Ghulam Qadir’s wrinkled but swift hands are inserting wooden needles (Kanis) with coloured threads over and under the yarns stretched on an old wooden loom in Kanihama, the picturesque village in the Budgam district of Jammu and Kashmir.
Qadir is using fine Pashmina yarn to weave a Kani shawl which will be completed in three to four months. His deft fingers despite his failing eyesight are keeping alive his family legacy of weaving Kani shawls which have been depicted in the 11th-century wall paintings at the Archie Monastery of Ladakh.
Kanihama, also called the handloom village, derives its name from the world-famous Kani shawls made here.
This Talim on paper is placed before the weaver and guides him regarding the number of warp (longitudinal) threads to be covered with Kani’s coloured weft (horizontal) threads.
“It is the emotional bond that has kept this art alive despite the struggles we artisans face daily,” says 65-year-old Qadir who learnt Kani weaving from his father and grandfather.
“I don’t remember the number of shawls I have made. But my work stands displayed at many government offices,” he adds. Qadir is one of the four artisans working with the J&K State Handloom Development Corporation’s Kanihama cluster unit which stands neglected despite the Kani shawl having received the geographical indication or GI tag in 2008.
The lack of infrastructure, low wages, shutdowns and curfews have not impacted the morale of weavers in this village located on the famous Srinagar-Gulmarg road. The people of Kanihama are proud that they are the custodians of this precious art of shawl-making. After the GI tag, it is now illegal to sell shawls made outside of the Kanihama area as Kani shawls.
The decline and revival of Kani weaving
Kani weaving was patronised by Mughal emperors, who also influenced the design and patterns of the shawls.
Later, the British aristocrats exported the shawls to the UK. The Kani shawl is said to be one of the most valuable items exported from the valley for hundreds of years.
After the end of Mughal rule, however, the craft began to decline. “During the 18th century, the production had diminished as heavy taxes were levied on Kani shawl,” says Wali Mohammad, a local.
It was about 50 years back that Kanihama resident and weaver Ghulam Mohammad began encouraging the entire village to take up the craft once again. “He inspired us and said we must uphold our legacy,” Wali Mohammad recalls.
While Ghulam Mohammad is no more alive, his inspiration has led to the revival of the Kani shawls, which are also mentioned in two books -- Desopadera’ and ‘Narmemala’ – written by Kashmiri Sanskrit poet and scholar Kshemendra who lived between 990 and 1065 AD.
Today, out of the 400 households in the village, nearly 300 are associated with Kani weaving.
Innovating with the changing times
Bringing this art back from the brink of extinction, however, would not have been possible without the innovations done by artisans to keep pace with the demands of the 21st century.
According to weaver Shabir Ahmad, the handloom business has started improving again.
This has helped them to diversify the craft which was otherwise restricted to weaving shawls only. “Dealers in Srinagar city buy the products. We also export them to customers overseas. We also have buyers visiting us here,” says Faisal Ahmad, a young artisan, who decided to take forward the family legacy of Kani shawl weaving instead of looking for a job.
“The skill of weaving allows us to become financially independent at a very young age,” he says. Faisal works at a private unit with four other artisans on a daily wage basis.
Apart from Kanihama, the shawl is also woven in some adjoining villages including Mazhama and Batpora. “Kani weaving is our identity. Nobody wants to lose their identity even if the income is less,” says Bashir Ahmad, 60.
“But we want the government to come up with a policy for weavers so that our kids don’t suffer the way we did,” he says.
Weavers demand government attention
The weavers are not happy with the government’s approach to the craft, saying that “lack of interest” has affected their incomes.
Despite the GI tag and talks about promoting Kashmir's handloom industry, little is being done on the ground, they say. “Those in administration must take note of our problems. We weave the designs that fetch lakhs of rupees. We give our life to this art but still earn just a few thousand rupees,” adds Qadir.
The J&K State Handloom Development Corporation’s cluster unit at Kanihama houses two deteriorated looms used by Qadir and his other colleagues. A table and two chairs gather dust at the centre. The looms have come of age, but they have not been replaced with new ones.
The weavers continue to receive the wages they were getting decades ago. “No labour laws are applicable to us whether we work in a government-run centre or at a privately-owned establishment. We get peanuts,” says another weaver Bashir Ahmad (60).
Typically, a regular design shawl gets completed in three months. “So the average works out to about Rs 10,000 a month. After 50 years into this craft, I am still earning less than Rs400 a day,” he says.
Moreover, the prices of Pashmina – the soft wool from Changthangi goat used in Kani weaving -- have increased manifold over the years.
The process of weaving Kani shawl
Pashmina yarn is obtained by processing the undercoat of the Changthangi goats mostly found in Ladakh and the upper regions of the Himalayas. The goats shed it naturally in the spring or it is shaved off by herders.
These soft hairs are separated from dirt and other substances and cleaned with rice flour before preparing the yarn for spinning.
The designer, called the naqash, draws the shawl’s design on graph paper and then fills it with colours following the code in Talim.
The yarn is dyed into different colours by rangrez according to Talim’s requirements. The yarn is cut into the required shawl length of 2 to 2.5 metres.
The warp maker, called naqat, adjusts the dyed yarn on the loom longitudinally according to the colours required for the given design. The warp consists of 700 to 2200 pairs of warp threads which become the width of the shawl.
The difference between Pashmina shawls and Kani Shawls starts at the time of weaving.
The Kanis, also called Tujis, are eyeless needles inserted from the reverse side of the cloth under a specified number of warp threads. The weaver ensures that each Kani is interlocked with the one before it and the one after it while inserting it.
This requires a lot of time and effort, making Kani shawls expensive. While weavers and other artisans may not be earning enough for their efforts, most of them continue the craft because it is a matter of pride for them. “We will not let the legacy of our village die,” says Qadir.
(Sameer Showkin Lone is a development professional & a journalist. He is a former Aspirational District Fellow (Bijapur, Chhattisgarh) at the Government of India. He writes on internal security, Kashmir politics, development & governance, education and health issues)