Monday, September 24, 2012

Crafts And Craftsmen Of Kashmir

Kashmiri crafts are prized for their intricacy, complex designs and elegant styles. I am always attracted by their nature-inspired patterns and skillful use of colour.  Flowers, trees, birds and animals inspire their papier mache, carved walnut woodwork, metal work, crewelled curtains and their woven and embroidered pashmina shawls. 

Papier mache shikara on carved walnut wood table
Carved metal pot looks out onto a garden
Embroidered chinnar leaf-curtains in my house
So sought after are these products that fakes are now mass-produced and transported all over the country and, worse still, back into Kashmir!  Shawls from Ludhiana and Amritsar find their way into the hands of Kashmiri vendors and most exhibitions in Indian cities have at least one stall of "reasonable" (cheap!) semi-pashmina (containing not a thread of pashmina - the prized wool of the high altitude Himalayan mountain goats).  Apparently there is a large market for these pseudo-pashmina shawls and stoles for people no longer want to buy the 'once in a lifetime' shawls (which last considerably more than a lifetime), preferring to wear them for a short while and replace them
 with newer styles.

Trying to find authentic products even within Kashmir is quite a job.  We were fortunate to have met Renuka, a pleasant lady who works with local craftsmen in Srinagar and who gave us the address of the Beigh family of Kashmiri embroiderers.  I had only one afternoon free for shopping and had to decide between crafts, food (walnuts, apricots, saffron, honey, spices) and textiles.  Textiles won hands down and then it was a decision between woven shawls and embroidered ones - each is an art in itself - and I chose the latter.

The Beigh family 'karkhana' (a factory) was in a small lane flanked by large houses which had no names or signs anywhere!  Fortunately our driver knew exactly where it was and said it was a pink coloured building, the only one in that lane.  We climbed up a few flights of stairs to enter a large, many-windowed room with a threadbare carpet covering the entire floor.  At each window were placed two large cushions that served as seats for the embroiderers.  There was a basket of yarn in one corner and a large mass of old threads hanging on the opposite wall.  This was all the equipment in the karkhana!  Four elderly men sat, embroidering quietly and as we entered, two younger men came up and greeted us.
Skeins for embroidery
Old threads for darning
A shawl embroiderer
We sat down and over cups of kehwa (a Kashmiri spice-rich tea) and biscuits, spoke of this and that - of crafts, the difficult times faced by craftsmen, of the wonders of Kashmir and its treasures (which, according to them was the culture and hospitality that far outshone the natural resources), of their experiences in selling the products within and outside India and so on.  We met the oldest member of the family, a Master craftsman, who struggles with asthma as he continues to embroider.  All his sons are national award winners.  We were told that the youngest generation now goes to school and apprentices in the evenings but before that, none of the children had time for education.  Each shawl takes a minimum of three years to complete, many larger and more intricate ones take twice that time.  Several hundreds of workers are also employed by this family; each person is assigned a specific shawl.  The embroiderer decides the pattern and colours and works on one piece at a time.  The old threads hanging in one corner were fragments from ancient shawls that were saved and used to darn old shawls that their customers brought in.
Master craftsman and head of the Beigh family
 We were then led to the room that housed their current stock - not just shawls, but embroidered materials for salwar-kameez, embroidered sarees and more.  They brought out pieces of different kinds of materials and styles as we were not sure what we might want to buy.  The price depends on the material, the weave, whether it is factory made or hand woven and on the quality of embroidery.  It was interesting to see how the same fibres can be woven in various ways to give different textures; the open and soft textured pashmina (inevitably factory-made) is considerably less expensive than the closely woven pieces done by hand.  The shawls may be left in their natural colours (off whites, brownish greys) or dyed before the embroidery begins.
The shop in the karkhana
Surrounded by shawls of all kinds, it was very difficult to decide what to buy.  However, through a gradual process of elimination (and several visits to the mirror!), each of us identified one shawl which we felt we absolutely must have!  It was an interesting experience and very poetically described by the younger family member, who acted as salesman.  He said, "I believe that you have come all this way in search for something that belongs to you, which is being kept in my custody until you claim it."  Of course, we pay for it!  But the work is so fine and done with so much care that I am happy to support this tradition - and also to nurture the belief that I have come to collect "my piece" amongst the hundreds!

My shawl
Someone in my family bought an off white shawl with large, brightly coloured leaves and flowers, another person bought an elegant and intricately embroidered black shawl for evening wear.  I bought a grey shawl with a beautiful weave and a delicate, embroidered border.  A wondrous border in soft colours - peach (one of my favourites), sky blue, baby pink and tiny dots and stripes of red.  The family members who did not buy anything (i.e. the men!) were replete with tea, biscuits and conversation.  Finally, with many gracious invitations uttered by one and all, we bade farewell to this incredibly creative family.  We drove away with hearts so full of happiness that it dripped out, mingled with the sunshine and fell all over our precious shawls, making them look all the more beautiful.

Detail of embroidery

8 comments:

eva khan said...

great , we deals in kashmiri shawls online shopping

products. we will soon in need of some threads' products makers

Pankaj Bansal said...

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Daisy Debs said...

How wonderful that idea that you went to claim something that was waiting for you in the embroiderers cupboard ! I love this idea !

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