Media reports presenting a gloomy picture of Kashmir’s handicrafts and handloom sector is not new. True, not just the handicrafts sector but the entire economy has taken a beating during the past few years.
But, there is still a lot of scope to restore the lost glory of the famed Kashmiri creations like the silk carpets, namdas, pashmina, and paper machie among others. To bring about the desired change, the private stakeholders and the government have to put in joint efforts. If we look at the carpet, pashmina, or paper machie market, there is still a huge demand globally but then there are several missing links.
Local artisans are not directly connected with the outside world and therefore are unable to come up with innovative ideas. They are still unaware of what branding means. While steps though not as expected are being taken in this regard, there are several examples where local artisans or entrepreneurs have achieved success after coming up with out-of-the-box ideas. Take the case of Arifa Jan from old Srinagar city, who infused new life into namda making that is a dying art otherwise.
Namda making for ages usually had designs of flowers, embroidered by colorful threads on a white background. Arifa Jan introduced new embroidery designs in namda making that gave it a fresh and different look. She also introduced hitherto unheard geometrical designs and as a result received orders from several European countries besides Australia.
She also became a successful entrepreneur later by employing 25 artisans at her Incredible Kashmir Crafts located in Sakidafar area. There are several other, though not many, success stories that gave the dying traditional arts a new life. Another example is master coppersmith Mohammad Aslam Bhat.
There was a time when copperware was only associated with utensils but Bhat has been credited with breathing new life into old techniques by bringing forth new designs and products ranging from motifs of Valley-based shrines to table lamps. Besides receiving abundant orders, Bhat, who has a nondescript shop in old Srinagar city also gets invited to national seminars to deliver lectures.
The main reason behind their success stories is that they gave the traditional products a new look and also came into touch with stakeholders that knew the nuances of the emerging market demands.
To make the local artisans understand the nuances of the present global market, the handicrafts department can hire pass outs from reputed crafts institutes as advisors and consultants.
For example, youngsters who have done MBA in fashion designing or crafts management can help in filling the missing links so that the local artisans are connected to the outside world. The handicrafts department is already in the process of making a comprehensive database of artisans in Jammu and Kashmir.
The database is being created by the M/S Spectrum Planning India Pvt Ltd which has been hired by the Project Management Unit under the Jehlum Tawi Flood Recovery Project. The aim of the exercise is to enlist the artisans in the database that will be linked to the international market and the policies will be developed for the benefit and welfare of the artisans. The department also needs to take more steps towards publicity, branding and design innovation, and packaging of handloom products.
The department also needs to expedite the process of GI tagging. Even as the markets are flooded with fake or blended products sold as originals, only around 4500 Pashmina shawls have so far got tested for GI tagging. Though the authorities are presently seen doing promotional activities vis-a-vis GI tagging, it is time the government starts going for enforcement once things full get back to normal after the ongoing Covid crisis.
Last but not least, the Kashmir crafts continue to face the maximum damage from the black sheep within the community. It is no secret that there are businessmen that sell staple as silk carpets. On other occasions, low-quality silk is used and low-knotted carpets are presented as high knotted ones. Low-quality carpets made elsewhere are also sold as Kashmiri carpets.
The same is the case with Pashmina that faces a threat from fakes. Copperware too has immense potential. In Kashmir, we do not get 100 percent pure copper that makes it unworthy of export in the international markets. Before 1990, pure copper used to be imported for the making of utensils and decorative items.
Unfortunately, after the eruption of militancy, local importers started getting low-quality copper sheets for better gains. The practice continues to date and nobody procures pure copper that is available in places like Jharkhand. Though Jharkhand has copper mines, this pure copper can even be procured from places like Punjab and New Delhi. But, for unknown reasons, only substandard copper is available in the local markets.
Of late several international buyers dealing with designer and art, copper products have shown keen interest in buying goods from Kashmiri artisans, However, they later did not place orders when they came to know that substandard copper was available in the markets. If pure metal is procured by local stakeholders, Kashmiri copper products have the potential of becoming a force to reckon with in the international markets.