From the streets of Lal Bazar in Srinagar emerges a quiet lane – bearing a surprising serenity amidst the classic hustle and bustle of the city. It is in this quiet neighborhood, where the only sound to be heard is the rhythmic chirp of birds and the cooing of distant doves that the Craft of Crewel is being slowly resurrected to its original glory by 2 brothers – Sameer and Ishfaq. They live in an old house, the interiors of which speak of their love for the craft. They take me to a large hall where they and their artisans work every day. This hall is a delightful array of colors. Stacks of cushion covers in elephantine designs, rounded balls of woolen threads, an old sewing machine,piles of finished and unfinished bed covers lie haphazardly in this large area.A corner of this room is full of trace papers imprinted by whole gardens of flowers. As I wait for them, I can make out a blurred outline of the Zabarwan Hills from the window. An ideal place to craft artistry!
After a few moments have elapsed, a young man, Ishfaq Ahmad Bhat, his eyes gleaming with the passion for his craft,along with his befriended artisan, meet me. It is Ishfaq and his brother Sameer, who have come together and carved out a niche for themselves in this vast market for Kashmiri Crewel under the banner of Sameer Designs. And not just ordinarily. As I sift through their collection, an altogether new image of the craft forms in my mind – brilliant, glorious and impeccable. Ishfaq tells me that his family has been into the craft of Crewel Embroidery for generations altogether. It was his grandfather, Ghulam Rasool Bhat, who started off with this business and gave the ever so glorious Tree-of-Life design which these days manifests itself in all major crafts of the Valley. After his sad demise,it was Ishfaq’s father, Ghulam Nabi Bhat, who took it a step further. Initially working in a Karkhana in Nowhatta himself, along with hundreds of artisans, he graduated into a master artisan himself. At the time of his death, Ishfaq was merely 4 years of age and Sameer was even younger. The next gen could not continue to mount the peaks of glory at this point of time. However, they were never really cut out from the craft. The women of the household always maintained their ties with it.
The Inception of Sameer Designs
When Ishfaq was a student of mere 9thstandard, he went out to earn into the markets for the tremendous responsibility he had as the eldest son of the family. He got a reasonable job in NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology). He carried on with his job while continuing with his studies side by side. This carried on for around 15 years – till 2007. Around this time, his younger brother, Sameer was working in the Craft Development Institute of the Valley and in constant contact with artisans and designers. It was Sameer who first developed the idea of reinstating the craft of crewel to what it was before, when his grandfather was at the peak of it. However, he had to rely on his brother’s marketing skills to sell the designs he would initially develop. Ishfaq, however did not want up to give his permanent job in NIFT and so Sameer set forth to Delhi, all by himself. However, he soon came back, dejected after not being able to sell his brilliant pieces. It was at this time, that Ishfaq decided to quit his job and help his brother in realizing his dream. And hence was born the idea of Sameer Designs, named after the man who sparked a fire of Crewel resurrection which today lights many homes.
“It all begins with the cotton threads”, says Ishfaq as I begin to sip in the delicious Lipton Chai which his artisan has made for me. “We get pure cotton threads and give them to our weaver, who meticulously tight weaves them into warps and wefts.
The cloth hence created is sent to the washer, who washes, shrinks and irons this piece of cotton cloth. We then cut this into the desired size (that of a bed spread, cushion cover or curtain), based on the requirements of our customer.
After this, our naqash begins to mark the design over a trace paper and then perforates this paper with a pin. We call this process Trombun. The trace paper is placed over the cloth and a duster laden in temporary ink is passed over. The cloth now bears the imprint of the design – flowers, paisleys and traditional Kashmiri motifs. We have come to realize that our ancestral designs are more cherished and loved by people in national and international markets than the ones which new designers keep coming up with. We have tried both.As they say, old is gold.
After the tracing, we pass on this imprinted cloth to our artisans, who are mostly women. They work with a hook called Awl or Aari and craft melodies using rhythmic circular motions of the thumb and index fingers out of threads of plain wool, securing each knot they craft.
(Artisans at Work)
The final step is to wash these pieces once again and iron them over a roller steam iron", he concludes.
Loyalty towards the Craft
If I had to explain my meeting with Ishfaq in a single phrase, I would say, “loyalty towards the craft”. Ishfaq and Sameer employ around 100 artisans, 80% of them being women across various districts. They pay them fair wages, unlike the big guns in the market. The difference is so huge that while an artisan get 600 Rupees per piece in the local markets, at Sameer Designs they get more than double. “When you show respect towards the work of the artisans and make them feel valued,not only in your mannerisms but also in the money you pay them, they show a greater commitment to work,” believes Ishfaq. It is his commitment and dedication towards resurrecting the craft of crewel which manifests itself in his work.Each piece crafted in this workshop looks a class apart for they keep his promise of not letting a machine touch their products from the beginning until the very end.
When you show this level of loyalty towards a craft, the universe conspires to take you to its new heights. And I saw this manifesting itself in the story of the two brothers – Ishfaq and Sameer.