Farooq Ahmad Sofi - Weaving The Fabric of Life
Farooq Ahmad Sofi is a Pashmina Handloom Weaver, resident of downtown Srinagar, a kind and soft natured man, in his late fifties, gray hair reflecting his life in times and age. He and artisans like him are the real hands behind the exquisitely soft Pashmina Shawls and Stoles. His work process starts from when hand spun or machine spun pashm threads are handed over to him and a design of the wrap is finalized. He then begins his tedious work of weaving the pashm threads according to the design, crafting a brilliant masterpiece of a wrap.
I dropped out of school in 6th class, could not continue the studies due to personal problems. My father was a teacher and he did not like the idea at all, but there was nothing he could do about it, as I was a below average student and distracted all the time. I then set out at the age of 15 to earn my livelihood. The first job I took over was at a carpet weaving kharkhana (workshop). I worked there for about a decade, putting my sweat into it, only to be downsized later as the workshop master could not afford all of us. It was when carpet industry took a major hit in the state. I was distraught when a kind person in my Mohalla (street) asked me to join his Pashmina Weaving workshop. Ghulam Nabi Mir Sahab was my teacher who taught me to work on a handloom for about 2 years. Since then I have been in this line of work for the past 30 years.
I saw many ups and downs in the art of weaving. Earlier the orders flourished and we were given good wages. We had a set life, working for about 5-6 hours every day and earning good. We used to work round the year as the demand was quite high. That was the time when we felt that these government jobs that people today go crazy after, were nothing in comparison to our glorious art. We lead a simple and fulfilled life.
Then came the twist of fate and it churned all the artisan cult of Kashmir sparing none. The tourism industry of Kashmir took a major blow and the sprinkles shattered the Arts and Craft of this heaven. Consequently, a lot of fakeness entered this place, wherein Amritsari Shawls were sold as Pashmina on the name of Kashmir, which brought a bad name to us. Machines got introduced and began replacing artisans one by one, in all the crafts of Kashmir.
For the past 15 years we have been given the same wages. For one pashmina stole, 300 rupees and 700 rupees for a shawl. You are shocked but we are living this fact for the past two decades now. How do you expect us to survive with this income in today’s world of inflated costs? The showroom owners, traders who sell this shawl earn lakhs of rupees while we are given pebbles for our laborious efforts. We are not demanding thousands; we are just asking an increment in our wages, gradual increments that would suffice the cost of living. No artisan in handloom weaving is earning more than 5000 per month. To make ends meet we are now working for 12-13 hours per day, to get more output in the number of wraps in order to raise our income. I have become weak, feeble, lost my sight to this work, but who cares for our plight?
My son, when he sees me working like this from sunrise to midnight, he despises the craft. It breaks my heart to see that the coming generations let alone take interest in our arts and crafts are oblivious to the rich heritage of Kashmir. No one is learning this art today. How are you expecting it to flourish? In some time there will be nothing like hand spun, hand woven pashmina. All will be machine made ones. The machine might be cheaper but the finish of hand is unmatched!
While we are talking, his brother, a sturdy man in his thirties enters upon us. Pointing to him, Farooq Sahab continues, he studied till 12th, but when he found no job here, he too joined me in this art. Now he has his own handloom and works separately.
I am Tariq Ahmad Sofi and have been working as a pashmina weaver for the past 15 years. I have two things to say, to you, to the artisan community here and to the mute government. The art is dying, the art of hand weaving is dying and no one is trying to do anything about it. As long as we are given these wages, you can’t expect anyone to come forward and learn this skill. How in the name of God, will he make his ends meet! For an art or craft to flourish, the artisan, the man behind the scene, needs to be at least happy about his work. But today, he is hardly acknowledged. Earlier this job commanded respect, honor but today we are looked down upon. We are treated like nobody’s. For our own income, our wages, we have to wait for months together. Is it fair?
There was a time when the Edward Gold Coin was equal in value to a Hand Spun, Hand Woven Pashmina Shawl. But now, we have fake pashmina selling on the name of Kashmir, mixed pashmina sold at high prices; machine ones making this glorious art cheap. All these factors are contributing to its downfall.
Who is to be blamed?
People! Who else! People who brought machines to this trade, traders who sell these shawls at high prices earning a good share, but pay us pebbles. People who prefer to give a penny less to buy machine replicas than pay more for a genuine handmade art. The government that has turned a deaf ear to us, is a mute spectator to all of this, they could do stuff to revive, ban machines, take measures but they don’t give a damn. You know, when the machine first came into the valley, it was the aari work that suffered the most. 4 lakh women, who were earning their livelihood from hand aari, across the state in villages and cities, lost their means of income just like that, in a blink. But who did anything about it? No One!
Did you never take this issue up with the government?
While Tariq Sahab responds with a sarcastic chuckle, Farooq Sahab heaves a long sigh of disappointment. What do they do anyways? They are all promises at the time of election and then we see nothing in deed from them. They offered us artisan loans which only complicated our lives further yielding no positive return.
Are you happy with this work?
I was, when I was young and working good. I am not scared of falls. But today when I look back at my life, I wish I could have done something else. Many a times, when I could not even feed my family, I thought of leaving this line of work. But what could I do, I had given my life to this art. I am not skilled for anything else. I am weak now, with not much strength left in me. I am trying to work hard, harder every day, working for about 15 hours, trying to keep my family intact.
Any message for the people?
All a feeble man like me, at my age, can ask, is to ban the machine crafts. Machines can replace people in time, but they can never replace the hands of art. There will come a time, when handmade pieces of art will sell at highest prices, when people will desire to possess one, but they won’t be able to get that. Maybe then will be the time, when people understand the worth of people like us.