They are the golden hands behind intricate designs and motifs that make Kashmir’s heritage handicrafts famous. But the same hands are on the brink of begging if not held on time, reports Syed Asma
A day before he died, Ghulam Mohammad, a chain stitch artist, who lived with his wife Afroza and two sons in an impoverished Radpora locality in downtown Srinagar, literally handed over his family in his brother’s care. It was kind of premonition, thinks Afroza, 40, who now manages life from a single room located in a two storied building. “He never earned enough to construct a house,” rues Afroza, who looks much older than her age.
Once a proud artist, Afroza’s husband fell from pride, when art couldn’t help him feed his family. The fall came with a price: his health. “This helplessness pained him a lot,” says Afroza.
But then, Afroza’s husband, who earned less than Rs 3000 a month, could not mange expenses to cure hypertension and diabetes. Ask Afroza how her husband died, and she struggles to answer. “Doctors told me it was because of kidney failure,” says Afroza, with pain in her voice. “But I am not sure.” He was 40 then.
After her husband’s death Afroza, who had spent most of her life managing household, started stitching chains to feed the family. But, Afroza admits, she is not as proficient as her husband. “I earn just Rs 50 a day,” says Afroza. “It hardly feeds my family. We often sleep on empty stomach.”
But Afroza’s painful story is not an isolated case; there are thousands of artists who struggle to feed their families despite possessing “golden hands”.
These golden hands are forced to hold a begging bowl now, says a dejected Shabir Hussain, 45, who has spent his entire life amidst paints and brushes. He is a papier mâché artist.
Almost two decade back Shabir used to earn between Rs 150 and 300 a day, decent by then standards. But, amid dwindling tourist footfall and increased competition, Shabir’s income saw drastic slide. “I now hardly manage Rs 150 a day,” says Shabir with hopelessness in his voice.
Shabir, who has a family of four to feed, was recently diagnosed with Oesophageal cancer, thus stalling income completely. “It has been two years since I have completed any assignment,” says Shabir who manages his expenses with help from friends and well wishers.
So far Shabir has undergone three unsuccessful surgeries, costing him around Rs 3 lakh. “Doctors told me that I am at Allah’s mercy now. And I should pray for a miracle,” says Shabir.
Known for his golden hands, wit, and spontaneous humour, among his peers Shabir now cuts a sorry figure. “I was a specimen for doctors who after experimenting on me, left me at Allah’s mercy,” says Shabir sarcastically.
Shabir, who has to spend thousand on his medicine, recently shifted to Pattan in Baramullah district to live with his in-laws. “I am surviving on donations from people,” says Shabir painfully.
Shabir can already feel all the symptoms of last stage foretold by the doctors, and it depresses him. He thinks of his two sons – aged nine and three – and his wife. “I know end is near. One fine morning I know I will not wake up. I am not afraid of death, but what will happen to my family,” says Shabir. “I am leaving nothing for them. Just pain and poverty.”
The same question troubles Mohammad Hussain, 45, a papier mâché artist who used to work with Shabir, since he was diagnosed with a defunct liver six years back.
Hussain, who is the only feeding hand for his wife and two teenaged daughters, is undergoing treatment at a local hospital. Immediately after his ailment was established, Hussain decided to visit a good hospital in Delhi, but circumstances forced him to drop the idea. “It would have cost me Rs 22 lakh,” says Hussain who earns just Rs 4500 a month.
But even that income is not regular now as Hussain has to visit hospital on almost regular basis. “One visit to hospital means no work day for me,” says Hussain.
So far Hussain has spent more than Rs 6 lakh on his treatment, all managed by his relatives and well wishers. “Still I have to manage medicine worth thousands every month,” says Hussain.
Initially Hussain decided to apply for a loan to manage his expenses, but had nothing to keep mortgage. “The only other option was to ask for help from people,” says Hussain with a hint of helplessness in his voice. “I sometimes pity myself for such a miserable life. But then its Allah’s will.”
Hussain and other artists like him blame low wages and indifference attitude from successive governments, for their miserable existence.
Ironically, despite successive governments hailing artists as heroes who posses “golden hands” no efforts were made to help them in times of need. “They only promote handicrafts but nobody gives a damn about artists,” says Hussain. “There is no scheme to help people like us in our difficult times. We are left to die like unwanted lot,” adds Shabir.
The story of Hilal Ahmed Khan, 50, an artist from Rathpora, Srinagar, known for his skill in silk carpet weaving, is full of melancholy. In last 30 years of his careers as an artist, Khan has failed to manage a roof for his family, something he feels ashamed of. Instead, he spends half out of his Rs 3000 earning to pay rent for a single room dwelling. Ten years back, Khan lost eyesight in his right eye after doctors operated him unsuccessfully. Since then, Khan wears thick glasses to work. He has reduced his working hours from eight to five because of the pain in his eye. “I can only work in daylight now,” says Khan.
Khan wants to see his lone daughter chose a different line as there is no pride in being an artist anymore. “I deliberately decided to have only one child. I knew I am not in a position to raise a big family,” says Khan.
Artists like Khan, when faced with a health crisis, have to either abandon working altogether or rely on donations from people to manage the expenses. In Khan’s case it was his employer who bore expenses of his treatment.
“I can’t afford to lose my artisans. They are my precious assets,” says Khan’s employer Mohammed Rafiq Sofi who has around 300 people working under him. “I bear medical expenses of half of them on regular basis. Can’t abandon them,” says Sofi.
But despite undergoing a costly surgery Khan could not save his eye, making him vulnerable as an artist. Khan is passing on the knowledge he has attained in his three decade long career as artist to the younger lot, but he has a word of caution for them as well: this is a great job, but it will hardly help you run your households.
“I wish there is an insurance policy of sorts for artisans too. If an artist doesn’t feel safe and secure then soon there will be no artist left,” Khan cautions.