SRINAGAR: Ali Muhammad Baba is a busy man these days, tanning and curing sheep skins at his house in Dabagat Mohalla, Gunz Khud. It is a hectic job to do dabagat, the washing and treating of skins with chemicals to make special rugs for sitting or for offering prayers. Once a thriving trade that used the skins of a variety of animals, it is now limited to sheep skins, which accumulate at Baba’s house after Eid. “I am the lone person left in this job,” he claims confidently.
Saying that there is a spurt in business, though only for two months, following Eid, Baba admits he sells fake fur products the rest of the time to tourists along Dalgate.
According to him, his whole locality used to be part of a flourishing fur trade that fell after the Central government imposed a ban on it.
“Skins obtained from different wild animals from different states would land in our area,” he said, “and we would carry out the necessary preservation job on these to make them fit for furriers to make garments.”
Gunz Khud once had, he said, highly skilled artisans in the trade as also another specialized group that would perform taxidermy on dead animals and trophies brought by hunters, almost recreating the animals and bringing them to life.
“The ban almost snatched our livelihood by limiting our work to curing and tanning rabbit skins that furriers import to the Valley. Its products became costly and had too little market demand. They were then replaced by fake fur, in which I too deal.”
Muhamamd Altaf Qureshi, a manufacturer who left the trade soon after the ban, said that many furriers were previously licensed to import skins of different animals which would be made, after processing by the skilled workers of Gunz Khud, into different products with a mostly foreign clientele.
These handmade fur products would bring a lot of foreign exchange in the past, but after India became a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the trade started to decline, and so did the job of pelt-processing.
“These people who formed an important part of the fur trade all lost their livelihoods,” said Qureshi.
Baba said that they were compensated by the government for the loss of their jobs, but that no one would now learn the craft, given the stigma associated with it. What also keeps the new generation away is the need for experience and an intimate knowledge of the proportionate use of different chemicals in curing skins.
“My own son does not lend me a helping hand in this job, and I have to finish it on my own,” he says.
Baba said the chemicals used were no secret formula, but different skins need different processes. One has to be extra careful, for instance, with sheep skin, which needs to be salted soon after the sheep’s slaughter. Some other animal skins do not need this and have a different preservation process to make them long-lasting.
It costs about Rs 400-500 to cure a sheep skin that can last almost three decades, Baba said. There are different kinds of furnishings available, but it is only a few who opt for preserving the skins of sacrificial animals.
Sajad Ahmad Shah, a customer who approached Baba for processing his sheep skin, said that it was his daughter who had insisted on it.
“After a hectic search in this locality, I found Ali Muhamamd so that, in a month’s time, I could get my processed skin back,” he said.