Don’t Burn The Wheel

Introduction of GI tagging in pashmina has raised hope for revival of handmade product in Kashmir. If implemented properly, experts believe that the technological intervention can help retain now forgotten wheel’s lost glory, Syed Asma reports.

CM Omar Abdullah inaugurating the process of GI tagging.
CM Omar Abdullah inaugurating the process of GI tagging.

It is a small beautiful garden placed in between two well-built white coloured mansions. Haleema, in her 80’s, sitting on a rug spread in this garden is looking at these mansions and smiling. “This was my dream,” she says. “I never thought it would happen but always hoped Almighty will do well to me and my children.” The two houses belong to her two sons, one an engineer and other a bank manager.

Haleema has five children and has raised them all alone. Her husband after ten years of their marriage was diagnosed with cancer and passed away.

She, like most of the women of her age is illiterate but well-trained in spinning a charkha.

Wheel, charkha, came to her rescue, she says. She along with her five children survived.

“I literally used to spin throughout day and night, winters and summers to feed my family,” she says. “Then, every woman used to spin wheel and used to help her partners to share the burden. In fact, spinning wheel was a matter of pride and helped a woman to be independent in a way,” says Haleema proudly. “I used to earn very well, almost Rs 200-250 a month during those days.”

Haleema dedicates her success to the wheels as she singlehandedly earned, raised her children, educate them and married them off, one after another. “In the end, this wheel turned to be my soul-mate, a better companion than my husband,” she says while pointing out to a half broken wheel placed in her room. She doesn’t spins anymore, but says will keep it there till she is alive. “It is my identity.”

There are many similar stories of struggle and success in the Valley where [spinning] wheel has played an important part.

There were times when wheel was considered as an important part of a Kashmiri household.

But the wheel suddenly vanished from households in Kashmir and lost its importance.

Haleema did not pass the skill of spinning the yarn to her daughters except one. But she never practiced it and likewise did not pass the legacy to her daughter. The skill in their family was killed right there. They both preferred to be government teachers.

Over the years, Charkha has lost its importance and the reasons are plenty. One of the reasons is ban on shahtoosh and the other being peanuts offered by it in the name of income.

A survey conducted by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Wildlife Trust of India called, ‘Beyond the Ban’ says that the largest portion of shahtosh workers, 55 per cent reported a complete shift from shahtoosh to pashmina. Another 16 per cent reported a shift from working exclusively with shahtoosh to working with both kinds of wool after the ban. 11 per cent claimed the ban had left them unemployed while 10 per cent had shifted from working from both shahtoosh and pashmina to using only pashmina.

The report, ‘Beyond the Ban’ was published in 2003 and one of the local activists associated with survey, Fayaz Ahmed, says since then the number has dropped more because of less wages which earns them less profit.

Presently, a spinner who works rigorously on his wheel can earn maximum of Rs 100 a day.

“A professional spinner can earn Rs 100 in a day and a leisure (part-time) spinner can earn Rs 40 -50 per day,” says Shafat Ahmed, a trained spinner who has learnt the art of weaving as well but did not take it up as profession. He says his father did not allow him to do so.

Shafat, who is in his early 30’s, works as a salesman in a general store in his locality. He was an average student, he says, and aimed to be a school teacher. But he had to leave his studies mid-way as his father alone could not manage the family.

They are five members, his parents, Shafat and his two sisters. Shafat recently got one of his sisters married and is planning to get other one married soon.

Shafat’s father, Ghulam Mohammed, was an artisan and was one of the favourite artists of his wastikaars, Shafat says. “He neatly and effortlessly used to weave such beautiful and intricate designs on shawls and scarfs that everyone used to fell in love with his work and the final product.”

Ghulam Mohammed, 80, wearing coke bottle glasses is sitting in a dimly lit room near a window. He is staring at a log of deadwood placed in their backyard.

For many years now, he doesn’t talk much. He prefers to sit alone, his wife laments.

His wife, Shahazada Begum, used to spin wheel but once it deteriorated her health and didn’t fetch her much her husband forced her to leave it.

A woman on the wheel. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

“He (Ghulam Mohammed) burned that wheel in our backyard,” says Shahzada. “He told me the wheel has lost its worth and I should not continue to waste time over it,” she adds.

Shahzada is suffering from arthritis and has a hunched back. She no more can stand straight.

Ghulam Mohammed seems calm, but loses his cool when asked why didn’t he let his family, wife, daughters and son, to continue the art in the family?

“Why should have I?” he asks back. He continues, “If they would have continued this useless art, my son would have been blind by now and my daughters would have been suffering from bone diseases like their mother.”

“It is no more an art worth learning, he opines. It is nothing more than wastage of time and health,” he says sarcastically.

He turns his back to the window and fixes his eyes again on the deadwood lying in his backyard.

Ghulam Mohammed and many others like him became victims of the intervention of machines in the trade. “Amritsar started it and swept away most of our market,” says Shafat.

Seconding his thought, Yusuf Tickoo, an owner of a spinning unit in Ganderbal’s Industrial unit, says, “When Amritsar came in with machines, the pashmina trade in Kashmir and most of them associated with it got ruined.”

Tickoo says the only way they thought will get them back into the trade is purchasing same machinery that Amritsar owns. “We are only trying to get our trade back. It is just about business -handmade or machine made, either of the two.”

Presently, the machine-made products have swept the market of hand-made product as the profit margin in former is very high.

Sharique Farooqui, the Director Craft Development Institute, says, about 80% of the weaving takes places mechanically and it is at this level where the pashmina is being mixed with other fine wools.

“Kashmir pashmina is a GI-registered product but the lack of facilities had given fakes and the machine-made shawls a field day,” says Farooqui.

But he hopes that once the chip (GI tags) carrying shawl becomes the fashion statement; the traditional processes will be revived in Kashmiri homes.

Presently they are tagging almost 100 shawls a day and hope they will be completing their set target in coming years.

GI tagging will be using ‘Secure Authentication Fusion Transfer Label’ (SAFTL). SAFTL is a new generation brand identity solution. And will only be used on the hand-made products.

The labels will include nano particles, uniquely formulated objects covertly incorporated in the products. Nano particles are micro-sized, inert or rare elements or fluorescent fibres and are added to the packaging manufacturing process or applied and embedded onto the finished labels prior to selling the materials.

The whole project is managed by Craft Development Institute and the project has been inaugurated a few months back by chief minister Omar Abdullah.

The major challenge that is hindering the work are machines running in the industrial units in the Valley.

“There are about 35 spinning units and above 1000 weaving units in the Valley,” says Yusuf Tickoo.

Until these units are running the government cannot claim to revive the hand-made products, he adds.

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