By 2024 fall, Kashmir will witness the first batch of 20 young women launching their engraved copper utensils line to the market. Faiqa Masoodi talked to the young women naqashi artists who are going hammer and tongs in the final stage of training in an otherwise male craft area
The clangouring was audible from a distance. Once into the hall, a group of workers, with a keen gaze, and an artist’s eye were hammering pieces of copper very meticulously. These engravers were sculpting round copper plates into various shapes and designs, with Chinar leaf dominating them all.
It is a group of 20 girls, foraying into an otherwise male bastion, defying gender norms, and picking the art of Naqashi or copper engraving from their instructor, Mukhtar Ahmad.
Locally called Thanthir Koor (Women coppersmiths) the girls work on a wooden log that supports the copper plate and enables engraving. Working in groups of three and four, these girls had donned colourful shades and hues and looked impressive as the girls giggle and whisper while stamping the copper. Despite the veiled face, their gleaming eyes fixed intently on one spot.
Each one of them had a tale to narrate. Some have tales of triumph over oblivion and a few have tales of hope over obscurity and the youngest lot is ambitious to clinch a success.
When Mukhtar speaks, there is pin-drop silence as the pupils listen to his words. They follow his hand movements while he effortlessly demonstrates the art that he has acquired from his ancestors. Mukhtar is training the girls in the age-old craft of Tram Baneh (copperware utensils) making.
Copper is the main kitchenware and has been in vogue after the locally mined copper moved out of mints to utensil making. Copper is now imported as local mining had depleted the ores well before the Dogra rulers fled Kashmir.
Zarief Ahmed Zarief, a prominent poet, respected for his oral narration of history believes that copper has been in vogue in Kashmir since the 14th century when Sultans ruled this Himalayan region. During the reign of Budsahah, Sultan Zainulabidin (1418-1419 and 1420-1470), Kashmir used copper coins. “These coins were used till 1955 here and they followed with the tradition of copper utensils,” Zarief said.
Making the best of copper has had a huge Central Asian impact. Certain skill sets also came from Central Asia. “Most of these copper utensils, which involve minute details of designing have been named in Persian,” added Zarief.
Since then the copperware craft stood the test of time and evolved with changing trends and tastes, and is still in vogue. The overall copper craft has become a perfect amalgamation of heritage, craft, cultural confluence, and skilful techniques.
The process of making copper and copperware utensils passes through many expert hands, before taking its final shape. Each artisan has a particular technique. Barak Saaz (manufacturer) is a basic professional who melts wires and sheets to make different shapes. It then goes to chargaqar (cleaner) who makes the raw material smooth. Then it lands with the naqishgeer (engraver) who carves various designs and motifs on the finished metal. Finally, the Kalaisaaz or Kalaigar (polisher) polishes the engraved utensil to give it a shine and makes it appealing and lustrous.
All the steps require particular specialisation and a different technique, however, it is the engraving that requires total attention and focus. The final price of the copper product depends on the intricacy of the work done on it and the neatness and density of the engraved designs.
At the slow-paced Balapora Wathoora (Budgam), imbibing the naqashgari (engraving) skills at a training centre, run by the Department of Handicrafts and Handlooms, the girl group is undergoing a two-year training course. The centre provides a platform for girls in crafts least picked by women. They specialise in engraving various designs and exclusive geometrical motifs locally known as kandkari, the priced one.
The commonly used motifs are a badam (Almond), Chinar leaf (maple leaf), and Mehrab (arch). The designs and the density of Naqashi vary according to the prices offered. These are almost the same motifs that dominate the Kashmir shawl.
Mukhtar Ahmad, a junior craft instructor (JCI), is all praise for the current batch of engravers undergoing training at his centre. “It may sound a little bit stretched but in reality, highly skilled women have often succumbed to societal pressures,” Mukhtar said. “Despite the reinforced stereotypes these girls kept pushing through and grew silently over the months. Our association has been for 13 months and I can say with complete authority that all the 20 girls in this batch will carve a niche for themselves.”
Right now, earning while learning is the trend. Job hunters are often ready to take up anything that comes their way so as to become independent, self-reliant, and controllers of their own lives. Keeping up with the trend, the girls at the training centre, in their early and mid-twenties are getting free training with a monthly Rs 1000 stipend.
“They have ventured into a craft that is alien to the women folk. They have to think out-of-box to succeed,” Mukhtar said. “It is traditionally a male area as it requires strenuous efforts and muscle power too.” Initially, he said, girls struggled a lot to get hold of the equipment used in engraving and to gain precision with the strokes.
Mukhtar gives them credit for facing “gender bias in the explicit and subtler form”. They were facing crises within and outside. “At the centre, they had a hard time getting the nuances of the craft. Once out, some people around would call out the name, Thanthir Koor in a smirking manner. However, they survived it all,” Mukhtar insisted.
In a dimly lit corner of the single-room workstation, Muskaan is lending a keen ear to the master smith’s words, nodding her head in affirmation. In her mid-twenties, she is a graduate. Muskaan got married in the year 2021 and soon after started to have a troubled relationship. The red flags were enough for her to move back to her paternal home.
“I got to know about this scheme through an acquaintance. Without any clear understanding of what the course had to offer, I enrolled myself as I was desperate to do something,” Muskan said while engraving a Chinar leaf motif. “Initially, I had to listen to slurs and discriminatory remarks. I would be criticised for my choice of profession but I marched on as I had to prove myself.”
Curious to hone her Naqashi skills, Muskaan is credited to be the most dedicated student, the best of the lot, by her trainer and peers. “In the initial days, I had to struggle as I could not hold the Draz (hammer) and Mekh (stakes) properly. Many times I have hurt myself while hammering the metal,” Muskaan recalled. “But slowly I found refuge in copper engraving and now it is an integral part of my life.”
Tahmeena describes engraving her dream job. At 21, she is determined to generate employment for herself.
“After completing my graduation from Women’s College MA Road Srinagar, I was keenly looking out to join some course where I would get free training and later do something on my own,” Tahmeena said. “I want to be self-employed, so I am here.” Her decision seems to be more of a choice than a compulsion.
Chirpiest of all, Tahmeena has a lot of innovative ideas up her sleeves. “My friends joined various post-graduate courses soon after finishing college. They would insist me to join one but I never bothered. I have always envisaged having my own business setup,” she added.
The girls, slowly scatter out from the tiny groups they had created and gather in one large circle, with Tahmeena taking the lead. In unison, they discuss their future prospects, ideas, and plans. Shattering stereotypes along the way, the girls reveal they are not in the business to get bogged down by criticism or failures.
“We are proud to be addressed as Thanthir Koor and we wear our identity like a badge of pride,” Tehmeena said. “We all are from the same locality and intend to work together once our training period gets over. We have chalked out strategies on how we will make copper engraving our profession. The sound of our hammers will reverberate the stories of our success.”
Cooperative In Mind
The girls are intending to form cooperative societies after they are done with the course in May 2024. “Cooperative society is a voluntary association of individuals, who work together in groups. They support each other and are driven by a common economic interest,” said Arif Hussain, an assistant handicrafts training officer.
Giving a detailed account of the financial assistance options available for the girls to establish their business units, Arif said that a lot of government schemes are there to support the artisans intending to establish their start-ups. They are getting some seed money and also some support in marketing under various schemes in vogue. Given the fact that some of them are very well-read, this will add them to accelerate the process and establish a start-up.
The girls are barely seven months away from completing their course. They said they have recognised the immense potential of social media as a powerful tool to propel their business to new heights. Fuelled by their passion for craftsmanship and a desire to make their mark in the business landscape, these enterprising young women have set their sights on expanding their reach beyond traditional stores.
“We are all educated and understand that in a world where e-commerce reigns supreme, we can harness the power of social media to bring the copper-making business to the forefront of the industry by choosing to embrace the digital realm rather than confining ourselves to a physical shop,” girls said demonstrating their adaptability and entrepreneurial acumen.
“We will work in groups and make our e-seller accounts. We will put our designs on display there and try to connect with customers. Our products are already being sent to district stores, training centres, and exhibitions where they are sold at affordable prices. We are getting noticed,” Nusrat, 20, a matriculate and the youngest engraver in the group, said. “We have refined our engraving skills to a greater level and are ready to take orders now.”
Amidst their conversations, the training centre is bustling with the girl gang diligently working on the raw copper moulds. On the other side of the workstation, the finished copperware gleams with their hard work, ready to make their mark in the outside world.