Surviving an onslaught by Chinese wicker products and a boom in plastic goods, Kashmir’s willow industry has managed to hold fast, partly due to expanding market and partly owing to its high quality.
A craze among tourists prior to the outbreak of militancy in Kashmiri, wicker trade has witnessed a swing from one extreme to another over the last two decades.
Abdula Khaliq Shakhsaaz, 60, has been doing wickerwork for the last 40 years. He remembers the time when wages were high, work was plenty and the atmosphere was ‘beautiful’.
“Everything has changed and our work is no exception,” said Shakhsaaz. “People are leaving this job, the market has been going up and down and prices have been increasing, but Alhamdullillah we still manage to earn our living.”
The trade has managed to emerge from three major threats – insurgency, the introduction of plastic products and Chinese wicker imports. “There is an aura related to Kashmiri wicker which doesn’t let it go,” said Shakhsaaz.
A large number of skilled wicker artisans belonged to the Pandit community and their exodus impacted the trade in the early years. So did the ensuing insurgency. “Many major companies were shut down like the Prem Nath Dhar Karkhana in Habbakadal involving many artisans,” said Ali Mohammed, another artisan in Hazratbal. But over the years, the vacuum was filled by Muslim artisans.
Chinese threat had been looming large over the Kashmiri wicker industry. “Chinese have swarmed the Indian market with their cheap wicker products and of course, heat fell on us,” said Shakhsaaz.
These Chinese products have considerably eaten into the Kashmiri willow market. The situation was worse during 2004 when the number of orders of Kashmiri wicker products was cancelled as people preferred cheap Chinese products. Chinese products are highly finished, polished, painted and attractive, a trait that is lacking in Kashmiri products. Buyers were attracted to Chinese wicker products at the cost of ones made in Kashmir.
But over the years, the Chinese wicker has been faltering on quality. The products turn black after exposure to water, leaving consumers with a bad experience.
“Hindu devotees take flowers and Prasad to temples in this willow basket and when their basket turns black due to water, they feel bad about it,” said Shakhsaaz.
Kashmiri wicker on the other hand is resistant to water and is more durable. They have a longer life as compared to other such products. Shaksaaz said that he has repaired 25-year-old wicker chairs.
The same has happened with plastic products. During the initial years of the introduction of plastic products, willow suffered. But now, people are buying more willow products.
“Wicker products are natural and it possesses that aura and essence which can’t be fulfilled by plastic products,” said Shakhsaaz.
While the willow was preferred over plastic, the overall demand in the market too has grown considerably. Products like chairs, tables, other items of furniture, baskets and some smaller items like trays used in marriage ceremonies are always in demand in Kashmir. Boxes, lamp-shades and curtain rings are also fast catching up.
Over the years, a large marriage market has been created and willow products like baskets and trays are widely used on these occasions.
Outside the state, willow products used are primarily baskets followed by trays and decorative items. A number of hotels in India and abroad prefer to serve their customers in Kashmiri willow baskets and trays. “We have been getting orders from different hotels, commercial establishments and even individuals who love such products,” said Ali Mohammed.
Wicker products of Kashmir are also known for their beautiful design and intricate work, making them appealing. Wicker artisans in Kashmir are most skilled and have created their own designs. According to local parlance, they can ‘copy any wicker product with improvements’.
The trade has been declining in Srinagar over the last two decades. Shaaksaaz’s son refused to take on this work and instead opted to drive an auto-rickshaw. The new generation is unwilling to take up the hard work with low wages.
On average, a craftsman earns from Rs 3000-5000 per month on putting in 8-10 hours of work every day. “It is a hard job and needs extensive efforts,” said Shakhsaaz. “People get good money in daily labouring, so why will they waste their life here.”
Currently, only 30 families work in Wicker craft at Shakhsaaz Mohalla in Hazratbal.
However, the trade has been increasing in rural areas. Ganderbal, Islamabad, Kulgam, Shopian and Kangan are becoming the latest hotspots of willow weaving. But these artisans mostly produce baskets and other such smaller items. Furniture work is limited to the Hazratbal area only.
According to rough estimates, around 15000 people are associated with this trade.
Some people are leaving the art due to the stigma attached to it. “Our caste is being looked down and people face problems in the marriage of their children, so many of us are leaving this trade for the better,” said Shakhsaaz.
People associated with this trade have not been able to assemble under any union to plead their case with the government. In 1971, one union was formed but it didn’t last long.
The artisans of this trade complain of spiralling prices of willow. “Over the last three years, the wicker willow price has doubled from Rs 600 to Rs 1200 per 40 kg,” said Shakhsaaz.
The wicker willow is grown primarily in district Ganderbal in the Shalbugh area. The farmers say that willow cultivation is a demanding job and inflation too has played its role in the increasing price.
After harvesting the willow in Autumn, the crop is boiled for at least three days. The boiled willow is then peeled and dried under sun. The dried crop is then tied in bundles of 10 kg and five kg and sold by Mann (40 kg).
The higher demand for willow too has helped to increase its price. “Earlier, Kangris (fire pots) used to be made of wild willows, but after their cutting was banned in forests, the Kangri weavers too started to use wicker willow thus increasing the prices,” said Shakhsaaz.
The artisans accuse the government of not doing anything to control the prices. “Earlier government controlled the prices as it grew willow in its own farms. Over the years, the farms were abandoned due to official negligence and private farmers control everything,” said Ali Mohammed.
In India, Wicker willow is cultivated only in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to S A Qazi in Systematic Geography of Jammu and Kashmir, the present wicker willow plantation and the art of willow weaving was introduced to Kashmiris by French artists. Before that, willow work in Kashmir used to be roughly made of wild willow varieties.
The willow artisans say that the willow art was introduced by Maharaji Hari Singh after he got artisans and willow seeds from England during his reign.
“The Polytechnic College at Gogjibagh developed the current form of designs and shapes, which ultimately reached to us and the trade grew in leaps and bounds,” remembered Shakhsaaz.
Artisans say that after that revolutionary step of Maharaja Hari Singh, nothing had been done by the successive governments and the trade has been growing on its own.
J&K government in 1971 had provided a loan of Rs 600 to every artisan family in Hazratbal, but the artisans have bitter experience of that. “They gave us Rs 600 but took back Rs 5000-6000,” said Shakhsaaz. “It had a huge interest rate and we suffered a lot due to it. After that, we pledged not to take any more loans from the government.”