Passing by heritage houses with old battered windows, through primitive bridges which sprawl across the quietly flowing waters of the Jhelum, connecting the old city of Srinagar lies a jigsaw puzzle, across shopkeepers discussing their routine chores over a cup of Chai in matchbox-sized shops, across wee knit neighborhoods, we reached his house where one amongst the remaining artisans of Tapestry lived.
He peeks his head out of the door and welcomes us home. Mir Maqbool is a 60-year-old craftsman with a smiling demeanor and a pleasant aura. He leads us through his dimly lit house and a heritage green winding staircase which opens into what was once his "Karkhana."
He takes a seat, draws in a deep breath, and starts narrating the tale of his life and the story of Tapestry making in Kashmir.
“My father and uncles were small scale traders of Raffal Shawls, Crewel, and Chainstitch Embroidery. It was their dream to educate me. I earned myself a seat in engineering but because of extreme poverty, could not carry on with the dream field. However, my situation could not stop me from pursuing my dream. I pursued a Bachelor’s in Science and after this, my father sent me to work with the greatest businessman who lived in the Valley in 1985 - Jamal Siraj.
Jamal Sahab was a humble and honest mentor. I would sit in his ancestral home for hours at a stretch. Apart from the principles of accountancy and the basics of craft that I learned from him what mesmerized me the most were his principles. He was always true to his word and honest to his trade. Three things summed up his personality - a clear vision, a clean tongue, and a clean heart. I would earn approximately Rs 300 at that time. This amount was huge for me. It would help me to sustain my household needs and somehow I could manage my own expenses. Today, my fellow artisans call me "Bab" (Master Of The Trade). This is because of the principles of honesty and integrity that Jamal Siraj imbibed in me.”
He took a brief pause during which the sounds of distant cars, ringing cycles, and little kids playing in the adjacent alley filled the silence. His vibrant silhouette was highlighted by a bare streak of light making its way through a polythene covered window and emanated reminiscence as he proceeded with his story.
“Back in the ’70s, Srinagar City brimmed with the craft. Fateh Kadal and Nawab Bazar were the hubs of Tapestry Makers. The markets would be flooded by high quality and a variety of Tapestries and foreigners would pay high prices in recognition of the artisan’s meticulous efforts. Not only artis but other people would also make Tapestries. They would do it part-time. Imagine the quantity and variety we used to have in those days. However, after every pinnacle, there is a downfall.
Today, nobody wants to make a Tapestry. The reason for this is quite simple - an artisan who earned Rs 100 back in the ’80s still earns the same amount for his skill and craft. That time, Rs 100 would suffice his needs. We would buy all the household groceries and even saved some amount. But this time, Rs 100 fetches absolutely nothing from the market. Our Tapestry artisans have switched to carpentry and fruit selling because it fetches them more money(around 1500 per day). There must be around 100 Tapestry artisans spread across Srinagar city but none of them make it anymore, which is the saddest thing that could have happened to this craft. Everyone has resorted to easy-money occupations. And I don’t think they can be entirely blamed for it. One needs to survive and sustain.
I have always believed in working hard and always said no to monetary shortcuts. It fetches us nothing. Even though I have little, I am contented with the type of work I am doing. It brings me so much happiness when I see Tapestry Artisans.
There is another dimension to why the craft of Tapestry ceased gradually- that is the political turmoil that struck us in the 1990s. Before militancy, we prospered. Foreign traders and luxury designers would visit the valley and purchase directly from the artisans. However, when the situation turned bad, the demand for all Kashmiri crafts crashed down. Our buyers would not visit us. It turned really bad. Maqbool rejects the popular notion that intermediaries are responsible for the less wage. He firmly believes that the political turmoil led to the downfall of the craft of Tapestry. Also, adding a final nail to the coffin, China made cheaper duplicates of the Tapestry. Had the situation in Kashmir remained stable, our Original Tapestry would have thrived. There is no match to it - it is truly a “Sounne Kaar” (a Golden Craft).”
When asked about how they would process a Tapestry back in the golden days, his eyes suddenly twinkled with cheerful memories and a passion for this dying art form.
“We used, to begin with creating a makeshift frame. It could be anything, ranging from basic planks of wood to paperweights or stones to merely four people sitting along with the four corners of the canvas. This canvas is then fixed to the ground with nails and a hammer.
Next, a Naqash (Designer) would begin tracing floral and faunal designs over a tracing paper. He would then gently prick the outlines of the design for further tracing. This, in the native Kashmiri language, was known as Trombun. The Naqash would then place it carefully over our canvas and pass on a duster soaked in temporary ink over it (Chaamp Traavun). Our canvas would be blueprinted in eclectic designs and ready for embroidery.
We would get two-ply or nine ply woolen yarns from the market and dye them into the colors we needed. Once our Rang Baste (color combination) got ready, we would begin embroidering our canvas, threading it in cross stitches or petit points. This is then sent to the Dhobi Ghaat for washing. And finally, a piece of Tapestry is ready - a colorful and completely handmade piece of wall and floor decor.”
We observed some differences in the finesse of the Tapestries. On enquiring, Maqbool Sahab told us that since the threads are of varying finesse, so is the final art form. There is a type in which only thick nine ply wool is used. This gives a bolder and more embossed effect. There’s another type in which only two-ply wool is used, this kind is finer. Then there is a third variation that combines these two types of wool. For the past six decades, all of these are artistic additions that have evolved into the craft of Tapestry making.
We asked him if there was any way we could bring our long lost Tapestry back to life? He contemplated for a while, his slightly wrinkled face turning more thoughtful and he then said,
“Why not! There are two things that cannot only bring back this craft but any craft. One is the purity of the heart of the ones trying to revive it and second is a better wage that at least suffices the basic needs of its artists. How can we ask our fellow artisans to work with us when the craft doesn’t fetch him enough wage to feed and educate his family. Most of the artisans have resorted to sending their children for well-paying government jobs rather than pursue the craft. It at least runs their household. And why will they not? Eventually what feeds the stomach? What runs households? The wage!”
We agree with Maqbool and as we take leave, he takes us through heaps of Tapestry and woolen yarns lying across his Karkhana, now gathering dust. These have been here for over a year now. There are no more takers for this once a glorious art.
Today, over a hundred Tapestry Artisans have switched to other occupations in order for basic sustenance. If not revived today, the know-how of this craft will never reach the next generation and we will lose an art form that has made its voyage from Turkey to Kashmir.