Threads Of Discontent

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The traditional Kashmiri shawl is facing an alarming decline in demand due to convincing duplicates manufactured outside the state. Majid Maqbool explores the rich past and doubtful future of this traditional handicraft.

The market for indigenous, handmade Kashmiri shawls is shrinking. Duplicate shawls made in Amritsar are openly sold as original Kashmiri shawls in various showrooms across the valley and outside the state. The Kani shawl weavers, who have been associated with the Kani shawl weaving industry for centuries, say under such unjust market competition it is getting difficult for them to survive on this handicraft. They blame the government for sanctioning small factories where duplicate shawls are manufactured in machines brought from Amritsar and then sold at original rates in the market.

Ancient Art
The Kashmiri shawl had been in existence in a variety of forms from the most ancient times. It served as a staple and protective garment not only for the noble and the rich but also for the common people. “Many historians have extensively worked on Kashmiri Shawl, but the exact beginning of Kani Shawl industry is still doubtful,” says Sheikh Fayaz Ahmad, a research scholar from Center for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. “A document by Hajji Mukhtar Shah, whose ancestors began working in the shawl trade in the 17th century, links Kashmiri Shawl to Mirza Haider Duglat in 1540,” he points out. According to Mukhtar, says Fayaz, it was under the guidance of Haider’s faithful adherent and cook, Naghz Beg, who actually introduced the technique of Kani shawl weaving in Kashmir. “Following Beg’s death the local shawl weavers continued developing this Kani Shawl industry in Kashmir,” says Fayaz.

Fayaz, who has been researching about various issues concerning Kashmir’s shawl industry, says Kani Shawl is made by a unique style of weaving shawls. “This was actually the ingenuity of the local artisans of Kashmir who over a period of time developed this technique of weaving using bobbins,” he says. “The local artisans also developed a unique style of protecting this intellect, and they call it ‘Taleem’.”

Forces of Destruction

Fayaz believes many invisible and visible hands, over a period of time, have tried to destroy the Kashmiri shawl industry. “The western travellers, who documented this technique of weaving, sold that information to the people in the west, as a result of which Paisley, Norwish , France, Japan, UK started imitating our shawls using power looms,” he says. For example, a Paisley shawl, he says, is on sale in the National Museum of India, and it has a ‘MADE IN THE FACTORIES OF KASHMIR’ tag on it. “Where are the factories of Paisley in Kashmir?” he asks. “And look how the imitated shawls are being sold in the places like National Museum, which should reflect the cultural and traditional history, and not be used to destroy it,” he adds.

In a research paper titled, Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000, published in the Journal of World History, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), Michele Maskiell, a researcher from Montana State University, says European and American art historians constructed a “rise and fall” narrative about Kashmiri shawls in which both their production and their consumption were driven by European fashion demands and design trends. “This narrative overestimated the importance of European consumption, and underestimated the importance of colonialism for the shawls’ procurement and the appropriation of their characteristic design,” she writes in the conclusion of her paper.

“I argue instead that political and economic conditions in Kashmir and Asia were critical for Kashmiri shawl production, and that European fashion was only one of the demand factors relevant for a nineteenth-century change,” she writes. Anglophone economic historians, she points out in the conclusion, “have superimposed the history of European imitation textiles imagined as “industrial progress” over the history of Kashmiri production imagined as the “traditional” defeated by the “modern.”

“The story started when eighteenth-century European traders “discovered” Kashmiri shawls marked by a characteristic woven design, a teardrop with a bent tip,” the paper quotes. “This design, the buta (or boteh, literally “flower”) inspired one of the most often repeated Western textile motifs, commonly known today as the “paisley” in the United States and Canada,” the paper says. “Technological invention and design innovation made the nineteenth-century machine-made shawls competitive with Kashmiri shawls and intensified the degeneration of authentic Kashmiri designs and weaving techniques caused by European influences,” Michele writes in the paper.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, she mentions in the research paper, the Scottish town of Paisley, near Glasgow, became famous for its imitation of Kashmiri shawls with the buta motif, and, after about 1850, many English speakers started to use the town’s name to describe any shawl with this design. “Around 1870, according to this story, European fashion changes and political events ended the demand,” the paper quotes.

Duplication Effect

On the outskirts of Srinagar, in Kanihama, Batpora, and Manzhama villages, the majority of people are associated with Kani Shawl weaving work. Weavers work on multiple looms placed inside houses. The Kani shawl weavers in these villages say that the duplicate shawls are first made in Amritsar, and are then sold in Kashmir showrooms in the name of original Kani shawls. The shawl weavers say there are around 10 showrooms from Kanihama to Tangmarg alone that openly sell duplicate Kashmiri shawls, including the Pashmina shawls.

“They buy these Amritsar made duplicate shawls for around Rs 20,000, and then they sell it for Rs 40,000, which benefits them,” says Bashir Ahmad, a Kani shawl weaver in Kanihama. “Most of the times the customers who come from outside the state can’t tell the difference between a handmade Kani shawl and a machine made the shawl as the design is copied on machine-made shawl so that it looks like the original,” he says.

Because of availability of low-cost Amritsar made shawls sold in the showrooms across the valley, the weavers say the cost of original, hand-made Kani shawls has come down in the market. This has affected their business. “Earlier, we would sell a single handmade Kani shawl at around Rs 80,000, but since the Amritsar machine made shawls started coming in the market, we hardly sell the original shawl for Rs 45,000 these days,” says one Kani shawl weaver.

The Kani shawl weavers in Kanihama say people who were traditionally associated with this handicraft sector are now looking for alternate means to earn a living. The availability of Amritsar made shawls in the valley has adversely affected their business. “Many people are leaving this shawl weaving work, and the youth are no longer interested in taking up this craft,” says one shawl weaver. “Many prefer to work as labourers than taking up this craft,” he says.

Government Apathy
The shawl weavers want the government to impose an immediate ban on the import of Amritsar made shawls in the Kashmir market. “The government has the worst policy towards handicrafts sector,” says one disgruntled shawl weaver in Kanihama. “The government gives loans to societies which are inactive, and the funds don’t reach the weavers,” he says.

“They give a loan to the weavers only on the condition of getting two government employees as guarantors,” says another weaver who applied for a loan some years back, but couldn’t get any guarantor. “How can poor weavers get two government employees as guarantors?” he asks.

The people associated with Kani shawl weaving say over the past few years, influential people have been getting government sanction to bring machines from Amritsar. They’re then allowed to make duplicate Kani Shawls in small factories in the valley. This has decreased the demand for original Kashmiri shawls in the market.

“Even in Delhi, some Kashmiris sell Amritsar-made shawls now. They tell the customers there that it’s an original handmade Kani shawl,” says one weaver in Kanihama. “If they are there for six months, ninety per cent of shawls they sell there are duplicate shawls made in Amritsar, and only 10 per cent is the original stuff from Kashmir,” he says.

Last year, one showroom in the valley must have sold Amritsar-made shawls worth 1 crore at the expense of our handmade Kani shawls, says another shawl weaver from Kanihama. The shawl weavers say if the government supports their industry and provides them with easy loans, the shawl industry can even generate employment for the jobless youth in Kashmir. “But the government doesn’t want the unemployment to end here,” says one weaver. “They want people to be entirely dependent on them,” he adds.

Outsourced
The past two decades of conflict also had an impact on the Kashmiri Shawl industry. However, after 1996, the weavers say the Kani shawl business again picked up and thrived till 2005. “But since the Amritsar-made shawl came in the market, it again destroyed this trade and adversely affected our livelihood,” says one weaver.

“The government here gives sanction to some influential and rich businessmen for opening factories where duplicate Ari, Sozni and Kani shawls are made from machines brought from Amritsar,” says another weaver. “And even in these factories, they employ people from Bihar and Amritsar as only they can operate these machines,” he adds. In the past five years, he claims, around a thousand such small factories must have come up in the valley where duplicate Kani and other varieties of Kashmiri Shawls are made by machine work.

Fayaz Ahmad Dar, a Kani Shawl weaver from Batpora, where more than 200 families are associated with shawl weaving, says in the past they would even sell a single Kani shawl at the selling price of Rs 80,000 to 90,000. But the arrival of machine-made shawls made in Amritsar resulted in the market loss for original handmade Kashmiri Kani shawls. “Ten years back we would sell one Kani shawl at Rs 70,000, but now we can hardly sell one shawl at Rs 45,000,” says Dar. He says if the duplicate Kani shawls made in Amritsar continue to be sold in Kashmir for the next three more years, the handmade Kani shawls will lose their market, and the weavers will be forced to leave this craft for good.

Fayaz blames the government of the J&K state for the downfall of Kashmiri shawl industry. “They have set up many useless schemes, which are totally irrelevant,” he says. “This industry should be democratized, and the monopoly of the exports should be destroyed and the ownership issues in this industry needs to be resolved,” he suggests.

“Imagine a weaver getting 900 bucks for a Pashmina shawl and the exporter sells the same shawl for RS 20,000 bucks,” Fayaz points at the disparity. “How do you expect the shawl weaver to continue in this business under such unjust conditions?” he asks.

He says the third party, which is the exporter, has also destroyed the Shawl industry. “In Kashmir, they sell Amritsar made Pashmina shawls,” says Fayaz, adding that some people export fake Amritsar made Pashmina shawls to foreign markets as well. “The wool weavers get in the market is not original,” he points out. “It carries rabbit wool, but the government is least bothered to look into these things.”

In 2006, the Craft Development Institute, Srinagar, managed a ‘geographical indication’ for the Kani Shawl. “But again this is of no use. It’s a useless document,” says Fayaz. He says there’s a need to demystify this whole technique and have strong protection for the intellectual property rights. “Weavers need to be empowered,” suggests Fayaz. “There is the scope of traditional innovations and we can modernize this industry on more scientific lines without affecting the traditional style,” he says.

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