Monday, February 2, 2015

Handicraft: Kashmir

Clockwise from top left: Basketry; crewel work or aari; papier mache; walnut wood carving; kangri; namda made with sheep wool; copper work; gabba or appliqué rug; pheran with tilla dozi  
The Kashmir valley is known for an assortment of exquisite handicrafts. Did you know a preacher sowed the seeds of craft here? Here's how...

Persian palette
Unlike the rest of the country, craft in Kashmir has its roots in Persia or present day Iran. History says Persian preacher Shah-e-Hamadan arrived in Kashmir around the 13th century with an aim to spreading Islam. He came with a huge set of followers among whom were artists and craftspersons who excelled in papier-mache, coppersmithing, wood carving, embroidery, carpet-weaving, calligraphy and more. They soon got down to work in the Valley, besides also imparting training to locals in skills they were adept in.

It’s said Shah-e-Hamadan encouraged the spread of craft so that the locals could keep themselves busy during the harsh winter months when there was little else to do than be huddled indoors. It would also lead to a boost in the region's economy, he felt.  The preacher’s prediction proved correct and over time the Valley became a flourishing hub of quality handicraft, along the way developing a unique style that was a blend of local and Persian elements. As a dedication to the saint, the Khanqah-e-Moula was built by the banks of river Jhelum in Srinagar. It remains one of the most striking structures in the Valley and is an outstanding example of Kashmiri-Central Asian architecture. When visiting Downtown (or the old parts of the city) this beauty in wood should be on your must-see list.

Mughal vocabulary
Kashmir’s craft drew appreciation and was always in demand, attracting its share of global buyers too. Political unrest in the Valley, however, saw a steady decline in the crafts and it was only when the art-loving Mughals took over Kashmir in the 16th century that a revival was witnessed. As craftspersons began receiving royal patronage the cottage industry got a much-needed fillip.

The Mughals were proud of their roots and always kept alive the connection with Samarkand, their ancestral land, by promoting its excellent arts. Indeed, Hindustan was enriched by their aesthetics. Kashmiri craftspersons too gained from Mughal inputs and happily included Central Asian expression in their art.

European tones
By the 19th century the British were well entrenched in India and Kashmir became their favourite summer retreat. They too were charmed by the wizardry of the artisans; not only did they become one of the biggest patrons of the arts, but also lent their views and refined the products further. It was now that crafts got a slight European twist in colour tones and patterns.

As the British could not buy land in the Valley they set up houseboats, which became their seasonal abode. They tapped into local skills to dress these residences, giving artists a unique canvas to show their creativity. The houseboats were the beginning of yet another industry in Kashmir, one that remains a major source of tourism revenue.

One look around the craft shops in the cities of at melas and you’ll realize every item on the shelf is not just a piece of decoration but something you can affectionately use. It’s said it were the British who taught craftsperson to make their craft utilitarian. This shift was received well and ever since there has been no looking back for craft stemming from the Valley. 

Published Deccan Herald, Feb 2015

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