Ever since the Mughals vanquished Kashmir, Pheran has survived as part of Kashmir’s identity. Now it is a grand mix of Amritsari woollens, Bengali stitching and Bihari embroidery. But they have succeeded in bringing the classic cloak back into fashion. Shams Irfan reports the dwindling fortunes of Kashmiri’s most recognized attire that is on its way to revival.
The story of Kashmir’s traditional attire Pheran is as interesting as its history. While some historians trace its origin back to the Mughal period (1556-1605), others find its striking resemblance with the Tajikistani gown Perahan.
But local historians believe that the Kashmiri Pheran got its name from the Iranian Perahan. Given the history of human resources and cultural exchanges between Iran and Kashmir, this local narrative finds more takers. One can still find remnants of Iranian cultural influence in parts of Kashmiri life. Pheran, no exception!
But over the years, like most of the arts and crafts that find their origin in Iran, Pheran too faded in the din of modernity.
The rise and fall of Pheran from the Kashmiri cultural scene happened slowly. From a simple piece of dress that was used to keep people warm during harsh winters to a fashion statement and then back to darkness, Pheran witnessed it all.
According to popular legends that still find takers in the countryside, the colour and designs of a lady’s Pheran doubles as an economic indicator of the wearer.
With Pheran losing its popularity and demand, the people associated with its making were forced to find alternative sources of income.
At the turn of the millennium, like all other cultural symbols, Pheran too faced survival threats from the people who once adored its hues and paisley necks.
As Kashmiris were busy writing its epithet, Basharat Hussain Khan, a small-time cloth merchant who owns KS Selections at historic Maharaja Bazaar, was experimenting with Pheran’s traditional look to whisper a new life into it.
In 2002, thirty-three-year-old Basharat set out to find people associated with the making of Pheran to give shape to his revived designs.
After spending some three months in the process of finding the right people, Basharat was shocked to learn that the chain of artisans that go into the making of a Pheran is broken forever. Ironically, the making of a Pheran was no longer an all-Kashmiri affair. It was mostly taken over by non-native artisans who readily filled the gap left by disillusioned locals.
After painstakingly rejoining the dots and fitting the missing links, Basharat ordered 600 Pherans for his shop. “It was a huge gamble for a businessman of my level. But I wanted to revive our identity,” says Basharat while sitting amidst a huge heap of colourful Pherans at his first-floor shop in Maharaja Bazaar. “I was pained to see how people have singled out Pheran from the local fashion scene,” he says.
Basharat left his studies at an early age to earn his living by selling fancy clothes in 1995 from a rented shop. “Earlier there were Pherans with strip-sized embroidery on the neck and sleeves available in the market. They were made of very ordinary cloth. I reintroduced locally procured materials like worsted wool and quality tweed into its making. And it became an instant hit,” says Basharat.
Within days Basharat was flooded with orders from different corners of the valley. Everybody wanted a piece of his innovation. His shop was now a known address. “I sold all 600 pieces within a few days. But then I didn’t order more as it earned me less profit,” says Basharat.
Next year Basharat ordered raw material from Amritsar for the Pherans as costly local worsted wool eats into his share of the profit.
With an almost negligible number of Kashmiris associated with the making of Pherans, Basharat pinned his hopes on non-local artisans who flooded the valley in the last two decades looking for work.
After procuring raw material from outside Basharat sends it to a local tailor who cuts the cloth into shape. “It comes back half stitched,” says Basharat.
Then it is sent to a Naqash whose job is to mark out the areas where embroidery would be done. “Thankfully there are still local Naqashes associated with the trade,” says Basharat. From there it goes for the embroidery. Traditionally embroidery was done by the natives who knew the design and colours preferred by the locals. But this part of the Pheran making has been completely taken over by artisans from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal.
There are around 50 small factories in Srinagar which employ non-local embroidery artists for the making of Pheran before the onset of winter. “They come here as casual labourers but being fast learners they fit in any trade easily. I know people who came here as barbers and ended up being embroidery artists,” says Basharat.
In 2013, Basharat sold around 6 thousand Pherans to retailers across the valley. “My Pheran starts from just rupees 600 and ends at 1100. But if you want a sophisticated designer Pheran then the sky is the limit,” says Basharat.
It is a quarter past nine and nineteen-year-old Dildaar Hussain is still working. He is yet to finish his day’s quota of embroidering five Pherans before he would be allowed to leave. Dildaar, who hails from Shikarpur village in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal, earns his living by working as an embroidery artist in a small factory located on the outskirts of Srinagar city.
For Dildaar and his co-workers, mostly from Shikarpur village, the day begins at half past eight in the morning and ends only when they are done with their quota of work. There are no set timings. No separate rosters for winters. Just bare walls and noisy machines to keep them company during their long shifts, stretching up to as long as 13 hours.
The factory, which is owned by a local, is housed in a three-story building outside Srinagar city. A small tin gate opens into a narrow waterlogged alley that leads to a staircase. One has to find his way in the darkness. The ground floor houses workers like Dildaar from West Bengal and Bihar. On the first floor, Dildaar works in one of the three rooms called workshop or factory by its employees and owners. Each room has nine embroidery machines pressed against each other for lack of space. In a corner, a huge speaker plays Bengali and Bhojpuri songs alternatively. The man sitting near the stereo doubles as a DJ. Each change of song is followed by a round of whistles and applause. Just behind the DJ sits Dildaar. On top of Dildaar’s head, a 10-watt fluorescent power saver lamp glows like a watchman keeping tabs on his work.
Dildaar, who has been spending nearly nine months every year in Kashmir for the last six years, is an expert in mixing different colourful threads in a design. Dildaar’s journey with colours is as interesting as the journey of a Kashmiri Pheran.
Before coming to Kashmir Dildaar worked as casual labour with a local rice mill located outside his village. Though it didn’t earn him much Dildaar was happy to contribute and help his father feed a family of seven. “Being the eldest sibling I was forced to earn from a very young age,” remembers Dildaar.
He must have been barely ten when he picked the first sack full of rice on his back. But drought and lack of a job guarantee forced him to take his first cousin’s offer and travel to an unknown place called Kashmir.
“I had never heard about Kashmir before I came here. Never ever,” remembers Dildaar with a learned person look on his face.
On his arrival, Dildaar was surprised to discover a mini West Bengal in almost every corner of Srinagar city. There were familiar faces all around. And a lot of work too. After switching between a few odd jobs like carpentry, plumbing, tailoring, etc. Dildaar finally settled to embroidery. Without wasting much time Dildaar started learning the intricacies of design and colour. “It took me six months to learn the art of creating perfect paisley (traditional Kashmiri almond) design,” says Dildaar gleefully.
Dilshad says that there are at least 30 youngsters from his village who earn their livelihood by working as embroidery artists and at the same time work as tailors for local traders. “There are many other guys who are exclusively working as tailors with a speciality in Pherans,” says Dilshad. “Making a Pheran from end to end is not a big deal. If I can learn Kashmiri embroidery then nothing is impossible.”
In the heart of Srinagar city, near 14th century-historic Aali Masjid built by Sultan Sikander, a narrow dirt road makes its way into a congested alley. The small alley with haphazard concrete structures pressed against each other house people from Bihar. It is like a city within a city. One can hear people talk loudly in accented native languages. It is a melange of colours and voices.
In a corner, on the first floor of a rundown building which one can access by climbing a dark staircase only, Mohammad Shakeel who hails from the Purniya district in Bihar is sitting behind a machine hidden by a heap of half-stitched Pherans.
He moves his fingers along the needle on the impression lines designed by a Naqash. It is his fifth Pheran since morning. Shakeel was barely out of his teens when he first arrived in Kashmir some five years back with one of his uncles to work as a labourer on a construction site.
But after working tirelessly for about a year he was not able to save much for his family. “I switched over to embroidery as it pays you more and work is relatively decent,” says Shakeel without taking his eyes off the piece of cloth he is working on.
Before taking up embroidery Shakeel has never heard about Pheran. “I am still confused about how people manage to walk in such a dress,” says Shakeel.
During his 12 hours long shift Shakeel manages to work on at least five Pherans. Each Pheran earns him rupees 80. Shakeel is content for the time being with what he is earning but wants to extend his expertise now.
“I want to learn the complete art of making a Pheran. From end to end including Naqashi,” says Shakeel optimistically.
In the last five years, six members of Shakeel’s family joined him in Kashmir’s mini Bihar as embroidery artist. “There is no job back home. Here at least we can earn and save as well,” says Shakeel.
With natives completely cutting themselves off from the age-old art of making Pherans with localised designs, people like Dilshad and Shakeel see a ray of hope for themselves.
But there are people like Basharat who by their small intervention are trying hard to revive the lost art. It will take a while to bring Pheran back to popular fashion. Till then we have to rely on outside help to keep our traditions alive.
Though Basharat is enjoying the money and attention that the revival of Pheran has bought for him, there is still an element of fear that looms large on his face. “Unless Kashmiris don’t engage in the Pheran making it cannot last long on borrowed oxygen,” says Basharat. “Revival means artists reengage themselves for the sake of our past.”