of the 80’s. An arched staircase leads us into a brightly lit room which Nisar Sahab proudly calls his Karkhana. This Karkhana proudly flaunts an entire setup of Turquoise craft - an old teakwood desk, heaps of beads in all shapes and sizes, freshly ground Pashm stones bucketful’s of Laach, firepots and tweezers, all line the area where he sits. The entire ambience narrates the meticulous effort which he has put in to revive the craft of Ferozi or Turquoise as it is popularly called. He adjusts on his seat, occasionally fidgeting with the necklace he has just crafted and starts narrating the story of his life.
“The craft of Turquoise or Ferozi originated in Iran and was to Kashmir somewhere in the 19th century. This craft has been deeply entrenched into my family for generations altogether. My grandfather learned it from a famous Karkhana near Jamia Masjid. From skilled artisans who were called Joras. In those times the Turquoise stone was imported all the way from Iran. After India gained independence in 1947, that import came to a halt. This was the initial downfall of the craft. However, the Joras along with their group of artisans decided to use the Ladakhi Pashm stone instead. This stone began to be painted a deep shade of Turquoise in remembrance to the original Iranian one. My father also learned the craft from the very same people. At this time, 70 artisans were employed at the Karkhana. There were famous ones like Sadder ud din Shah – the Base maker and the Khaar brothers of Fatehkadal. Those were olden times,” he sighs reclining against a wall which flaunts an old vintage clock.
“Then came my time. Since the entire family was so passionate about Turquoise making, I inherited that interest when I was a schoolboy of the 4th standard. I would attend school, tuition, play and at the end of the day, I would silently keep watch while my father worked. I learned as much as I could – the nitty-gritty of the Kasab which only a father can narrate to his son. It was in the year 1974 when I was 22 years of age that I got admitted into the School of Design. I clearly remember the practical entrance exam where I was to compete with 14 other artisans, some of them my father’s counterparts. During my tenure at the School of Design, I got to work with some amazing designers – Trilok Koul, PM Kachroo, Mehraj ud din Wanth and Suraj Narayan Tikoo and learned a lot from them. I scaled to international levels to an extent that designers from Europe would visit us to learn our practices of the craft. It once happened that the President of India sat right next to me on a broken chair in the School of Design and gave me immense respect. Those were glorious times and unfortunately, that glory was to last only till 1990. The political turmoil that followed robbed the Valley of its riches. Those were tough times. For any pieces we conjured, no matter how beautiful, there no customers. The craftsman who would earn double the profit was doomed into poverty with the intermediaries taking undue advantage of their condition. I believe an artisan who toils day and night and benefits others should at least earn Rs 600 per day. Today, he earns Rs 200. That is just not enough to sustain a livelihood. The artisans of Turquoise were thus forced to shift to other occupation in the face of such adversities. Today, the craft is nearing its death with only 5 artisan families left in its making. Even for these 5 families, the next generation does not want to pursue the craft line.” He pauses as a strong breeze lifts from the Jhelum and rattles his battered windows.
When asked why he never left the craft, Nisar Sahab tells us of his belief in the magic of innovation. He explains how he took inspiration from various designers and fused other crafts with Turquoise. “I love my work beyond words. That is why I never left it. I was, am and will continue to strive for its revival. My passion for the Kasab of Turquoise dates back to my childhood when I would sit with my father’s assistant Kaarigars and help them complete their stuff. My father would reward me with Rs 30 and the next day I would set off with my friends to spend that money.” As he recollects his childhood, he is reminded of another incident when his father had prepared fresh and hot Laach and burnt his hand in it and yet another time when he wanted to play and kept his unfinished pieces hidden under the bed, telling his father that his work was done.
“These hands have aged with the craft. They have bled grinding the stones. They don’t want to do anything else. Even my sons help me in doing what I do. I have imbibed in them a vision to revive this craft someday. ”
He is hopeful and determined to do so much to revive his craft. And so are we, as we bid him farewell.