Kashmir’s Artisans Find Pay and Art in a Troubled Economy
At the base of the Himalayas, in one of India’s most majestic states, Kashmir, a group of women artisans are contemporizing zalakdozi, hook embroidery that resembles crochet and dates back to the 1400s. Scarves, bedding, sheets, clothing — all forms of textiles are enhanced with this hook stitch in patterns that sing of Kashmir: saffron, tulips, lotus and lilies.
“I love the curves of this particular kind of chain stitch and the surface treatment it creates,” says Dipali Patwa, Chief Creative Officer at Mela Artisans. “The beauty of this stitch is the artisans’ ability to curve and follow the shape. The understanding of how big or small the stitch should be defines how intricate the patterns can get.” Brought over by Damascus craftsmen and popularized under Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin’s rule, one of the most revered rulers of Kashmir who governed from 1420 to 1470, the embroidery is an art form passed down through the generations. Yet, such a deeply entrenched heritage is struggling in the modern era. Artisans lack a constant supply of work. Payments dwindle in slowly. It’s hard to make a living by stitching simply.
Hunarmand, a Kashmir-based non-profit working with Mela, is trying to create opportunities for these women, by opening more markets for their beautifully stitched products. Jahangir Ahmed Bhat, Project Manager for Hunarmand in Srinagar, says “there is satisfaction in the work.” A post graduate, specializing in craft management, he hails from rural Kashmir. Bhat is compelled by the women who practice this art.
“If we are able to create a sustainable order stream for these women, the potential impact on the livelihoods of their families and kids would be tremendous and that inspires me,” says Patwa.
Bhat’s hometown, Kulgam, lies 68 km outside of Srinagar; known as the “rice bowl of Kashmir,” it’s a deeply agrarian community with most people growing rice, apples, or raising livestock. Nestled in front of the Peer Panchal range of mountains, the inner most range of the Himalayas, Kulgam has a surreal landscape. Yet, life can be strenuous for locals. Tasleema Akhter, a master artisan, who now works with Bhat, grew up in Kulgam as well. Her parents passed away when she was very young; she, and her three siblings, were raised by her grandmother who was “left to fend for us,” Akhter recalls. To make a living, they reared cattle. Embroidery was a pastime as a child. At 8 years of age, she was learning how to perfect hook stitches from her relatives. Embroidery stayed a hobby for years — until 4 years ago when she signed up to work with INTACH, India’s National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, a project that started in 1984 to help artisans around the country. Now, she says, “Work is worship.” The transition from a hobby to a serious source of income started when she was 16: she began working as an individual artisans for local traders. “There was no financial security as the work used to be irregular,” she says. “Most of my time, I was sitting idle.” Work was underpaid and payments trickled in long after they were due. Then, after five years of going solo, she decided to join an artisan group like Hunarmand (which translates to “skillful”). “Actually, here, it means skillful women,” says Bhat. Akhter became one of these skillful women. Today, she’s regarded as a master artisan and supervises other women, learning the craft. Operating in a group was the answer, she says. “The artisan group provides equal working opportunities to all of its members and is working as a unit.” After joining the group, she didn’t just get higher wages, she says. Rather, she learned how to improve her skills and discover new templates, patterns, and designs. “They already have the skill set to do this,” says Patwa. “All we provide is the new vision for more contemporary patterns. When you use a traditional skill like this and update it in a modern way, that’s all you need to make it fresh again.” “She has been very instrumental,” says Bhat, referring to Akhter’s ability to educate more young women on the new designs. In 2011, when an opportunity came to take on a managerial role, Akhter became a production coordinator for INTACH. This year, the co-founders of Mela Artisans, Navroze Mehta and Sonali Mehta-Rao met Akhter on one of their routine visits and were captivated by her passion for the craft. “She’s a dynamic, driven, charismatic and talented leader who has really earned the respect of all of her fellow artisans,” Mehta notes.
“Whenever we receive an order that really brings energy and hope in us. I immediately start visualizing the impact of the order and the changes work will bring in the lives of women.”
She’s trying to do the same for the many other girls under her supervision. It’s her favorite part of the job: “I like everything that I do for the artisan group but the best part of my job that I like most is training new girls.” It’s more than about passing the torch. “I believe it would help many financially disadvantaged families become economically independent,” she says. She’s talking about herself: Akhter has been driven by her parent’s premature death and having to work to support her siblings. Marriage is on the horizon but she intends on continuing her work. “Why not?” she says, cheekily.
Having transformed herself “from an insecure individual artisan to a group leader,” she says, “working has raised my confidence level.”
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