Survival on a prized craft

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Despite growing demands of Khatamband ceilings, not many artisans are eager to pass on the craft to their children. Surviving on the prized craft is not easy, they tell Majid Maqbool.

Khatamband is believed to be brought to Kashmir in 1541 by Mirza Hyder Douglat.

Khatamband is believed to be brought to Kashmir in 1541 by Mirza Hyder Douglat.

In a two storey house in Safakadal, Muhammad Shafi works in a small room where pieces of Fur wood are piled all around. Some chiselling tools and a few wood cutting machines also lie there. Shafi has been working for decades on thin panels of wood, carving small geometric and floral designs that fit into each other to form the Khatamband, that adorn the ceilings of countless homes, mosques and houseboats of Kashmir.

Shafi inherited the craft from his elders. His ancestors in Safakadal have been associated with Khatamband – a craft limited in Kashmir valley to Safakadal area of Srinagar and a few homes in Eidgah and Lalbazar, where some of the families later migrated.

Like Shafi, other Khatamband artisans, in small rooms of their modest homes in the narrow lanes of Safakadal, too have been working for decades on thin panels of fur wood, carefully cutting and joining them into various geometric designs. And despite rising costs of raw material and government indifference, the artisans of Safakadal have kept alive this traditional handicraft that came to Kashmir from central Asia, and developed unique designs in Kashmir.

“We don’t want this traditional handicraft to die like carpet weaving which is slowly dying. Only a few handicrafts like Khatamband are left in Kashmir and we have to preserve them,” says Shafi.

Khatamband is believed to be brought to Kashmir in 1541 by Mirza Hyder Douglat. Some say that Khatamband was brought to Kashmir during the 14th century by famous saint Shah-i-Hamdaan. Along with many followers, he is believed to have brought along the Khatamband artisans. These artisans then passed on this art to local Kashmiris. Khatamband work is entirely done with hands; however, over the years, use of machines has increased the efficiency and output of the artisans associated with this craft.

“New designs have come up over the years and use of machines has improved the woodwork. But most of the work is still done by hand,” says Shafi.

For a 100 sq feet ceiling, an ordinary design of Khatamband takes four people 15 days of work to complete. Shafi wants Khatamband ceilings, preferred by most of the elite households in Kashmir, to reach the poor classes as well. “Khatamband should reach to poor households too and not just the rich as it is a traditional woodwork of Kashmir meant for all people,” says Shafi.

Khatamband ceiling has long life and suits climatic conditions of the valley. “We have long winter here. So cement ceiling are not a good option as they cause many health problems,” says Shafi. “But Khatamband has many health benefits as it retains the heat during winter months and has a cooling effect during summer months.”

Few houses away from Shafi’s house, Muzzafar Ahmad works in a small second story of his house in Safakadal. He says Khatamband ceilings can be opened even after decades, and placed on another ceiling. “Even after 100 years you will find this woodwork undamaged. Rarely any nails are used to fix the Khatamband on ceilings, so it can be opened without damage,” he says. “The designs tell us where the nails are and we can open them easily.”

Over the years, Khatamband, besides being popular in Kashmiri households, has caught the attention of security forces posted in Kashmir valley, too. Khatamband artisans of Safakadal say that Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force and Army are getting Khatamband ceilings for their camps. “Khatamband is very popular in army and BSF camps. I have taken many orders for Khatamband ceilings in CRPF, BSF and Army camps,” says Muzzafar, who is presently working on a Khatamband for a BSF camp in Hyderpora. “In Badamibagh cantonment you will find Khatamband ceilings in most of the camps.”

Besides houses and houseboats, Khatamband decorates all major shrines and mosques across the valley. “It has been there for ages in various khankhas (shrines) and mosques. You will find this woodwork unaffected by time, and even today these Khatambands in shrines and mosques look new,” says an artisan from Safakadal.

Despite its demand and suitability to climate, a major worry for Khatamband artisans is the availability of raw material. The artisans say that raw material is not easily available to them. Plus Artisans allege that despite valid documents, police harasses them and extracts money for transport of timber.

“Raw material is a cause of concern for us as the wood is not auctioned, and we get the wood at higher rates from open market. It is not of good quality either,” says Shafi.

Khatamband artisans earlier acquired firewood and chose quality pieces out of it. However, that too has become scarce. The President of Khatamband Artisans’ Union Safakadal, Abdul Hameed Najar, says the government provides firewood quota for one year but it lasts only for only 2 months. For the uplift of this dying craft, the union president says, the government should provide loans on easy interest rates to Khatamband artisans.

“Government should provide us raw material at reasonable rates, which is Rs 350 per sq ft, but we have to buy it at Rs 750 per sft from the market which is costly for the artisans,” says the president of the Khatamband union. He says the government should approach the union directly for orders and not through middlemen as they don’t understand this craft.

With the result, elderly artisans in Safakadal, who have traditionally been associated with this craft, are reluctant to pass on this craft to their children. “Our elders have gone through difficult times and seen poverty in the past, and they don’t want their children to take up this craft and suffer like them,” says a young Khatamband artisan.
Muzaffar Ahmad has been working with Khatamband for the past 18 years. He says their families can’t survive on this craft alone. “We do other work during the day and in the afternoons we work on Khatambands as our families can’t survive on this work alone,” he says.

“We don’t get to earn much as we have to buy the raw material at higher rates,” says Muzzafar. “We get the wood for Rs 600-650 per sft which is costly for us. If we get the wood for Rs 300-350 per sft we will be able to earn and save some money as well,” he says.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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