A lost mat

Paltry returns and social stigma attached to waguv weaving is killing the trade fast. Kashmir is on the verge of losing an indigenous skill, which furnished her homes for centuries. Shazia Yousuf reports.

Undeterred by the spiky autumn chill, Fatima’s coarse hands caringly entwine straw strands together. It has been two days since this 70 year old woman of Chak Bagh, Hazratbal started weaving this reed mat, locally known as waguv, in the courtyard of her son’s house.  It will take her some more time to earn a bit of money from the pleasure of carrying on the legacy of her family’s once prime occupation. Her husband, Mohammad Sadiq Aakhoon, gave up the trade and works as a labourer now.
In Chak Bagh, formerly a locality of waguv weavers, Fatima is the only one still in business.
Rest have either joined other trades or work as labourers. The causes of the decline, near extinction, of waguv weaving as a trade are economic as well as social.
 “Times change, seasons change so do people,” remarks Fatima.
Her elder son is a government employee, another works as a carpenter. All her grandchildren go to school.
However, when Fatima was a child, waguv weaving was the prime occupation both at her father’s place as well as at her in-laws. Fatima remembers how anxious her parents were about her not knowing the “art”.
“They (her parents) were worried what my in-laws would do when they will come to know that their daughter-in-law cannot weave a waguv. It was a kind of insult in our community,” Fatima says staring at her creased palms.
As a child, Fatima did not like waguv weaving and was reluctant to learn the skill even when elders would ask her to. But that had to change.
 “Our whole family would remain engaged in waguv weaving. I was the only child who was reluctant to learn this skill. Then one day, on the insistence of my grandmother, my father whipped me with a stick. My hands were all red, and blood trickled from my fingertips,” she recalls.
Fatima learned the trade.  Now in her 70’s she is witnessing its death.
Reed and rice straw are used in waguv making. The strands of reed are interwoven over the twines of rice straw and then cut into desired shapes.
Fatima buys a bundle of rice straw for Rs 25 and a bundle of reed for Rs 75.
Five days of hard work and she will prepare a pair of reed mats, which will be sold for Rs 150 fetching her paltry profit of Rs 50. If Fatima gets a buyer for her mats while weaving, it is a delight when but that happens rarely. Usually her husband hawks them in the old city.
Some 100 steps away from Fatima’s house lies Aakhoon Mohalla, formerly the biggest colony of waguv weavers in Srinagar. Waguv weaving, once the main source of income, is now a closed chapter the inhabitants do not want to return to. This community of 51 households that once survived on the trade has now switched over to other occupations like vegetable farming, paper machie and carpet weaving.
Not a single male of the community is associated with the business now. Females of four families still dabble in it.
Fifty-five year old Saleema has five children. Three of her daughters spin yarn, elder son works as painter and the youngest is a carpenter. In the family of seven, it is only Saleema and her husband Mohammad Abbas who know the art of waguv making. However she does the work alone. Saleema’s husband, some years back shifted to carpet making after “finding it hard to feed his family on this unrewarding business.”
“I just keep myself busy otherwise it is futile,” says Saleema.
Besides economic reasons the social stigma attached to the trade of waguv weaving is keeping the younger generation away. Saleema’s 17 years old daughter calls the trade “an insult”.
Pointing to her mother she says, “Older people like her cannot learn any new art, but we have no reason to carry this burden forward.”
However they believe that the trade is as old as the community itself. “It is more than three hundred year old trade,” says 56 years old Mohammad yousuf Ashraf.
In 1995, the government came up with a loan scheme for the waguv weavers of Aakhoon Mohalla Hazratbal, under which every household was given Rupees 500 as loan for “upgrading” the waguv making business. Since the business didn’t see any growth, they had a tough time repaying it.
The paltry loan accumulated huge interests. Afterwards, Ashraf  gave up the trade altogether and started carpet weaving.
Ashraf says that the trade doesn’t go in sync with the contemporary times – both in terms of reputation and money.
“My parents raised me with the small money they earned from this business, but is that possible for me? I was not ashamed of being the son of waguv makers, but my children categorically asked me to shun this trade,” he said.
Ghulam Hassan, a 26 year old Rehbar-e-Talim teacher and one among handful of post graduates at the colony says that it is the development that is responsible for killing the trade. “It is development – of people as well as of ours,” he says. Hassan along with his other siblings forced his father to switchover to other occupation. His father is a vegetable farmer now and they don’t talk about waguv making in their home.
The decreasing demand for these mats is pushing down the profits and discouraging people to take up waguv weaving as an occupation. The weavers say that it is either poor or the rural folk that buy their products.
“There is no chance of price hike when there is dearth of customers. The price of raw material increases every year but we cannot do that with the product. A pair of waguv sells at the same rate from last ten years,” says Aisha, another waguv weaver.
On way back, I see Fatima sweeping the courtyard of her house. It is her daily routine to ward off the annoyance of her children who call waguv weaving a dirty job. I hesitantly ask her what it feels like seeing your generational business dying in the autumn of your life. “It will pain as long as I am alive. Once I close my eyes there will be only peace,” she says.

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