After being associated with handicrafts for many years before qualifying the administrative service, Mehmood Ahmad has finally been appointed as Director Handicrafts. He told Kashmir Life about the challenges that the sector faces and the opportunities which are within rich
Kashmir Life (KL): What are the challenges that Kashmir’s handicraft sector is currently facing?
Mehmood Ahmad Shah (MAS): There are immense challenges faced by our handicraft sector. But the skill-set we have is unlike anyone in the world. Also, over the period of time, the coming in of machines has marginalized artisans and impacted the product basket.
These are the main challenges but solutions are available as well. One of the best solutions we have is GI tagging. We have introduced GI tagging in seven crafts – Pashmina, Kani, Sozni, Papier Machie, Walnut wood, Carpet and Khatam Bandh. We have to strictly implement the GI tagging so that craft basket improves and becomes original and the people associated with it also can get remunerative wages.
I think so far the department has not worked on e-commerce. We should support artisans on e-commerce platforms so that they can be globally plugged. We have to glorify artisans who are state and national awardees because they are our unsung heroes. We have to promote them. Once they are promoted on these platforms the whole world can be our customers.
KL: We are living in a fragile situation, whether it is the Covid-19 pandemic or the post-August 5, 2019 lockdowns. How has our handicraft economy been affected by these situations and what is our current situation?
MAS: Over time we have seen that our exports are not increasing and numbers of artisans are also dwindling. There is an apprehension that a lot of crafts are on verge of extinction. I will give the example of filigree. Now only a few artisans of the craft are left. We used to make Kashmiri Rabab but now only a few Rabab artisans are living. Saving these crafts is very important. Artisans should be supported.
One of our problems is that our crafts aren’t evolving with changing time. In Shawls, for instance, our colour scheme is old and our designs are archaic. When you talk about supporting artisans then the designer’s intervention should be continuous. It is not like you will call one artisan then you will forget him/her. In this era you have to be very competitive, you have to be up to the mark, and we have to work with trends, we have to make the artisan understand which scheme is in and in which market.
KL: What is the level of handicraft exports in comparison to a few years back?
MAS: There has been a decrease in our exports because of the situation in Kashmir for the past one and a half years. Our exports are usually the carpet, shawl and followed by Papier Machie and walnuts woodcarving.
One of our big markets for carpet is America and for Shawl, it is the Middle East. Promoting exports is very necessary and exporting to overseas markets is also important. Recently, we had a digital interaction with the Consulate General of Toronto, where a lot of exporters were present. We gave a presentation on handicraft because America is our bigger market for carpets. Kashmiri diaspora is living across America and Canada, so exploring additional markets is very important. Also, when we talk about our exports we have to set our basics first. GI is acknowledged in the country but in the overseas market there is a trademark and their standards are much stringent.
KL: Due to the pandemic the economies have suffered the world over, what could be the quantum of handicraft products that are in inventory?
MAS: Inventory has been built up, and marketing is necessary. Our handloom and handicraft development corporation has recently purchased a lot of inventory, but we are still coming out of a pandemic. We have taken up a place in Delhi Hatt but we are witnessing fewer sales. We will try from September to participate in different exhibitions so that we can market our products.
But I will come back to online platforms because bringing artisans on online platforms is very necessary so that these people will trade directly.
KL: What are the consequences of the intervention of machines both on the human resource front, the heritage industry front, on earnings and use of handicraft?
MAS: Intervention of machines in handicrafts is not a new thing. From early times machines have played a role. The machine-made Pashmina shawls lose their quality, texture, and finish. Machine-made shawls immediately show bubbling. Our machines are made to process cotton, not Pashmina. Handmade Pashmina shawl costs up to Rs 10,000 and on the other hand machine-made shawl costs Rs 4000. So, customers fall for the cheaper one. To check this GI intervention is important. Machines have not achieved the evolution that they can match to handmade shawls products.
KL: Handicraft is a vast section, it includes several things. Which products are important for the economy and will be your priority?
MAS: We have carpet, Pashmina, Papier Machie, wood carving and many other products but Pashmina are being exported more than others and the same is being consumed locally as well. There are other things that have potential. The world is our customer but we do not have capacity and production. Unfortunately, crafts are being eroded. And in absence of crafts, it is incomplete to imagine Kashmir.
KL: The Kashmiri artisans are migrating to other fields as they failed to earn bread and butter from the craft. How do you see it?
MAS: It has two reasons. One is middlemen-ship. Second, we failed to implement the Minimum Wages Act. These two things need to be dealt with. In order to empower the artisans, easy access to the credit needs to be ensured and then the artisan can fulfil his orders. The basic cornerstone of this whole affair is artisan empowerment.
KL: In past, artisan cards were issued which led to the indebtedness of artisans. What is your take on it?
MAS: On artisan credit cards very less credit is being given. So I think the credit limit needs to be enhanced so that artisans can get the bulk of raw material.
(Shakir Ashraf processed this interview)