From Left: Ali Muhammad and Mushtaq Ahmad of AMMA
Meet Ali Muhammad, a 59 year old entrepreneur (that’s how he likes to see himself) born and raised in Safa Kadal vicinity of Srinagar in 1956. At an age of 19, just after finishing his school, Ali Mohammad ventured out in 1975 to try his luck in the fine art of Pashmina making. High on spirits to take on the world, young Ali set out only to be disappointed by how the market was treating the artisans like him. The family of Ali worked studiously to handcraft the elite Pashmina wraps, giving in their sweat, working tirelessly day in and out, only to receive peanuts for wages at the hands of the retailers and showroom owners. It was the first shock he had to face at the hands of these middlemen involved in this prized trade who embarked the huge profits while neglecting the rightly deserved profit to the real hands behind this craft. Poverty stricken, with no means of marketing, no avenue for shops, Ali Mohammad drank the bitter truth of the reality of this precious trade. But he did not give up; he was determined to change his fate and that of his family.
In some years, he started working on woolen wraps, the more selling variants of Mixed Pashmina, Toosha and Count. His clientele, as he recalls nostalgically, were the tourists that stayed in the houseboats along the banks of Dal Lake. Gradually, he started expansion, hired workmen and other artisans to work for him and the business was good for them in the boom of tourism in Kashmir. “Those were happy times, he says smiling, Kashmir was Jannat (Paradise) then.” That was before the great turmoil of insurgency hit Kashmir. When it hit Kashmir, it left no one untouched and whole. The business went from bad to worse in the decades that followed. Whatever little was left of business came from the domestic market now, tourists from the Indian states.
The next blow that hit him hard was in the year 1985, when a great order for 500 Silk Pashmina stoles arrived at his workshop. A local showroom owner ordered 500 Silk Pashmina Stoles, to be sozni embroidered (needle work) in the traditional Jaaldaar pattern (overall embroidery). Ali Mohammad was jubilant to have received such a big order after a dry business spell. “I raised money from loan sharks for the fulfillment of this order. Everything was going smooth, the pashm fibers were bought, and Pashmina stoles were hand woven which took months, before they were sent over to artisans for hand embroidery which again meant months of hard work and labor. Finally after a year, the order was fulfilled and was sent for wash. The tragedy struck right there, the Pashmina Stoles, all, each one of them shrunk! Hell broke loose on me; I could not understand what had gone wrong. My two years of hard work on this one order got washed away with water. I lost a big order, that would have fetched me lakhs, and one lakh was a huge amount back in those years. I had raised a loan of 5 lakh plus for this order and now in just a moment, I was rendered penniless and in debt! The showroom owner of course did not take anything and washed off his hands from the order. Investigating I found out, that what was sold to me on the name of pure Pashmina fiber, the pashm threads, was in fact a fake that was imported from Nepal! I was distraught and frustrated. The debt and its ever increasing interest broke down my back. Poverty embraced us as a starless night envelopes the night sky. That was the hardest time in my life, a time I shall never forget. A time where friends turned their back on me, and I survived only and only through the support of my family, who I saw living in utter misery through those years.”
“Life was hard after that,really hard, but gradually over the years I recovered from this huge setback. It took me many years to repay the debts and many more years for life to get back on the normal track, but Alhamdulillah, we somehow managed to survive all of it. Life is very hard, but you can’t escape from living it. It is there and you are there in it.”
“What about now, how have things changed?”
“Now, it’s a different story altogether. Now we artisans have been replaced by machines. Gone are those days when we artisans used to groom the embroidery on every piece of Pashmina Shawl like a new bride, pamper it like a baby and cherish the accomplishment on its completion, feel the loss when it was taken by some customer. Now there are no takers for our hand work, for our efforts, for the real art of Kashmir. Kashmir Art has lost its glory! Everyone these days has taken to machines and power looms, what was intricately crafted in hand in months is now machine produced in days. It might look same but there is indeed a lot of difference, for people who know the worth of art. These machine mades are fake replicas of our hand art, nothing and no one can replace the artisan hand. Time will tell, how prized this hunar (craft, meaning handcraft) is, and then there will be a huge demand, but no makers. There will come such a time, you mark my words.”
How did you know about Kashmir Box?
"One of my friends and co owner of our brand AMMA now, Mushtaq Ahmad introduced me to Kashmir Box. I got little work with them initially, as the whole concept of 'online' was new to me. They made me understand how they worked, what it could mean for me and how they were trying to revive our dying handicraft. I thought of giving it a try, life had already hit me so many times; it was just another thing to try for me. But, thank God, things did turn out well. I got to learn a lot through their platform about what my customers were looking for. These are modern times now, people want traditional in modern outfits. This I came to know through them; through Kashmir Box, I came to know what colors are desired, what kind of embroidery people are looking for and what designs are selling more. Alhamdulillah, my business over the past 2 years of working with them is now growing. I have done more than 24lakh plus business with them over past two years. I get monthly orders from International Design Houses, with no third party to eat up my efforts. Kashmir Box has made be independent, given me an increased profitability, it has given me wings to cross over the mountains of Kashmir and serve the whole world. What I like the most, is the recognition I am getting through them. AMMA, our brand, my brand, that’s how people know me now. People want my apparels; they look out for my Kaftans, my shawls, the beautiful phirans and stoles. I get customization orders from customers from as far as Italy, Russia and Australia. They know me, they love my work, and they come back to me, what else do I want. For an artisan, recognition, admiration and acknowledgement of his work is as important to him, in fact more than the monetary gains. Working with Kashmir Box has given me a sense of accomplishment; it has turned me into an entrepreneur at the age of 60.”
Message to Artisans:
“The art and craft of Kashmir, has been bestowed to us by the Almighty, through generations. Kashmir Art since its initiation has been renowned worldwide admired and loved by everyone who has seen it. This is our Rizk (means of sustenance), we should cherish it. Allah has bestowed us with the honor of being Artisans, skilled artisans, we should be grateful for it. I request my brother artisans to hold tight onto this skill and not give in to machines for making easy money. We should not give in to the poor fakes from Amritsar and Nepal for our precious gems of handicrafts. It sure is hard, but not impossible to achieve. Together we can revive the lost glory of Kashmir Art and Craft, nourish it again as a new born baby and let it grow in the generations to come.”
Message to People:
“To the people, I can only make a request of not going for cheap replicas of Kashmir Art. It only hurts artisans like us who put in so many efforts to create a masterpiece in hand, which takes us months, sometimes years. Buy original Kashmiri Products, promote the handicraft of the state and boycott the fake imitations. That is how people can help us, the artisan community of Kashmir.”