SRINAGAR: Once sought after world over, the handicrafts of Kashmir, exporters say, have lost the demand they once had in the international market. Several exporters who have showrooms abroad ascribe this decline to their products’ loss of “unique identity” in foreign markets.
With their great diversity and wide demand, Kashmiri handicrafts acquired worldwide fame in decades past for their exquisite refinement and delicate elegance. More than four lakh people are directly and indirectly employed in the production and sale of handicrafts in the Valley.
Mushtaq Ahmad of Soura, whose family has been associated with the export of pashmina shawls for decades, says that daily customer visits to their showroom in the United Arab Emirates have declined. He maintains that his trade keeps its market relevance solely because of the “demand-based” products he supplies – without customer specifications, his business can only suffer.
“We ask our workers only for products which our customers ask for,” Ahmad says. “The kind of stuff we export hardly attracts foreign customers now. Our artisans are still continuing with age-old designs and don’t experiment,” he complains. “In order to stay relevant in the market, one has to stay updated with current market trends.”
Ahmad recalls how customers would earlier buy whatever was available at the showrooms because of the quality and uniqueness of the products on display. “But now with artisans resisting innovation, this famous trade is losing its race with the markets.”
As per official records, the production of handicrafts has surged over the last few years, but exports of the items have continuously decreased. Figures released by the Industries and Commerce Ministry show that the exports of handicraft items have seen a decrease of 37 percent within the last two financial years.
Financial year 2013-14 saw a turnover of Rs 1,695.65 crores worth of exports of these luxury products . In 2014-15, this fell to Rs 1,287.04 crores and further dipped to Rs 1,059.41 crores worth of handicrafts exported in financial year 2015-16.
On the other hand, handicrafts production peaked at Rs 2,175 crores in financial year 2014-15, and rose even higher to Rs 2,234.15 crores in 2015-16. In financial year 2013-14, this figure was a relatively more modest Rs 2017.82 crores.
Culture critic Zareef Ahmad Zareef, who was once engaged in the trade, holds the use of sub-standard material and the duplicity of items now produced responsible for the decline in popularity of Kashmiri handicrafts.
“In the race to earn maximum profit, we forgot that a time would come when our deceitful tactics would face an end,” Zareef says. “Kashmiri handicrafts were once considered a never-ending part of elite life. We have come to an age where even a middle-class man shows no interest in them, given their worsened quality.”
Zareef reminisces sadly over earlier times when artisans had the sole authority to design whatever way they wanted to. “Now customers have attained dictating powers over how an artisan should design or shape any product.
“A handmade Kashmiri product, like the pashmina shawl, would easily be identified by even a layman earlier for its softness and quality weaving just because the artisans would utilise genuine raw material. But to save a few pennies, people resorted to the use of second-grade material that brought our craft a bad name and discouraged people from buying it.”
In 1977, a comprehensive Quality Control Act was passed in the J&K Assembly covering all major crafts like carpets, shawls, wood carving and goods made with chain stitch and crewel embroidery. Before this, quality checks were done only on Namdha work because of complaints received from European buyers in 1952. However, administrative roadblocks impeded the implementation of the act.
How little the government has helped in developing the infrastructure to help the production and export of handicrafts can be deduced from the fact that Kashmir still lacks an essential washing and drying plant for carpets. The handicrafts department says that construction did not materialise because of impediments like non-availability of land and equipment and scarcity of funds. A wood-seasoning plant is another facility that craftsmen in Kashmir urgently need, but there are no signs of any such being forthcoming.
Assistant director, handicrafts department, Mushtaq Ahmad Shah says that the September 2014 floods were a major reason for the decline in exports. “The deluge resulted in a drastic decline in exports as everything was left disorganised. We were expecting exports to surge after the situation improved, but then uncertainly prevented it,” Shah said.
Affirming that exports have now become “demand-based”, Shah recalls how once “whatever we produced would sell in abundance, but now customers have access to more options. That has increased their dictating powers.”
“Kashmiri in itself is a brand. Even though the production and exports of machine-made shawls, mainly manufactured in Amritsar, have increased manifold, they do not sell unless they have a Kashmir label pasted on them,” he says. “These shawls come up with innovative designs and colour combinations, that too at reasonable rates, whereas Kashmiri artisans are still producing crafts on age-old patterns and continue with costly material. Obviously, the customer is attracted towards the machine-made shawl,” Shah says.
With about 371 registered exporters in the state, Shah says, a series of new efforts are being experimented with to increase the market share and make Kashmir handicrafts as relevant as they once were.
“We don’t control these exporters directly, but we invite, inform and take them on study tours so that they could imbibe new intricacies and innovative designs which we prepare after thorough research. Many times, they accept our suggestions, and we have been receiving positive feedback,” added Shah.
The handicrafts department has introduced advance training courses at 553 training centres in crafts such as carpet weaving, papier maché, sozni work, wood carving, chain stitch, kani shawl weaving, copper ware, silver ware, khatamband (wood mosaic joinery) and staple embroidery. The department is hopeful that these crafts would be given a modern touch to make them market- and consumer-driven while still retaining their market share and unique identity.