Every ancient civilization is identified—among other things—by the ornaments that would adorn the bodies of women and men who lived in that period. The prosperity (or otherwise) of a civilization could be established from the quality of material or metal used in the making of traditional jewelry or from the sheer amount of jewelry that people–especially royalty—would wear. These traits have disappeared, but not completely. Even today, one can spot Marathi women sporting a Nath or nose pin and Telugu (Andhra) women, the Bichhua or toe ring that signifies that the woman is married; much like the Mangal sutra.

Kashmiri Pandit women have held on steadfastly to the Dejjehour, the long earring that immediately sets a married Kashmiri Pandit woman apart. The Dejjehour is probably the only element of Kashmiri jewelry that has survived the influx of ‘Saudi’ or ‘Rajasthani’ designs that have come to dominate our local jewelry market. Interestingly, however, in Pakistan, traditional Kashmiri designs have not been abandoned completely. In fact, the wedding couture of some women is still inspired by traditional elements of Kashmiri jewelry especially the Kasaba or headgear unlike on this side of the border where it is only a part of fantasy!

The representation of Kashmir, as Ananya Jahanara Kabir explains in her very authentic book Territory of Desire, has been limited to the overly ornamental counterparts of the more wearable or the more authentic versions that “stay home”. Take the case of Pheran- the highly presentable, ornamental velvet pherans with high quality tila work are never worn at home except on events like weddings. The pheran that “stays home” is rarely, if ever, depicted. Same is the case with Kangri- the ornamental and the authentic, the cuisine- wazwan and haakh-batte, shikara- the highly-decorated tourist version and the plain boats that actually ferry passengers and goods. Such representation of Kashmir, Ananya explains, has turned Kashmir into something very desirable and ornamental- common people’s lives are ignored in such representations.

It is quite obvious that today’s women would not want to wear heavy robes and silver jewelry or walk about with a flower pot in their hand—but that is what Kashmiri jewelry has come to mean for a vast majority of people. For a long time, I would look contemptuously at one such photograph of myself that my parents got taken when I was barely eight- heavy, rustic jewelry worn over an ugly long robe with a silly flower pot in my hand! Growing up to find the same jewelry that I used to detest beautiful was unusual- but I did find it attractive and wearable.  Finding a certain kind of jewelry beautiful is a matter of preference. One does not necessarily have to like Kashmiri jewelry just because they’re Kashmiri. The real tragedy, however, is that a vast majority of us are not even aware of the basic elements that constitute or characterize Kashmiri jewelry.

The assumption that all things non-Kashmiri are superior has probably led us into believing that Kashmiri jewelry—even if carefully refined and revived—will not find takers! We’re not really proud of being Kashmiri- we’re only proud residents of what Ananya calls a “Territory of Desire”. We have abandoned our traditional jewelry items, not cared to have them adapted to modern taste (it is another thing that our “modernization” has been largely superficial rather than real). The sad irony is that we even ask for “ethnic” jewelry designs of other ethnicities but not our own.

I see no reason why a heavy Kashmiri silver pendant cannot be made with finer metal and in lighter, more wearable variations of classic metals like gold or the more hip oxidized gold. I see no reason why Kashmiri jewelry cannot be projected as a genre despite the overwhelming, even unfair, representation of Kashmir through its “objects of desire”.  India is a huge market and Kashmir is highly marketable! However, there have been little or no attempts to revive and innovate upon the already existing Kashmiri designs, and market them as mainstream jewelry that women (Kashmiri or non-Kashmiri) would want to wear at their wedding—and not just what tourists would wear while posing for a photograph.

Shehla Rashid is a Kashmiri, a woman and a researcher/writer in that order. Contact: shehlarashid.com


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