Indelible Impressions

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From Samarkand to Srinagar, Ashiq Hussain narrates the 600-year-old journey of stylish Samovar to the snow-bound valley of Kashmir through the Silk Route.

Kashmiri copperwear

Kashmiri copperware

The use of copper for cooking ware in the households of Kashmir—irrespective of differences in urban and rural lifestyles—is as old as the advent of Islam here in the 14th century. And despite the onslaught of modern cookware, the glitter of copper utensils called Traam in local lexicon still outshines everything in the kitchens of the rich and the poor Kashmiri alike.

The use of copperware began with the start of Muslim rule in Kashmir. But decorative copper items in the courts of non-Muslim rulers were in use much before the Islamic period. “Before (advent of) Islam in Kashmir, copper art was a ‘royal’ craft. We could find copper sculptures in the courts of Hindu and Buddhist rulers in the valley. But Islam ‘democratized’ the use of copperware for common masses,” says prominent historian, Mohammad Ashraf Wani, who heads the department of history at Kashmir University.

As the Sufi saint of Iran Mir Syed Ali Hamadani travelled to Kashmir through the silk route along with hundreds of his followers, what he brought with him in addition to his Islamic faith was a ‘mini Iran’. The craft to fashion vessels from copper and then carving various designs on the utensils is also believed to be introduced by the accompanying disciples of Shah-e-Hamdan. With the Persian saint’s travel to various central Asian countries of Russia preaching Islam, the art he had brought here was a mixture of all the countries he visited. But it was only in the beginning of 15th century that copperware was widely used in the homes of new converts as the art received official patronage during the rule of the Kashmiri king Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470). With his throne in Srinagar, the copperware industry thrived in the old parts of the city bordering the seven bridges over river Jhelum.

“Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin travelled to Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan and offered scholarships and jobs to artisans there to teach people in the valley,” says historian Mushtaq Ahmad Kaw, who belongs to the family of copper traders in the old city. “Central Asia was the seat of learning during that time and the king wanted to establish links with this great civilization,” Kaw states. “And within no time the urban pockets of Srinagar replaced earthenware with copper utensils,” he informs.

Kaw has visited Samarkand himself, in addition to Bukhara and some parts of Turkmenistan under Chinese control. “You will be surprised to find a complete analogy between the copperware of these countries and Kashmir. The professionals, their tool and typology make one believe as if he was in a Tram-Karkhan (copper moulding workshop),” Kaw stresses.

The most common products of copperware in Kashmir consist mostly of cooking pots, samovars (tea kettles of Samarkand origin in Russia), and articles for the household or the mantelpiece.  Engraving floral, stylized, geometric, leaf and sometimes calligraphic motifs called Kand-Kari determine the price of the object, as does the weight.

During the Mughal period, the copper industry got a boost with the demand for copper antiques escalating in India. But the setback to this art industry started nearly 25 years ago when machine-made copper utensils flooded the markets of India. Slowly, the demand for copper utensils from outside came to a halt. “There are around 65 machines in the Valley right now which produce machine-made goods in bulk. The percolation of these machines has put the livelihood of thousands of artisans into jeopardy,” says 56-year-old Nazir Ahmad Tanki, a traditional copper artist at his workshop in Tanki-Mohalla area of old city. “And around 30,000 families are associated with this industry which includes copper moulders, engraving artists, coal suppliers, electroplating workers besides raw material suppliers and retailers,” informs Tanki, who has been a part of the struggle for the preservation of this handicraft.

However, despite the machines, every stakeholder in this industry is optimistic about its survival.

“Introduction of machines may have eased the production of small items like plates and bowls but what copperware is famous for in Kashmir is its complex design and engraving like that of Samovar which a machine can’t produce,” reveals Kaw. The increase in demand is also attributed to the introduction of novel methods by the traditional artisans of copperware. “For example,” says 60-year-old Abdul Hameed, a trader selling raw copper in the heart of old city, “Now we are designing copper fruit bowls, copper rice bowls and hundreds of new items apart from intricately designed Samovars. The tradition of decorating the kitchens of Kashmir with copperware is again in vogue,” he adds.

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