Ghulam Ahmad Najar - Breathing Life into Planks of Walnut Wood
Ghulam Ahmad Najar have been in walnut wood craftsmanship since their childhood, taking after their father, an ancestral art passed down from father to son down the generations. Working in the small kharkhaana in downtown Srinagar for the past 60 years, he is an old feeble man who has given his life to this art having passed it down to his son, Imtiyaz Ahmad Najar. Imtiyaz has now joined him in walnut wood carving, after he was let go in his government job, for no apparent reasons. Talking to this father son duo, brought to light the crude plight that the walnut wood artisans like them are undergoing with little or no help at all from outside.
I quit studying after 10th standard to join my father in his work. He was getting old and could not manage the orders all by himself. After some time, I got a government job as a carpenter and was working fine until the changed government came up with some new government policy that took off my job. I was the one who received cash awards and was replaced by people whom I was teaching. Life is so unfair. Now, I am working full time with my father.
We face a lot of problems now. Earlier, in my father’s time there were no such problems. We were getting good response and the demand was also so high. We had a large customer base of both domestic as well as international clientele. Business was good. Back in that time, it was a respectable, an honorable profession. My father, my grandfather were praised for their skilled art. They were known for their golden hands. And now, it is everything but honorable to be an artisan in this state, in this time.
Why do you think so?
Look at our condition; we are poor people who are struggling to make our ends meet. I have a small family, one daughter and I don’t know how in the world I am going to secure her future. She has to start school and I cannot even get her to a private school. They are asking for 40000 rupees as admission fee and then 4000 for her monthly tuition fee! You know the condition of govt. schools in here. That too is not an option for me. How do you suppose a man like me, who earns not more than 8000 rupees a month that too fluctuates from time to time, is going to have a sane mind? I am agitated, I am angry at myself, at what I am doing, of being in this craft!
Why is it so?
Firstly, the government here instead of being helpful is creating more problems for us. We get walnut wood, our primary resource at such high prices; it is like they want us to abandon our means of bread. Second, they have imposed high taxes on walnut wood products which over the years have lead to a decline in the demand of our craft. Because of these overrated taxes, the product prices go high, which are not affordable to the customers as such, and we get no or very little sales. We have an Arts Emporium here, but they too have their preferences. They bypass ground artisans like us and prefer retailers, traders and showroom owners. We have no respite from them as well.
Has the government never done anything for you? There are so many schemes?
There are schemes, are there? Don’t even get me started on those! The government approved loans to artisan groups. 1 lakh rupees per artisan head. Do you know how it went for majority of us? We had to pay 2100 monthly interest on it in addition to the base price, which rounded off to some 3000 rupees. Now tell me, a person like me who earns 5000-7000 rupees and has a family to take care of, how is he going to do so? One of our neighbors had to sell a part of his property, just to get over this loan, the scheme you are talking about.
How is the state of craft today?
This whole neighborhood is home to walnut wood artisans. Go round and see how many kharkhaana’s are left. People have abandoned this art, currently it is just us and one other family who are still striving. Because we have no other option else I would have left too. I have a small regular customer base for now. The day they decide they don’t need any of this, we will be done. We will have to wrap up.
Currently, I have a couple of orders, one of a bed for a bride to be and other small artifacts of walnut wood. Name plates, small decorative boxes, wood portraits are among the orders we are getting these days. Earlier the orders were more but now we just get a few from here and there.
Any message for the government or the people?
The government is deaf to our pleas. I would still ask them for lowering the tax, making Arts Emporium more flexible in their policy and lastly give us walnut wood at nominal rates.
People! I am thankful to people. It is only due to these people that I am still surviving.
Given a chance, you will quit this art?
Of course! At the first chance I get. Believe me just before you entered here; I was on call with a friend who was arranging me a job for the position of salesman. I gave him my consent. Any job is better than this, at least I will get a fixed income, I can at least sustain my family.