The origin of carpet weaving in Kashmir valley dates back to the 15th century when the great ruler, Sultan Zainul Aabideen, popularly known as Budshah, brought some skilled Persian craftsmen to the valley. Local artisans not only picked up the skills but excelled and took the art to new heights with their industriousness and proficiency. During the Budshah’s regime, the art of carpet weaving flourished as he was a great supporter and true lover of arts and crafts.
Kashmiri carpets have since gained international fame and carved a niche in the world market for themselves because of their beauty, strength and durability. They are uniquely woven and knotted by hand, unlike the commonly available tufted carpets. Hand-woven and hand-knotted carpets have an impressive longevity because their durability comes from the delicate and intricate knots made by hand. These find patrons in national and international markets because of the indelible impression they leave on the beholder. The craft of carpet making, coupled with tourism, is one of the greatest sources of revenue in Kashmir valley. It provides livelihood to thousands of people associated with it. It also acts as a source of auxiliary livelihood and income for farmers in the bleak winters which render agriculture unsustainable.
The craft has been through many ups and downs, but it has always survived due to the patronage of its aficionados. None have shown a greater appreciation for the art than Emperor Jahangir himself. He promoted the carpets of Kashmir valley in all parts of his empire. People associated with this industry were held in high regard. The position of the artisans in the societal hierarchy was such that they were able to command great proposals for marriage and even turn down government jobs because the craft was far more lucrative. During the mid 18th century, Kashmiri carpets of the Mughal era were on display at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The Europeans loved the intricacy of the design, and were awed by the iridescence of the many hues. These luxurious products continue to be widely popular in both Indian and international markets among discerning buyers. Hand woven Kashmiri carpets are among the most luxurious offerings from India to the world. These carpets are a wonder of artistry and skill. The art produced by the nimble fingers of designers and weavers leaves customers and onlookers alike mesmerised.
Some decades ago, the city of Srinagar was the hub of the carpet weaving industry. One could see a carpet loom in every second home in the city. This craft has reached from the city to far-off villages and hilly areas all over Kashmir. The carpet weaving industry witnessed a huge expansion in northern Kashmir. There was a rapid proliferation in the rural belt of Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara. In the 80s and 90s, most of the households in rural areas wore a festive look because of the prosperity that came from the carpet trade. Big and small carpet looms could be found in these houses. The weavers would keep a tape recorder on the window sill of their work room, from which old Hindi or Kashmiri music flowed. The instructor read the Talim sheets written in a secret coded language by the designer called naqash.
That was an era of prosperity for designers, weavers, traders, exporters and all parties associated with the craft. However, the centuries-old carpet industry of our valley is slowly dwindling. One can hardly see a carpet loom in the entire Srinagar city now. We are losing this art swiftly as we are unable to attract the younger generation to it. They find the wages inadequate to even meet daily expenses. The weavers are unwilling to work as they think it is a brazen exploitation when they are being paid meagre wages for their skill and hard work. This once refined and revered industry is sadly on the trajectory of rapid decline.
According to the Economic Survey of Jammu and Kashmir, carpet exports amounted to 86 million dollars in 2011-12. These figures have plummeted since the year 2016. The export value tumbled to 56 million dollars during 2016-17. Meanwhile, Iran recorded carpet export value of 275 million dollars in the same period. One of the reasons, according to prominent exporters, is that our designs are struggling to hold their own against Iranian and Turkish counterparts. Another reason for the decline could be usage of sub-optimal supplies and raw material. Manufacturers are preferring low-quality silk in order to cut back on production costs. This has proven to be a stumbling block in the progress of the art.
Motivating the weavers to continue working hard and produce quality goods would go a long way in reviving the industry. In order to motivate the disenchanted weavers, special incentives must be introduced in acknowledgement of their perseverance and skills. Beauty and luxury should not come at the cost of the health and welfare of human beings. Adequate compensation should be provided along with fair pay for workers’ health care in order to encourage them and also the future generations to continue the family profession. The best performing weavers should be appreciated and rewarded at the local and national levels. Market exhibitions should be held to facilitate direct contact between the buyer and the seller.
A huge roadblock is the rampant and flagrant exploitation of the labourers and small-time business owners by the huge conglomerates and exporters. The main reason for decline in the industry is that weavers are deprived of fair pay, while manufacturers are unable to sell at fair price due to cheating by exporters and retailers. The exporters and retailers sell these carpets in domestic and international markets at exorbitant prices. They fail to pay the suppliers on time, affecting the payment of wages to the artisans who are left in the lurch. Most of the exporters buy from suppliers at relatively low prices with the promise of timely repayment. However, the supplier’s attempts to get the dues are always thwarted by the exporters. “Saab busy hain/ Saab meeting mein hain” is a common refrain heard by the suppliers.
Another reason is the flooding of markets with machine-made carpets that are misusing the goodwill and brand name of Kashmiri carpets. People inadvertently pay high rates for inferior quality products. When the product does not last long or turns out to be defective, it damages the reputation of the Kashmiri hand-made, hand-knotted carpet industry.
Furthermore, there are several legacy conglomerates who have now turned their backs on the Kashmiri carpet industry and on the poor but hardworking artisans. It was their utmost responsibility to save the industry but they have abandoned the industry and the artisans in favour of their personal greed and wealth gathering objectives. One way for these conglomerates to step up and do their duty would be to collaborate with statutory bodies and create a corpus fund for the welfare of the artisans who work day and night, who have formed the backbone of their wealth and legacy.
The government needs to act swiftly and seriously in order to take proactive rejuvenation measures and enact strong regulatory mechanisms to curb the exploitation of artisans and small businesses. We need to work together, all the exporters, manufacturers, small and big business owners and all associated players alongside the government in order to save our dying carpet industry before it is confined to only coffee table books and museums.
—The writer is a businessman dealing in Kashmiri hand-made, hand-knotted carpets.