With Srinagar finally joining UNESCO’s 50-city global creative network for ‘craft and folk art’, the real challenges for the policymakers and stakeholders is to discover ways and means for reviving Cashmere’s golden era when Paris and London would wait for Srinagar consignments to make its fashion statement, writes Masood Hussain
For months Kashmir never had “good news”. For a moment, this changed with the November 8, 2021 tweet of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. “Delighted that beautiful Srinagar joins the @UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) with a special mention for its craft and folk art. It is a fitting recognition for the vibrant cultural ethos of Srinagar. Congratulations to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”
The newsbreak coincided with a noted Kashmir artisan, Ghulam Rasool Khan getting the Padma Shree for reviving the age-old craft speciality of Jamawar patchwork art. In fact, the Prime Minister met him personally after the award ceremony.
Overnight, everybody was keen to be part of the story. There were a series of news briefings by many officials at different levels to celebrate Srinagar’s yet another distinction. It took some time for people to understand that so many people talking on the subject had nothing to do with what happened. But success, as everybody knows has many fathers.
Srinagar city was added in the UNESCO listing of creative city network (UCCN) under the craft and folk art category. There are only 50 cities across the world listed by the UN body under the craft and folk art category. The nearest and the only one in India is Jaipur.
Launched in 2004, the UCCN is aimed at promoting cooperation with and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. By joining the Network, the key UNESCO document said the cities commit to sharing their best practices and developing partnerships involving the public and private sectors as well as a civil society so that creation, production, and distribution systems are strengthened; hubs of creativity and innovation evolve and broaden opportunities for professionals in the cultural sector; and “improve access to and participation in cultural life, in particular for marginalized or vulnerable groups and individuals.” The entire process is linked with the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“Srinagar deserved this recognition and honesty speaking, it came quite late,” Mahmood A Shah, Director Handicrafts, Kashmir said. “In a less than 300 sq kilometre space, you have a basket of 21 crafts, and mostly indigenous with no or less competition from anywhere in the world. This diversity should have been accepted much earlier but better late than never.”
Jammu and Kashmir actually started late to get into the listing. In 2018, the first attempt was made under the restoration and strengthening of the livelihoods component of the World Bank-funded Jhelum Tawi Flood Recovery Project (JTFRP). The government hired INTACH-Drona JV for drafting the dossier, the basic document by filling a detailed application form. It failed to impress the Paris based UN body.
Nothing much happened on this front in the Covid19 era. Some officials at different levels with the active knowledge backup from the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of INTACH revived the process in early 2021. The dossier was readied and submitted to the Culture Ministry in Delhi. Apart from Srinagar, those submitting the dossiers included Kolkata, Indore and Gwalior (MP). The ministry rejected the case of West Bengal capital and Indore and forwarded Srinagar and Gwalior to the UN Body where Srinagar somehow survived the scrutiny.
With almost 1500 years of uninterrupted recorded history, Srinagar wears many badges of significance but it always has been the fine handcraft that defined its identity. For many decades, Kashmir was literally being referred to as Cashmere, for the wool it traditionally processes to sustain its craft basket. Its motif paisley is globally recognised for centuries now.
The diversity of the jobs that the handicrafts have historically generated were the key for naming various city habitations. Most of them retain those names still, even though residents shifted their livelihood priorities. A lot of family castes are their professional attributes in the handicraft sector.
This helped Kashmir retain its interest globally. Even at the peak of its worst situation under the Sikh and Dogra slavery, Srinagar was dictating the fashion trends in Paris and London and was dominating the trade owing to its strategic location of Shahra-ie-Abreesham (Silk Route).
The wealth generated by the handicrafts was a consideration for invasions and control. But not everyone fleeced Kashmir. The sector witnessed royal patronage in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries following which the Mughals re-organized the crafts and established royal karkhanas (industries). The decline was set by the exploitation during Afghan, Sikh and Dogra misrule.
The craft, however, has not died. In a more than a million population (excluding the floating population of soldiers, visitors and seasonal workers) of Srinagar, the city’s handicraft industry has 39506 registered artisans – around 63 per cent of them are women. Though bulk of artisans is in Kashmir periphery as well, the hub of raw material and market continues to be in Srinagar. Owing to the adverse market conditions, the net sales in the last three years have not crossed Rs 1000 crore and the Covid19 had surged the inventory to a historic high level.
Srinagar’s handicraft basket is big but 10 of them are chief and seven of those crafts – best representing the creative spirit of the city, have already bagged the Geographical Indication (GI) recognition. Handicrafts contribute almost eight per cent to Kashmir’s gross domestic product, an income that has remained subservient to the fragile situation and political uncertainty prevailing in the region.
In financial terms, Srinagar’s entry into the list might mean nothing directly but the rare recognition of a heritage sector opens a whole new world for Kashmir, according to M Salim Beg, whose contribution in dossier-preparation was fundamental. “We need to capitalise on this status and move crafts to the next level.”
Beg said that when the Himayun tomb was added to the world heritage sites network, most of its earnings, taken by the ASI, was around one crore rupees a year. Mere listing took the income to Rs 10 crore, he said. “This is how the listing by global bodies helps spaces to improve.”
Though the status will not alter or evaporate, Beg said the UNESCO will continue monitoring things on a long term basis. “That is where the civil society and the policymakers will have to seriously think about how to follow it up.”
“It just is not a medal count, the status is an opportunity” Beg insisted. “If we have to capitalise on this, we have to be part of the wider handicraft network with UCCN, have a clear SWOT analysis of the sector and identify the weaknesses and look towards taking the craft to a level that has global acceptability. This all would require a policy intervention after taking the stakeholders and civil society on board.”
Shah said one of the indirect benefits will come to the tourism sector. “Earlier, we used to market the physical attributes of Kashmir to market the valley, now we have crafts as a standalone idea to improve the footfalls,” Shah, who earlier headed the tourism department, said.
Kashmir’s handicraft sector will have to have long and short term well-defined goals. Those can be identified after proper interactions between government, civil society and the stakeholders. In the short term, there is a lot of low hanging fruit that could be quickly managed to give the sector a confidence boost.
Restore Artisan Dignity
Fighting an unjust system since the Afghan era on one side and a harsh social stratification on the other hand for generations, the Kashmir artisan is reduced to a tool in many hands. This has triggered a crisis within as a result of which a huge population from the handicraft background have migrated to other fields. This has left Kashmir with fewer artisans and quite a few master craftsmen.
As the white colour job continues to top the priority career choices, only people lacking the means to get these jobs are left in the craft sector. The inferiority complex enforced by society in this sector is a major negative investment.
Admitting the crisis, Mahmood Shah says the lack of glorification of the artisan is a key deficit that would be managed by telling their stories. The question, however, remains if somebody’s craft and skills are celebrated, will it help him manage his hearth properly? Skills die for the lack of earnings and not by the negativity that society generates around it alone. Kashmir has more handicraft traders than artisans. Society and policymakers may have to explore ways and means of undoing this.
The handicrafts department has already fixed the minimum price in case of certain products. These measures need to be enforced now.
Under the UCCN network, the government should consider sending artisan delegations to place were identical products are being made. This could help elevate the artisan status.
Massive demand and limited supply of Kashmir shawls in Europe was the key to the invention of the Jacquard loom in 1804. Slightly more than 200 years now, the machine is threatening the real handicrafts now in Kashmir.
With multiple institutions and technologies available, the identification of the original handicraft must be a priority. Shah said the process is already initiated. “Till recently, we were issuing 500 GI tags in handicrafts from Craft Development Institute (CDI),” Mehmood said. “Now it is 500 pieces a month and growing.” There is some incentive for exporters if their products carry GI tags.
Insisting that quality control is the key, Mehmood said they are planning to introduce machine-readable QR codes for better quality control.
While this all is happening, the policymakers and the society need to keep one thing in mind that Kashmir, at any point in time, would lack the capacity to manage the entire demand for Kashmir handicrafts. This was an issue in Afghan rule as it is today. Kashmir handicrafts must retain their originality and the costs would spiral up, automatically.
For the mass market, however, Kashmir may not be able to give all the space to Amritsar that built its “Kashmir textile’ sector on basis of mass migration that draughts and exploitations triggered at the peak of the Sikh and Dogra era. There has to be a clear distinction between the two products and a policy framework that will not impact the main market. Imitations have been a reality of Kashmir handicrafts for a long time now but the tragedy of Kashmir was that it never had any role either in its production or the marketing.
At the same time, Kashmir’s juggad brigade – the innovators need to be involved in improving the tools that are required in handicrafts. Any tool that will speed up the process and perfect the weave would add to the changing world. Already the traditional Kashmir Yiender, the wheel has been innovated but it needs to be popularised. Many in the handicraft sector insist that reviving the yiender is key to the revival process of the traditional crafts that continue to be dominated by the shawl.
When the French and other European and Central Asian traders were spending their summers in Srinagar waiting for artisans to deliver their orders, they usually would come with the trend-setting designs the market was looking for. It remained unchanged for a long time. Now with IT, these trends can pass political barriers in seconds.
Off late, Kashmir has changed the way it creates its handicrafts. There is a better colour combination and most colours are organic and vegetable-based. The biggest intervention came with Ishfaq’s taleem software. The tension, however, still remains about the exact guidance that artisans require in managing the key markets of Kashmir handicrafts.
Will the government put out the newer design advisories on regular basis or it will take the route of institutional set-up to incubate and innovate? Early decision-making is a must.
Twenty-first-century marketing is very different. If a client makes a costly purchase, it needs to have a brochure detailing the making of it. If Kashmir does it for jams and pickles, why not carpets? Why not copy Isfahan, also having this UNESCO tag, for carpets? Kashmir handicraft items are hardly consumed in a generation. These are eventually inherited generations for a long time. It is high time to create a model and help people replicate it. CDI is the best place to initiate the intervention.
Jammu and Kashmir had set up a School of Design in 1957 along with a Craft Museum. Now it has CDI and a centre of Indian Institute of Carpet Technology (IICT). All these institutions make contributions in their own way but the requirement is to help them integrate their process for a quick yield.
Get Artisans Online
The Jammu and Kashmir government has started working with Amazon and Flipkart for handicraft marketing. While it is all right for a start, the policymakers must think on a long term basis that Kashmir handicrafts are an exclusive sphere that must have a distinct space. For machine-made Kashmir products, these mass-marketing sites would be all right.
The requirement is to sell the product while keeping the artisan in the loop and his story has to be part of the product. It would require some serious discussions at various levels but the work must start on this front.
The handicrafts department is planning a series of events to manage part of the surging inventory that has blocked a huge capital because of the immobility enforced by the Covid19 and politics. Exhibitions part, the policymakers must explore the possibility of using online platforms to manage this inventory on priority.
Change The Goggles
Prime Minister Modi praised Srinagar’s induction into the creative city network. Then an interesting tweet came from former Jammu University professor, Hari Om. “Another gift of @BJP4India Govt at the centre to jihad-gripped Kashmir,” he wrote. “After declaring Srinagar Airport as India’s major airport and making UNESCO include Srinagar city in its creative cities list, Govt granted to Baramulla 3rd rank among 117 aspirational districts of India.”
This indicates the existing pathology around and about Kashmir within Jammu and Kashmir. If Srinagar is part of the network, it is actually the downtown that has bagged this honour. The Srinagar Sher-e-Khas has worn many identities and many think that lack of development in this part of the city is linked to its graffiti’s and capacity to gather and shout. The most congested locality in Srinagar with abysmal interventions in poverty alleviation and housing areas could trigger undoing of the benefits that UCCN could fetch Kashmir. Policymakers may have to act fast and ensure the prevailing denial of the rights to the Kashmir artisan hub should not reflect, creatively and adversely, on a wider canvas. After all, they were the first on earth to lay the foundation of the organised labour movement at the peak of Dogra misrule.
“This is an opportunity to help artisans how to produce for the international market,” Beg said. “The only way out to capitalise on this status is to make creativity a dynamic process.”
Creativity would eventually require an environment that the policymakers will have to innovate about and around. Working conditions have to be improved; clusters have to be created; access to capital has to move from debt-creation to venture capitalisation and the artisans must have a corruption-free, resource-abundant dependable system in which their lives and assets are adequately taken care of. For better collaborations with the sister cities, Kashmir would require grooming an artisan class that has the adequate articulation to reciprocate. The seats of high learning in Kashmir may have to step in to innovate around this deficit.