One of Srinagar’s oldest craftsmen, Ghulam Nabi Dar’s designs on the wood remain unmatched for their intricacy and detail, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
In one of the cramped alleys of downtown Srinagar, the city of Kashmir, a man in his late sixties drops chisel as he sees to shake hands with this reporter.
“I am not scared of the virus,” says Ghulam Nabi Dar, 68. His room where he does walnut woodcarving smells of wood. The wood dust covers everything: a red coloured small radio, wooden planks, an old tin trunk in the corner and stacks of paper with imprinted designs.
“I am growing old but passion keeps me going,” he said while putting down his tools on a plank.
According to Dar, he has taught the skills of this craft to many in his neighbourhood, family and friends because he himself had to struggle for years for it.
When Dar was six years old he was admitted to a private school in his neighbourhood. But soon his father couldn’t afford the expenses and Dar had to drop out when he was just 10.
“Most of the time I was without fees, uniform and books. Education became unaffordable,” he said.
To help the family come out of its financial crisis, Dar’s maternal uncle took him to a local wood carving artisan Abdul Razzaq Wangnoo. Dar along with his younger brother started working for him. He was not paid for two years while learning the craft and doing menial tasks. In the following three years, he was paid two and a half rupees.
Dar vividly remembers his father words insisting, his employer teach his both sons effectively even if he pays less to them.
An Artistic Urge
To further develop his skills and earn more, he started working with his neighbourhood wood carving artisan, Abdul Aziz Bhat. Bhat used to get orders from Subla & Company, a reputed handicraft company with a huge customer base.
He came across work of different artists at the Subla’s workshop and one day overwhelmed by curiosity he managed to sneak into a room in which the best walnut woodcarvings were kept. He was fascinated by their intricate designs.
Days later, while he was used to making furtive journeys to the room, the owner thought he was going there with the intention to steal something. “I told him the truth and why I came to the room,” he recalled.
The owner appreciated his commitment to learning the craft. According to Dar, the owner, allowed him to come with a pencil and paper to imitate designs and learn. “But only during the lunch break and when others were not around”, he recalled.
Dar used to copy the design from the finished products and imitate at home on a plank of raw wood on which he persisted with each failure.
“I used to copy the designs of flowers, animals, birds and other designs on paper,” Dar said. “At home, I used to design on mud-plastered walls, and doors only to invoke the ire of my mother”.
Picking Pen, Pencil
Soon he began searching for the paper and pencils wherever he could find them and spent the next five years trying to learn the designing his products.. Watching him obsessed with the designing and the crafts, people who knew him started mistaking him as deranged.
Soon he succeeded.
“I was successful in carving jungle design on the lid of the wooden box,” Dar said. “I kept it secret for some time as it was my first attempt”.
But his zest for learning remained relentless. “I used to wake up till midnight to work,” he said.
Finally, it was artisan Noordin of Narwara Eidgah locally known as Noortuk who made him the master in the field of walnut woodcarving. Paralysed on the right side of his body, Noordin was impressed with Dar’s zest for learning.
“Even though he was aged and paralysed yet painstakingly he taught me with his left hand to design and gave me his drawings. I worked on his drawings, and this enhanced my imagination and carving skills and then there was no looking back,” Dar said, fondly recalling his master and sending profuse prayers for him.
Finally, a story won him an award.
A Celebrated Artist
Dar is now Kashmir’s most celebrated artisan with a state and national award under his belt for his sophisticated designs.
In 1995, he was awarded a national award. Before that, in 1984, Dar was also given a state award and Rs 2500. Dar designed a wall hanging of a Kashmiri Panchayat. It depicts Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Christian members sitting in a village with a samavar and cup.
“I loved it because it portrayed the reality of religious harmony in Kashmir and also our culture,” Dar said.
His every designed product tells different stories. He carves different designs every time he makes a new piece. He has a repository of designed dining tables, beds, tables, wooden jewellery boxes, wall hangings, wooden furniture and sofas.
In 1995, he won the national award for a wooden box with flowers engraved on it, which had four human faces on the corners depicting various emotional states in one’s life.
“Sometimes when I finish products, I am shocked. I cannot believe that I carved them,” Dar said. “There always seemed Almighty’s guidance in every pursuit.”
Most of the time he would visit botanical gardens and walkthrough cities and different places, trying to imbibe the designs to carve them on wood.
A wall hanging portraying the Dal Lake, the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib (RA) and the Hari Parbat fort, shikara, lotus, indigenous flora and fauna recline by his side. Similarly, in many of his designs, life activities and nature is depicted, like a deer in a lion’s jaw, a hunter with a gun in the jungle, a fish in a crocodile’s mouth, birds feeding their sapling, flowers blooming, trees, Kashmiri stag in forest, forest life and the others.
During his career of 58 years, Dar has travelled because of his art to many foreign countries like Iraq, Germany and Thailand, besides a number of places within India.
The Iraq Sojourn
Besides acknowledgement at the government level, he found his admirer in a Middle East doctor in 1979. The admirer arranged all the travel documents and helped him work for a company for 22 months in Iraq.
“I still want to learn and expand my imagination,” Dar said, adding that most of his art is unsold and he yearns for exhibition and admirers but complains about the government’s apathy. “The government especially the handicrafts department is not helping,” he said.
Dar earns his livelihood from commercial work like furniture, doors, and art. Besides the commercial orders he tackles, his art, he said, earns him lakhs of rupees.
“I want Kashmiri walnut woodcarving to stay alive and thrive,” Dar said. “I aspire future generations to learn this art”.
An Insincere Government
The initiatives of the government, according to him, are not enough and sincere. “Old artisans are departing the world. If there are no new learners, the art may survive for only a few decades more,” Dar regretted, adding the government should create institutions where these skills are imparted to younger generations.
“My only hope is my son, Abid Ahmed, who has also won the state award for the same art,” Dar said adding that his son imparts woodcarving skills at the local Industrial Training Institute. “My only wish is that this art should live on and I want to contribute my mite towards this end”.