Chiseling Craft

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Over the years, the art of Khatambandhi and other indigenous arts are facing a slow death. However, Hirra Azmat and Durdana Bhat find out that the Kashmiri art is not entirely a lost cause

Wood-carvingWood carving runs very deep in the veins of Mohammad Idrees Gami, 45, of Prince Handicrafts. Hailing from Srinagar’s Rainawari locality, Idrees was intrigued by the magic that turned plain wood into a mosaic of beautiful designs and intricate patterns since childhood.

As he started growing up, his interest in the craft both surged as well as blossomed. On the very onset, the young Idrees started helping out his father in the craft. During the same time, he didn’t part his ways with studies. Alongside chiseling wood, he completed his graduation in commerce.

“During those days, government jobs were a cakewalk,” says Idrees. “I could have easily opted for one after graduation. But salaries those days were quite low, and this business appeared more lucrative. I choose business over bank service. And by the grace of Allah, I am contented with the choice I made. This is what I always wanted to achieve, so I’ve no regrets.”

After the demise of his father in 1984, Idrees became the default caretaker of his father’s trade. “Losing him was quite a traumatic experience,” he says. “The business was the fruit of his hard labour and he’d have been bitterly disappointed had it shut down.”

But three decades after the demise of his father, Idrees has not only successfully shouldered the responsibility of his father’s trade, but has taken it to newer heights. “By the grace of Allah, we are a reputed brand and sell our products across various countries,” says Idrees.

To maintain his brand, some fifty skilled artisans are working behind the scene. Only a few craftsmen are left now who are well versed with this craft, he says, and 75 per cent of them work in his factory. “We pay them the highest wages,” he says. “It is my endeavour to boost their economical condition in every possible way.”

Mostly artisans working in Idrees’s factory chisel out designs that originated in Central Asia. These designs revolve around the four seasoned theme that depicts: rose, grapes, Iris and lotus flowers. The Kashmiri designs consist of Kaend Posh and grapevine. Other designs include Jangal (in the form of animals) and Panjra (geometrical shapes). In papier-mâché, the middle-east theme is also used that depicts caravans, camels and palm trees etc. “We also create contemporary designs by blending plain surfaces with carved borders,” he says.

After done with designing, the products from Idrees’s factory are being dispatched out in many markets across the world. About 80,000 jewellery boxes from his factory have been sent out across the world, he says: “We’ve also supplied different products to US Army based in Iraq. Besides, our products have been sold across Europe.”

In fact, Idrees got his first contract in the 90’s from a German company to design a houseboat “One thousand two nights”. It was originally owned by a Henz George Kortman. The houseboat still exists, though, it was later sold to a Kashmiri businessman.  “My work was highly applauded and a German magazine published a feature on it,” he says. “However, we have a strong domestic base too.”

Recently, Hotel Khyber was awarded as the Asia’s sixth best hotel. Its interiors have been designed by Idrees and his workers. Besides, his factory also designed and carried out the internal beautification of the famed Jamia Masjid of Srinagar.

Over the years, the number of craft persons practicing the art has dwindled down from more than 40,000 in the 1980’s to just about 6,000 now. “Unfortunately, the new generation shies from this craft,” he says. “Our youngsters are too impatient to learn as apprentices,” he says. “They only desire white collared jobs.”

Idrees says, there is a notion among youth that wood carving is not economically feasible. “This is not entirely true,” he says. “There is a huge demand for skilled craftsmen in the market, as genuine handicrafts attract a lot of elite class customers. Unluckily there is little awareness about these issues.”

Even government has not done anything to dispel this notion, he says. “There is no such policy in place to promote this craft. No subsidized loans are provided, nor any incentive provided by the tourism department. Little attention is provided towards the development of craftsmen, who often reel under consumer loans borrowed from banks at high rates.”

Now, after creating a special niche for himself in the wood carving trade, Idrees says that being honest with customers and workers is his first and foremost principle. “My workers mean a lot to me,” he says. “I have many products which I don’t sell because the artisans who made them are no more. Everyone who buys my products leaves an imprint on my memory.”

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