Everybody in the family thought he is overqualified to be a carpet weaver. But this fine arts student was dreaming of a revolution in the industry. Syed Asma visits him to see some of his latest creations
At first glance both Shahnawaz Ahmad Sofi, 32, and his creations, including a Quranic calligraphy of Bismillah e Rahmani Raheem (In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful), sailing in a half moon, looking like a boat with a few rays of light falling over it, might look ordinary. But one close look and you instantly understand there is something special about the artist and his creation.
Instead of using paper Shahnawaz has woven his artwork in different colour schemes, on a handloom, using silk and cotton threads. This is one of the many wall hangings that Shahnawaz has made using the technique of weaving a silk carpet.
Shahnawaz, after graduating from School of Fine Arts and Music in Rajbagh, instead of looking for a government job, decided to join his father to practice the art of weaving carpets. “My father never wanted me to join this profession. He feels that I am overqualified to be a carpet weaver,” says Shahnawaz with a smile.
Shahnawaz’s father Ghulam Mohammed Sofi, who is weaving carpets since more than fifty years, has passed on his inherited art to his three sons. Shahnawaz is Sofi’s fourth son. “He is the most qualified person in our family. I wanted him to choose a different line. That is why I didn’t teach him what my father has taught me,” says Shahnawaz’s father Sofi.
But after learning about his sons creative leanings Sofi let Shahnawaz join him at his workshop.
“He is a born artist. He is drawing sketches, paintings and making art works since childhood,” said Sofi as he sits in front of a piece of art created by Shahnawaz during his college days.
Pointing towards his son’s latest creation: a wicker wood Bismillah e Rahmani Raheem, Sofi asks “What is usually made from wicker wood…baskets, chairs or tables?” And then proudly adds, “See what my son has made.”
Sofi says that he is not surprised to see him use innovative techniques in carpet designing and weaving. “He is a gifted artist.”
However, despite his talent and eye for art, Shahnawaz is not able to find a favourable market for his innovations so far. “Since last 15 years I am working on carpet weaving techniques. But there are hardly any takers.” But Shahnawaz, who took no formal training in carpet weaving, is not disappointed.
The first innovation that Shahnawaz attempted was to convert old pictures and paintings of Kashmir into silk woven wall hangings. He calls it “tone-on-tone wall hangings”. The colour scheme used is different than the usual. It uses two or three shades of a same colour.
Explaining the complexity of this piece of art Shahnawaz says though its taleem [language of carpet weaving] is same as a usual carpet’s but less number of colours and different tones make the job of a weaver difficult. He has to understand the colour scheme well.
With more than 100 looms and a workforce of hundreds of artisans spread across Kashmir, Sofi family is one of the carpet manufacturers in Kashmir. “My family has allotted 12 senior artisans to me for my work,” says Shahnawaz.
But tone-on-tone wall hangings are among his simplest creations. “I want to revive market for Kashmiri handicrafts in the world. Besides, maintaining best quality, innovations would play a significant part,” opines Shahnawaz.
Fulfilling his aspirations, he attempted to introduce depth and different textures while weaving the carpet.
Currently Shahnawaz and his team of twelve artisans are working on a project where they will weave ninety nine names of Allah using silk and cotton threads. The first sample was created by Shahnawaz. “I teach them the techniques of creating depth and different textures while weaving a piece of art.”
The normal technique used while weaving a carpet or a wall hanging on a loom is piling but by using depth and texture he has introduced a new factor which gives it a 3D (three dimensional) look.
While adding the texture, Shahnawaz mostly uses cotton and Zari (Tila) threads instead of silk which gives softness to the woven carpet or wall hanging. However, cotton and Zari gives stiffness and does not get shrunken even after repeated washing.
His third and most important innovation, which will help increasing the worth of his piece of arts in the market, is the improvised handloom. This improvised handloom can weave a double sided wall hanging, having two faces – one coloured and other black-and-white.
But what worries Shahnawaz and his family is the deteriorated quality of the raw material. Earlier the raw material purchased from Bangalore was of superior quality and was exclusively sent to Kashmir for weaving carpets, says Rafiq Ahmed Sofi, Shahnawaz’s older brother. But now its residue is sent to Kashmir, which has earned us a bad name in the market, mostly in Middle East.
Rafiq is in the craft for more than 30 years now. He says the silk factories in Bangalore prefer to spin the superior silk into fibre rather than weave it into a carpet. Fibre would be fetching them better, he opines.
Rafiq, a trained carpet weaver, handles market for his family. He too has learnt new technique from Shahnawaz.
The main earning of the family comes from the traditional silk carpets [floor] woven across Kashmir. They have their customer base in the Middle East.
After completing his self-created assignments of weaving old picture of Kashmir and ninety-nine names of Allah with silk, cotton and Zari threads, Shahnawaz is thinking of opening an art gallery where all these pieces would be displayed. “The art gallery will attract international attention through media and tourists. But the project without government’s help is impossible.”
Shahnawaz believes if his creation gets good response from the market it will help weavers a great deal. “I will help them earn good money in a short span of time.”
Shahnawaz, who is creating new designs since 2000, is now working overtime in order to launch his products in the market. “I am working under a deadline,” he says with a smile.
It is his brother Rafiq who has given him an ultimatum to finish all the assignments and sell them in the market. “I don’t want him ruin his career. It is sad that we (locals including the government) don’t have an eye for art. We don’t respect artists,” says Rafiq.
Ironically, in last 15 years Shahnawaz could sell only two of his pieces. “It at times discourages him. I hope the government recognizes his talent and helps him. Else he will be lost among hundreds of craftsmen who carve for identity,” says Rafiq.