“The heaven on Earth”, a title which the northernmost state of India has been relishing for years now is already endowed with a spectacle of natural beauty in all its magnificence, the people of Kashmir carry with them a tradition so beautiful and rich, that it has mesmerized the entire world.
Jammu & Kashmir is well appreciated throughout the world as much for its art and craft as for its scenic beauty and bracing climate. Kashmiri art is celebrated across the globe for their fine workmanship. The various handlooms are in tune with its age-old splendid civilization, which has been perfected over centuries by the Indian weavers of Kashmir.
Out of the 5,07,372 establishments( as per sixth economic census conduct by government of India under the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation through the human resource provided by the state government) in Jammu Kashmir, the total number of handcraft/ handloom establishment is 60,397 that means there is 11.90% of handicraft/handloom establishment in Jammu Kashmir. The government states that Jammu Kashmir has approximately 50,000 Indian weavers with 14,889 in the organized sector. The handloom sector is also connected with tourism.
The textile tradition in Kashmir has a glorious history of the world-renowned tapestry that is popular among many. Be it the Kani shawls, Kashmiri carpets, or the Amlikar needlework, even today the hand-woven textile products are a specialty of the many Kashmiri skilled weavers.
In Kashmir, the earliest records of tapestry designs go back as far as the seventh century. In the sixteenth century Mughal period, however, there was a boom in the popularity of Kashmiri shawls in the country. Primarily worn by Kings and royal courtiers, the uniquely gifted work of many weavers found its ways beyond South Asia in this period. It was only in the mid-1800s, that the Kashmiri shawls became popular among the European elite mainly the French. In the late eighteenth century, the industrial age appeared, which bestowed a certain global acknowledgment of this ancient Kashmiri art-form.
Emperor Akbar was a great admirer of the shawls of Kashmir it was he who began the fashion of wearing them in duplicate, sewn back to back so that the under surfaces of the shawls were never seen (Do-shalla). During that time the most desired shawls were those working in gold and silver thread or shawls with border ornamented with fringes of gold, silver, and silk thread.
Also, the Kashmir carpet industry is famous for the world over. Kashmiri carpets are loved not only by the people of India but also by people in other countries. It is believed that the art of weaving Kashmiri carpets originated in Persia. Usually, either silk or wool is used in making carpets.
The skill and the mastery of Kashmiri art have run through countless generations among the shawl-makers. Primarily it was the womenfolk who used to carry out every part of the shawl-making process. From cleaning of raw fleece to the entire needlework. Many of them have been able to pass down some amazing talent to their children and the art has survived through the years mainly through safe-keeping by the new generation.
In its early time, the amazing skills for shawl makers were largely unrewarded as Indian weavers of Kashmir were left counting the pennies, and the middlemen used to make a fortune by marketing it abroad. These days, the art is more commercialized and though it has brought sufficient appreciation to the real skill, dilution in the quality of work has occurred. Many weavers still prefer the hand-woven style of shawl making as finding the quality wool is also imperative.
However, the customers these days have grown more vigilant as demand for a quality level Kashmiri shawl is relentless.
Thirty thousand rural workers still weave and embroider Kashmiri shawls, which remain a status symbol in India. Another forty thousand Kashmiri Indian weavers produce hand-woven fabrics, and the total output makes Kashmir one of India’s leading producers of handloom textiles. Men wear shawls with patterns expressed in tapestry weave over a twilled ground, mostly made of Pashmina, goat's wool.
With a huge demand in national as well as international markets, Pashmina shawls are the leading and most sought after handicraft of Jammu and Kashmir. These shawls are liked by most tourists due to their vibrant designs and variety of stitching work.
The popularity, as well as the importance of Kashmiri Shawls in the handicraft market of Jammu and Kashmir, is very old. These delicate shawls are soft and comfortable to use and have a great demand in the international market. The popularity of the Kashmiri art and craft is high, also because of world-renowned handmade Kashmiri Carpets. These carpets are unique because they are made with hand without any use of the machine. The artisans use yarn that is mostly silk, wool, or a combination of the two for making these carpets. The very fine finishing of the carpets makes them worthy of the exorbitant price that is charged for a single carpet. Of the various crafts being produced in Kashmir, wood carving is the best-known craft. This craft can be seen in the cottage industries in the valley.
However, it is a sad fact that this beautiful industry (especially of Kashmiri carpets) is dying a slow death. The artisans whose families have been engaged in the preparation of carpets for generations are slowly turning to other professions on account of the low profitability involved in carpet making.
Nearly 90% of the demand for carpets in the country is met by the carpet-producing units in Amritsar, Rajasthan, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh. The export of Kashmiri garments has gone down. Figures indicate that the export of carpets was 400 quintals in the year 1973-74, which rose to 5750 quintals in the year 1995-96. This again went down to 650 quintals in 1999-2000. The major export markets for these carpets are the USA, Germany, UK, Australia, and Canada.
Some of the major reasons behind the lack of growth of the Kashmiri carpet industry are lack of financial resources, lack of modern technology, availability of duplicate Kashmiri carpets, lack of training as well as lack of innovations. Artisans are nowadays trying to experiment with different types of fabrics and designs to breathe new life into the industry.
Following the history of Kashmiri art and textile weavers, Indian weavers have produced exquisite shawls in Kashmir for centuries, but their craft risks dying out in the face of cheap foreign imports and a young generation uninterested in mastering the skill.
Kashmir gave its name to the soft cashmere wool that commands huge prices in the West, but especially in Hidayat Ullah's village, there are now only 10 paddle looms, known as khadis, where once there were 100.
Cashmere scarves and sweaters sell for hundreds of dollars in the developed world but Hidayat Ullah takes only 3,000 rupees -- $30 -- for the 15 days' labor needed to make a single shawl.
Now demand among locals is collapsing. "A hand-woven shawl costs 10,000 rupees ($100) while you can get the same kind of shawl in the markets for 2,000 to 3,000 rupees," a women weaver, Bibi stated the same.
Bibi makes shawls with her father-in-law but says no-one else in the family is interested in learning."I have a 10-year-old daughter, who asks me why I waste my time doing this strange old job," she said.
In the past, the isolation of the area helped local craftsmen and Indian weavers as it was difficult to bring in goods from outside. Now, as communications open up, things are changing.
"These days second-hand clothes with new designs, good material and at cheaper prices are available, so they want to buy these, and this old tradition is diminishing day by day," said Fatima Yaqoob, a lecturer at the Arts and Cultural University of Azad Kashmir.
Government help is needed to modernize the industry -- in particular, to switch from manual to power looms -- and encourage more people to go into it, she said.
After Kashmir's special status is gone (waiving off 370 and 35(A)), people from anywhere in India will be able to buy the property and permanently settle in the state. This has fueled fear in the mind of Kashmiris — they think it would lead to the state's demographic transformation from majority Muslim to majority Hindu. This has also instilled a fear in the people concerning their livelihood, especially when it comes to trusting people. Their entire lives being revolved around keeping the heritage and culture intact through the hard work put incomes under a dangerous spotlight since all of the work depended on middlemen communication, which is now threatened as the section is being revoked.
Secondly, we all know how the handloom sector has been hit hard since the power loom industry had a major boom. The greed for profits, and with supplies of hand-spun yarn and hand-woven shawls falling short of the growing demand, it has led to a proliferation of power looms in Kashmir, threatening the handloom tradition and the Indian weavers of Kashmir. It’s a similar saddening story for the Kashmiri carpet industry as well.
After-effects can go either way. Who’s to say it might even benefit the handloom sector because of the recent bifurcation and possession of their rights as permanent residents of the newly formed Union Territory and the Indian government's plan and vision to develop and bring benefits to the regions of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Guess we’d have to wait and see how it pans out.