A central Kashmir village is home to the most expensive Shawls that Kashmir weaves. Raashid Andrabi and Insha Shirazi spent some time with the weavers to understand the craft ecosystem that survived for generations outside Kashmir’s Shehr-e-Khas

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Deep in the mountains of north Kashmir lays a quaint village, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, a hamlet filled with artisans and artists who have woven intricate crafts for generations. The stone-walled houses lined along the macadamized road to offers a cosy atmosphere for any creative inspiration.

Comparatively a less noisy, if not a silent village, the artisans at Kanihama remain busy with their creative projects, mostly at home. The village has a wide range of stores from a hair salon and a dispensary to a butcher’s and a baker’s. It is Kanderwan, the local baker shop, however, which, is one of the few village spots where the village comes alive with laughter and stories of inspiration. Bread apart, it is a quick knowledge-sharing spot where people talk about designs and the progress of their works and the possibility of tie-ups.

What makes the residents distinct is that they are fiercely proud of their community and the art they produce. Unlike the urban master artisans, they do not feel any inferiority complex as they are aware of the contributions they make for generations. If the handicrafts have created any wow effect, it can be visibly seen in Kanihama alone.

Kanihama is a must-go village for anybody keen to learn about Kashmir’s finest shawl-makers and the most costly and fascinating shawls that every young woman would like to have in her bridal trousseau.

Once known as Gund Kawarhama, the Kanihama is located along the Srinagar-Gulmarg highway but falls in the Budgam district. Renowned for being the centre of excellent shawl-making, this village is a hub of activity and a major player in Kashmir’s handicraft and handloom sector.  For intricate and detailed craftsmanship, superfine raw materials, and highly skilled craftspeople, this village has it all. For centuries, many generations have perfected this art.

Elders said the village generates a turnover of Rs 8-10 crore, a year and must be saving almost ten per cent of it as the margins. Located on the best tourist road of Kashmir, residents said that if the authorities ever get their village on the visitor’s map, the village can double its income.

Kanihama’s absence on the tourist map does not mean it is neglected. The government has been working at its own pace in offering whatever it could to the village. The government has created a facility for training 20–25 young girls and designing aspects of the craft. It is helping people to set up looms. On the periphery of the village, the government is also building a cafeteria that may, one day, attract tourists to Kanihama. Once ready, the artisans are expected to exhibit their creations in the restaurant.

Artisans prepare a Kani shawl at a home workshop in Srinagar, on Wednesday 23 November 2022. Kashmiri shawls made from Pashmina (cashmere) wool and Raffal shawls from Merino wool are famous worldwide. Additionally, Kani shawls originating from the Kanihama area of Kashmir, are made with the use of wood needles since the time of Mughal rule in the region
KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Covid19 Impact

Throughout Covid19, the village produced quite a few kani shawls. The demand had gone down and the artisans avoided an interaction with raw material suppliers and the traders.

However, this year’s production is going incredibly well. Officials believe Kanihama shawls must have generated a profit of at least Rs 10 crore by March 2023.

Though Kanihama is weaving a variety of Shawl’s, it is known for the special Kani shawls, which are very expensive. A traditional shawl is weaved on a loom and then the artwork is done by different artisans. In Kani shawls the artwork is part of the weaving process in which the artisans use bobbins as per the colours and patterns dictated by the Taleem, the lingo that is endemic to Kashmir handicrafts.

“The government recognised this village as a handloom village in 2020 but little has yet been done on the promise of providing better amenities at educational facilities,” a government official from Budgam admitted. “The community is carrying on with schooling as usual, just as it did before 2020. The walls of the schools were simply painted, which was the only thing that could be seen in the educational sector. Kani art-related events are also hosted in a centre in the village, although none of them takes place in classrooms or any other type of Kanihama educational facility.”

Kanihama has two primary schools and a middle school that government runs. Besides, there are two privately-run schools, which are apparently better staffed. Now the village’s literacy is rising gradually. The government offers free schooling to the children of kani art artisans to raise the village’s literacy rate. Interestingly, most of the village falls in the BPL category.

Interesting Anecdotes

The artisans have their own stories to share.

Manzoor Ahmad, a national awardee, has been making Pashmina shawls for more than 25 years now. A science graduate, Manzoor picked art when he was 21 and since then there is no looking back.

“I was the first person in my family to learn this craft. I always used to look forward to learning this art and after my studies, I went to Bashir Ahmad, one of the finest artists Kanihama has ever produced, and started learning from him,” Manzoor said. “My father was an Ari keam artisan, but I became fascinated with Kani shawls in 1995 and have been working on them ever since. This form of art is not in my family lineage but rather something I picked on my own.”

Residents take pride in the claim that their village was the epicentre wherefrom the kani shawl art emerged.

The word Kani is taken from the name of the village, which in Kashmiri means “wooden sticks.” The little wooden needles used in Kani weaving are referred to as Kanis. The colourful weft thread is woven around Kanis to produce shawls with magical patterns.

Manzoor has recently sold some shawls to clients in Paris, Canada, and Korea. He said that after the label handloom village was given to Kanihama in 2020, better roads were made, street lights were installed and various things were improved. The village now resembles a town.

“There are regular buyers of the Kanihama shawls across the country,” Manzoor said. “To stop this art form from dying and to get the younger generation interested in it, the government has been providing stalls and exhibitions for us to sell our products and these exhibitions have made us known to different parts of the world.” He said the craft is the employer of the last resort. When people do not get jobs anywhere, they come back to the craft of their elders and make a decent living.

A Kani Shawl in making in Srinagar. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Designing A Product

Sajad Nazir Bhat, a Kani shawl designer from Soura, Srinagar, almost 24 km from Kanihama, has been drawing patterns for more than two decades. A self-taught designer, Bhat said he was fascinated by the art and was literally driven to pick to skill. He thinks innovating designs is “my obligation” as well as an opportunity to support the heritage craft.

In the last two decades, he has been a key designer on which the artisans of Kanihama have been working. Some of his designs were acknowledged as distinct nationally.

“Before interpreting the language using colour symbols, we first sketch out a design on graph paper,” Bhat explains his creative skill. “Before starting a design on the Kani shawls, the weaver analyses those design sets because it is the weaver who is linked with the buyer or trader.”

While the weavers are scattered around Kashmir including Kanihama, the designers are mostly residents of Shehr-e-Khas, Srinagar. “We use different patterns from Chinese or Indian art. Though I make designs for carpets and shawls but sometimes I design Kani Shawls too. In 2020, I designed three Kani shawls, and each of them was recognized nationally.”

No Gender Bias

Though the government has set up community centres where young females can learn this craft and evolve as independent professionals, the younger generation is not attracted.

“The primary cause of the younger generation’s lack of interest in this craft is that it is not offering as the artisan would expect. The prices were expected to go up but actually, they fell pushing people to move to other sectors,” said Fayaz Ahmad, a craftsman working in this art for the last 20 years. “Even in Kainhama which is known for the craft, all residents are not into shawl weaving.”

Fayaz believes that the craft was impacted by the influx of non-professionals who lack adequate skill but still are producing low-category Kani shawls as a result of which the overall sector suffered. “They compromise on raw material and it costs the sector,” he said.

Off late, the Kani Shawl has moved around. Now the neighbouring villages of Batapora, Mazhama, and Roshanabad villages are also into the weaving of Kani Shawls. Mostly, however, they prefer Pashmina weaving extensively.

The skill spread has led to the emergence of a small centre on the well-known Gulmarg Road, where tourists stop and make purchases. This facilitation centre is helping Kanihama and other shawl-producing areas to stay in touch with the market and get instant buyers. The artisans ensure their products are on display at the centre.

A Surviving Ecosystem

Kaniham is a place where the Kashmir handicrafts’ entire eco system is intact and visible. There are wheels at home; there are Pashmina fibre makers, yarn sellers, knot-helpers and all other professionals who are required in the craft eco-system. It is a craft where men and women work with no clear distinction between the two genders.

The involvement of women in this craft is evident. A training facility with a bunch of young girls mastering the art of Kani weaving can be found right at the village’s entrance. For the last many years, the centre has been training young girls and giving them free looms as well as a modest stipend.

Yasmeena, an 18-year-old working in the facility is now ready to weave a Pashmina shawl and sell it on her own. She has been refining this skill for a year and is now ready to get into the market as a specialist.

“I adore this craft and enjoy practising it, I am incredibly grateful that we have a fantastic faculty of instructors here at my training centre,” Yasmeena said. “I am the only one from my family who has picked this art. I joined the centre after finishing my 12th-grade board exams. I started my training a year ago, and I am currently picking up this craft with 20 other girls at this centre.”

Kani Shawl is an intricate craft that weaves a shawl wit pattern intact. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Official Speak

“There are two schools of thought or perspectives on Kani Shawl. Some people think that the Kani art was originally developed in Kanihama village, while others think that Srinagar’s downtown is where it emerged from,” Mahmood Ahmad Shah, Director of Handicrafts and Handloom department Kashmir, said about the most esteemed type of artistry in Kashmir.

Shah said that the village is a declared craft village, for which the DC of Handlooms contributed Rs 2.5 crore. However, it is being managed by the DC and not the handicrafts department. “We have formally written to the government to assign the village to the Department of handicrafts so that we can oversee it,” Shah said. “We run nearly 20 Kani centres where this Kani craft is taught. We provide Kani artists with exhibition space, and state government awards and recommend them for awards from the Government of India. Besides, we provide financial support including artisan cards to the community so that it can prosper.”

Kani Shawl, it may be recalled here, is faring the best of all Kashmiri crafts including papier machie. What is interesting, the kani shawl and carpet have the same training and skill set. The only difference is the size and the loom.

This gives the artisans the flexibility to move from one craft to another. “If artisan sees a better opportunity in carpet weaving, they leave the Kani shawl for the time being and return after finishing the assignment,” trade insiders said. “There are a number of these stories in which the artisans are switching between the two crafts strictly dictated by the earnings.”

Online Initiatives

In the digital world when a lot of handicraft purchases are being made online, the sellers ensure a connection with the Kanihama. Pashwrap, an online platform ensures that their basket has Kanihama products as well.

“We have seen pleasing results and we are going mainstream as well,” Aaqib Bhat, its promoter, whose family has already been in the off-line craft trade for nearly half of the century said. Apart from selling items online, his store supplies handicrafts to various offline stores in US and Europe. “We know the importance of Kanihama so we ensure we have its products for sale as well.”

Interestingly, a number of people in Kanihama also sell their products directly to the buyers, bypassing the intermediaries. It has stakes in various offline stores within and around the village. However, the village is yet to have its first online store.

Key Income

For Kashmir, the handicraft and handloom industry is a significant source of revenue and employment. In the last few years, the sector has been booking a lot of losses as the inventory of the trade remained unsold for one or the other reason.

Handicrafts are linked to the overall economic well-being of the market and the situation was not all right within and outside India for nay years mainly because of the Covid-19-driven recession.

Off late, however, the sector is showing clear indications of a fast revival.

Officials said that though the final reconciled figure is yet to come but the fiscal 2022-23, seemingly has crossed the psychological barrier of Rs 1000 crore exports. In the first three quarters, the exports were at Rs 729 crores. This is much improved in comparison to the overall exports of Rs 563.13 in 2021-22 and Rs 635.52 crore in 2020-21. The handicraft exports were at Rs 1090.12 crore in 2017-18 and Rs 917.93 in 2018-19. Kashmir remained under lock and key since 2019 summer, a situation that was extended by the Covid19 pandemic.

However, Shawls are just a small fraction of the overall exports. In fact, carpets are almost half of the overall exports from Kashmir. The data on carpet export exhibits an upward trend. In the first nine months of fiscal 2022-23 ending December 31, Kashmir exported carpets worth Rs 212.23 crore. This is expected to mark a return from the sluggish exports that Kashmir carpet witnessed from 2017-18 when carpets worth Rs 452.12 crore were sold. The carpet exports were of the order of Rs 353.63 crore in 2018-19; Rs 395.78 crore in 2019-20; Rs 299.56 crore in 2020-21and Rs 251.06 crore in 2021-22.

“The exports would improve and the rates will also be better,” a senior handicraft policymaker said while referring to the interventions that were made in the sector in recent days. There are two major interventions – one is the GI labelling and another is the QR code. “These help in assuring authenticity to the buyer that he has purchased the right thing,” the official said.

Jammu and Kashmir has 13 crafts including six handicrafts having GI. These include Kashmir Pashmina, Kashmir Sozni, Kani Shawl, and Kashmir Papier Machie.

The GI certification ensures the buyer that the product is produced only in a particular geographical location and no manufacturer other than those recognized by the registration may claim to produce or sell the same by the name specified under the registration. The QR code – extended to non-GI category crafts – gives the buyer the facility to use his cell phone and locate the craftsman or the institution that made the product for further satisfaction of its genuineness.

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