As cheaper products are offering serious competition to the walnut wood carved products in Kashmir, the new generation is gradually repelling the inheritance that Kashmir loved for centuries, reports Tazeem Nazir
Kashmir’s exquisite walnut wood carving is facing tensions as the influx of similar products from Saharanpur in UP is filling the market. The artisans and craftsmen are struggling to compete as cheaper alternatives are increasingly flooding the market. This, however, is not the only crisis that Kashmir’s famed wood carving faces in the very open, unregulated market.
Ghulam Nabi Dar, a Srinagar artist has been carving wood for the last sixty years. Now, at the fag end of his life, he is concerned about the future of his inheritance.
“When I started learning this art, I was ten years old and was eager to learn,” Dar said. “Nowadays, the newer generation is not paying attention to this art, making me worried about the future of this art. I want to teach people, but no one is interested because learning this takes a lot of time, and people are impatient these days.”
Awarded by the state and central government for his outstanding work, Dar has represented India in different foreign countries to showcase his finest workmanship. His son, who has seen him his whole life carving wood, developed an interest and gradually learned this over time and finally received an award from the state government for one of his works of art.
Walnut wood carving is a delicate craft process that is unique and valued in Kashmir due to the availability of walnut trees. Kashmir, after all, is India’s only walnut basket. With an altitude of 5500–7500 feet above sea level, Kashmir is now among the few places in the world where walnut is still available. The wood is hard and durable, with even texture which helps in fine and detailed work. The value of the wood differs, with the wood from the root being the most expensive.
Off late, sections within the walnut sector assert that the wood is in short supply. They also insist that part of the walnut wood is smuggled out to feed certain craftsmen in Saharanpur. The shortage owes to the dwindling number of walnut trees that have aged.
The government is ceased of the matter. “Walnut wood carving is running in Kashmir,” Mahmood Ahmad Shah, Director of Handloom and Handicraft, said. “We export domestically and abroad as well and the turnover could be Rs 10 crore a year.”
Ahmad said the government is providing assistance to the stakeholders through different programmes such as financial assistance schemes, cooperative societies, and artisan credit cards. The department is also awarding deserving artists to encourage them and motivate others to keep up the art.
“We have started walnut GI tagging,” Ahmad said. “There are products from Saharanpur which are creating a problem for our products here. People are responsible for that because they are doing this by mixing these different artworks. We are making sure that such products are being seized. We are even running drives for this, but once we do the GI tagging, this will eventually eliminate.”
Besides, the government is running different centres where walnut wood carving is taught. “We are trying to keep it alive, and we need to connect the artisan with the buyer for that we need to work hard on the commerce platform,” Ahmad said. “We have even launched Karkhandaar scheme under which we want the karkhanas of these award-winning artists and other good artists to be declared as craft spaces, and we also provide trainers and trainees with a stipend of Rs 2500 per head.”
Despite all these efforts, the younger generation’s lack of interest in the art form remains a significant concern. The market is increasingly being flooded with cheaper and more readily available alternatives, leading to a dilution of the craft. Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom was the first person to introduce this art in Kashmir during the rule of Zainul Abideen in the fifteenth century.
Despite the challenges facing the sector, there are many top artisans who are dedicated to preserving this art form. One such artist is Bilal Ahmad, who is carrying on the legacy of his father and grandfather in the field of walnut wood carving. He believes that the younger generation can learn this art if they are taught in the right way.
“It is true that the younger generation is not showing much interest in learning this art. But I believe, if we can provide them with the right guidance and training, they will definitely show interest in it,” Bilal said. “Our art is unique and has a rich history behind it. We need to preserve it for future generations. I have been learning this art from my father and grandfather since I was a child. I have seen the dedication and hard work that goes into creating a single piece of art. It is not just a job, it is a passion that we need to keep alive.”
Bilal also emphasized the importance of supporting the artisans in this field, who are struggling to make ends meet due to the lack of demand for their products. He believes that the government should take more steps to promote this art form and provide better opportunities for the artisans.
“Walnut wood carving is not just an art form; it is a source of livelihood for many families in Kashmir. The artisans who are engaged in this field are facing a lot of challenges due to the lack of demand for their products,” Bilal said. “The government should take more steps to promote this art form and provide better opportunities for the artisans. They should also provide financial assistance and other incentives to the artisans to encourage them to continue with their work.”
Over the years, these passionate artisans have created their own legacies for the art. One section of these artists has emerged as world-class wood sculptors. They take a log of wood and carve out wonders from it. Some of these products are routinely displayed every time there is a handicraft exhibition. They work on a product for months to perfect it.
Challenges Not Distinct
The challenges facing the walnut wood carving industry in Kashmir are not unique to this art form alone. Many traditional art forms in India are facing similar challenges due to the lack of interest from the younger generation and the influx of cheaper products from other regions.
As Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom, the pioneer of walnut wood carving in Kashmir, once said, “The art of carving is a precious legacy; it is the mark of civilization, the embodiment of aesthetic sensibility, and the expression of artistic creativity.” It is up to us to ensure that this legacy is preserved for future generations. What is interesting about the handicrafts is that whatever designs one finds in Shawls also exist in wood carving. These include Dragon motifs and patterns taken from Kani and embroidered shawls.
Insiders in the sector suggest that a proper study needs to be carried out about the wood carving using walnut so that its capacity and spread are mapped. There are only three to four parameters that will help generate a SWOT analysis on the basis of which the management can be thought about.
“Primarily the raw material issues need to be located and it needs to be properly documented the yearly requirement of the timber,” one insider in the sector said. “We also need to know the number of artisans who are still in wood carving.” The other two factors that need to be investigated are the size of the sector by way of turnover and the percentage that is being managed by cheap imports. This all will help to make GI tagging a celebration.
Not many people know that the Saharanpur imports are mostly mechanically made with the least manual intervention. In the case of Kashmir, it is a complete reverse of it.