By adopting Tilla Doozi, a small village in South Kashmir is keeping alive one of the most fascinating traditions of Kashmiri craftsmanship. They withstood turbulent times like conflict, inflation, scarce raw material, invent of machines and weaning markets. Suhail A Shah spends a day in Nillow village to understand their unflinching will to survive.
The heat of the scorching sun on a July afternoon is almost blocked by the walnut trees lined haphazardly across the unfenced lawn of Manzoor Ahmad Wani’s humble dwelling somewhere in the middle of Nillow village, a small hamlet around 8 Kilometres further South of South Kashmir’s Kulgam township.
In one of the two rooms of the house, Irtiza, Wani’s 15-year-old daughter sits next to the window, the only source of light in the room, with her mother’s Pheran in her lap.
A silver thread, with a needle at one of its ends, dangles around her neck while she threads intricate embroidery on the piece of cloth.
Her father, who also happens to be the head of the local Auqaaf Committee, beams with pride while he watches his daughter work.
Like almost all the other teenagers of the village, Irtiza has been busy over the past few months learning the art of needle-work from the elders around her.
Based on around hundred odd households, almost every house in this village, where the main occupation otherwise still remains agriculture, has people engaged with this age-old art of embroidery, called Tilla-Doozi in the local parlance.
“The people in this village have been engaged with this craft since more than 50 years now,” said 42-year-old Gul Muhammad Bhat, a cloth merchant in the village bazaar and an expert craftsman of the needle-work.
Bhat says that he has been engaged with the craft for over 25 years now and it has been a steady source of extra income for him and his family.
“I learned the thread work from one of the village elders, like everybody around here,” Bhat said.
While everybody around the village is sure about the origins of the craft, they don’t seem to be sure about the year the craft first arrived in their village.
“My father told me it must have been around 1947 or 1950 when a man from Srinagar shifted to the village,” recalls 65-year-old Ghulam Mohiuddin Ganie, a retired accountant, adding, “The man from Srinagar was the one who started the craft here.”
Habibullah Khan, a tailor from Srinagar, arrived in the village more or less some 60 years back and settled down.
“Apart from the tailoring he specialized in decorating the collars of women folk’s clothes with a thick thread, red in colour,” recalls 72-year-old Ghulam Muhammad Ganie, who has been associated with the craft since he was 15, and one of Khan’s first Assistant craftsmen.
Even though Khan’s own family no longer remains associated with the craft, after his adopted son got a government job, the craft did not stop there.
Over the years Ganaie and his co-craftsmen have trained all their children and grand-children in the delicate craft, besides many other people in the village, including Bhat, the cloth merchant.
“The thread work Khan used to do was known as Doav. The term is derived from the word Pandaav, Kashmiri name for a piece of thread,” Ganie said.
Gradually, says Ganie, the red thread was replaced with the silver one and the designs on the collars became more intricate and prominent than it earlier used to be.
“The craft flourished and so did the number of craftsmen,” said Ganie, “I no more do the needle-work as my eyesight is weak. But more than 10 people in my family do.”
Generation after another, the people of the Nillow village have made sure that the craft of embroidery flourishes and gets passed on to the younger generations. It has now become an inseparable part of the lives.
There are people in the village who do not actively pursue the needle-work but have learned the craft at some point in time.
The youth of the village, irrespective of their gender and their social status, start learning the craft at a very young age as sort of a vocational learning programme to begin with.
“I was waiting for my matriculation results and meanwhile I tried my hand at Tilla-Doozi,” said Fayaz Ahmad Ganie, a local businessman who is in his late thirties, “I learned it by heart and I guess I’m very good at it.”
Fayaz does not practise the craft now but he says that he can always take it up as full-time profession if God forbid something bad happens to his business.
“Besides, it’s a great stress buster and I can practise it once I retire from my business,” says Fayaz. “We have even doctors and other educated people who have learned the craft in their younger days,” claims Fayaz.
For others though knowing the craft is a clear-cut opportunity to earn some extra money and boost the economic aspect of their lives.
Besides obvious economic benefits, the craft remains deeply rooted in village tradition.
For womenfolk of the village, it’s a matter of working and being independent while they don’t have to leave their house.
Moreover, the women and the girls say, that it gives them a great opportunity to invest their day to day troubles and negative energies into something very productive. “I’ll be getting married soon and the realization that I’m going to contribute to the monetary aspect of house making gives me a sense of pride,” says Shabina, who is in her late teens. “It makes me feel that I’m as good as any other working woman, with an added advantage of staying back home while I work.”
The heartening thing in the scenario is that the parents of the village, despite the lack of education, seem to be very particular about the education of their children.
The parents Kashmir Life talked to insist that earning money is good but they make sure that good education is imparted to their children.
“I’m training all of my four daughters to be good embroiders but at the same time I make sure that they attend school,” said Shabina’s father, Nazir Ahmad Hajam.
Hajam says that earning money should be seen as an added advantage that can help the children through their school and college.
The decline and the rise:
The unflinching dedication of the people of Nillow towards Tilla-Doozi has been laudable to say the least, with the number of odds stacked against them.
Like every other trade in Kashmir, this trade too was hit in wake of a turbulent decade Kashmir witnessed during the popular armed anti-India uprising in the early nineties.
The elderly people of the village recall it as a time when people apparently stopped wearing embroidered clothes.
“Things were difficult for everybody and whining about the decline of our trade at that time would have been derogatory to say the least,” said Bhat, the cloth merchant. “We just made sure that the craft does not die and is carried forward with dignity.”
As the violence in Kashmir cowed down a bit there was another challenge ready for the craftsmen associated with Tilla-Doozi.
The cost of the silver-coated thread, imported from Surat in India’s western state of Gujarat that was used for embroidery, started skyrocketing.
“It became unaffordable for some and simply very expensive for others,” says Bhat.
The problem, however, was overcome with an alternative from Japan; a thread that was just a replica of the original one.
The thread imported from Japan proved to be a cheap and more durable alternative to the one that came from India.
The rising cost of the silver thread was closely followed by the inception of machines, used for the embroidery work.
The embroiders of Nillow say that it was a particularly difficult time, even though it was not as prolonged as the violence in Kashmir.
“The machines gave people a faster, cheaper alternative to the time consuming and comparatively expensive handcraft,” says the elderly craftsman Ganie.
This issue too was short lived however with the customers soon realizing the blemishes of the machines.
The machine embroidery has two major flaws, one is durability and another is the damage done to the fabric embroidered upon.
Even though the machines have managed to carve a niche, which is there to stay but the initial frenzy about them has died down much to the advantage of the craftsmen.
The craft and the economics, then and now
While one revisits the history of this delicate form of embroidery there have not been quite a few changes but none of them has been a major, path-breaking one.
In Kashmir, the silver thread-embroidery has had a rather limited reach within the women folk, with its association limited to elderly women and the brides to be.
An embroidered Pheran has withstood the test of time for being the most important part of a bride’s wardrobe.
“When I started to work, God knows when we used to get paid between one and one and a quarter of an Indian Rupee for embroidering a Pheran,” recalls Ganie. “Brides would be the generous ones and paid a wee bit more than that,” he remembers.
Quite obviously the rates have changed but the changes have not been substantial in regard with the time that has gone by since Ganie started working.
The craftsmen say that these days they get paid a bit more than a couple of hundred Rupees for one Tola (a term used for 10 Grams in Kashmiri).
The present rates make their wages around 700 Indian Rupees for a Pheran with two and a half Tolas of the silver thread.
The impetus, or to be more precise an increase in workload, meanwhile has come from the increasing reach of Tilla-Doozi to some of the Indian states.
“These days we get a major chunk of our work from outside Kashmir,” says Hajam. “The women in India like their Sarees (a traditional attire of Indian women) embroidered with the silver thread.”
While the money charged for work remains the same as that for the Pherans, the amount of thread used in a single Saree is at least 8 Tolas and more.
The worrying factor for the craftsmen, like all their contemporaries, remains the middlemen, who enjoy the major chunk of the money the work fetches.
The embroiders rue that for the work in Kashmir they are at least aware of the changing market rates and can demand higher wages for their work as and when the rates change.
But for the work they receive from outside Kashmir they are left entirely at the mercy of the middlemen.
“An embroidered Saree can fetch the middlemen a fortune at times, while we get the fixed wages,” laments Bhat.
Some of the people from Nillow have tried moving out of their village and Kashmir to earn some extra bucks but the majority of them don’t have the kind of exposure and fear being cheated in an alien land.
With no steps whatsoever taken from the government agencies to safeguard their interests, the Tilla-Dooz community of this south Kashmir village have been meeting ends on their own.
“There should have been some steps taken on behalf of the government to safeguard our interests,” says 50-year-old Nazir Ahmad Bhat, who has been associated with the craft since the last 25 years.
Nazir insists that the craft has the potential to emerge as an economic force to reckon with, provided some serious steps are taken by the authorities.
“I had many times applied for a loan at the bank but the request was turned down, the reason being that I don’t employ people,” Nazir said, “How can I first employ people and then ask for a loan.”
Nazir has now taken a small initiative and has started working along with a group of four of his neighbours, the aim being to form a cooperative module which can further flourish with more people joining in.
“The need of the hour really is that we join our heads and hands to do something for ourselves that the government has failed to do,” said Nazir.
The rather disorganised craft has the potential to form a mid-size industry, if not a large one, which can employee people and lifts their status economically.
For that to happen, however, some very concrete steps need to be taken by the government and more importantly by the craftsmen themselves.