For the last 45 years, Muhammad Maqbool Sheikh sits in an open ground each morning in Shalabug village of Kashmir, enjoying the sunshine and peeling off the bark from the wicker stalks which are used to weave a variety of items.
Shalabug village in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district is famous for its wicker willow work. The villagers make several handicraft items from the willow rushes and reeds. The handmade wicker willow products are locally known as Veer Kani or Keani Keam.
Like 68-year-old Sheikh, other men and women from the village assemble in the ground each morning, peeling off the bark from the wicker stems known as twigs. They run the stems through a Y-shaped stick, locally known as zealan, using which the bark comes off.
Around 6,000 people, or 80 percent of the population, in the village are dependent on wicker weaving work for their livelihood. Given this, the state government had, in 2002, declared Shalabug a model village.
Willow wood, which is soft and durable, is used to make baskets, boxes, trays, and outer layers of kangris (portable firepots made of clay and filled with coal embers). The locals hold the kangris close to their bodies under their pherans (traditional loose gowns) to keep warm in Kashmir's freezing winter.
Wickerwork has been documented as far back as Egypt and Rome where baskets and furniture have been found.
In Kashmir, wicker was introduced in the 19th century. It is said that Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir in the 19th century, brought some artisans and willow seeds to the valley. Since then it has become a well-established handicraft industry in Kashmir.
Before this, Kashmiris produced wicker willow baskets which were used by farmers to store goods. The state had rich forest and vegetation and the tribal communities used the local grasses to make baskets and mats. The locals used a method called kangri to make the baskets which came to be known as kangris.
Challenges and opportunities
As with other handicrafts, wicker willow weaving is also undergoing a transformation, especially after the Covid pandemic that hit business. “There is just about a 10 percent margin in the business, which is very low. The sales have been declining in the last few years and the pandemic has worsened the situation,” says Lateef Mohammed, third-generation owner of Mohammed Ramzan and Sons in Srinagar. The firm, started by Latif’s grandfather in 1953, manufactures willow wicker products which are exported mostly through wholesalers.
“A basket which costs us Rs 60 is bought by the wholesalers for Rs 67 or 68, leaving little margin for us,” Lateef points out.
Skilled artisans can make even 20 baskets in a day. “There is saturation in the market. We need support in the form of subsidies from the government like for the boilers. We also need direct access to the market, which the government can facilitate through its outlets,” Lateef adds.
However, while bulk manufacturers like Lateef are not too happy with the market scenario, the artisans are upbeat and claim that they are doing good business. This is mostly because the government schemes are targeted at small artisans.
Fayaz Ahmed Sheikh, a willow wicker weaver, says the government has helped them by taking initiatives for creating market linkages.
The government has also brought in consultants who are training the artisans, improving the quality of products and apprising them about new designs and techniques.
Ghulam Hassan Sheikh, an artisan from Shalabug says fortunately the young generation in his village has shown interest in taking the craft forward. “A lot of young, educated men have picked up this craft to earn their livelihood,” he says.
Sheikh says the demand for wicker-made goods has increased in the last decade across Kashmir. The artisans have also brought some new and innovative changes to old designs for contemporising the products to gain a larger market.
“Earlier, the demand for wicker-made goods wasn’t much because we were making limited things like baskets and outer covers for fire pots,” says Maqbool, another artisan.
“We are making new items which are used daily like furniture and household items besides traditional products,” he adds.
The silver lining for willow wicker craft is that it has not yet been mechanised. Artisans still make things by hand. The products made have utility and are durable. "For durability reasons nowadays people prefer handmade wicker items instead of glass, steel and ceramic,'' says Bashir Ahmed, an artisan.
Willow wicker products have fewer chances of breakage, are completely biodegradable and don’t pose any threat to the environment.
Process of willow wicker weaving
The willow plant is found in abundance in the Ganderbal area which has the optimum climatic and soil conditions for its cultivation and growth. Shalbug and neighbouring villages of Harran, Shalla Bug, Tehlipora, Kachan, and Gundi Rehman are major centres of wicker willow work.
The plant is cultivated from saplings. Once a sapling sprouts, it is cut and sowed in the soil so its shoots can be harvested each year. The saplings are sown in February-March and the willow plant is ready for harvest in October.
The farmers then sell these stems to contractors who manufacture willow items. The contractors pass on the stems to the artisans and direct them on what products have to be made.
The first thing the artisans do is to soften the stems. The stems are softened by boiling them in large water boilers. The willow stem bundles are put in the boilers, pressed down by heavy stones and left overnight.
The boiling softens the stems so they become pliable and don’t break on bending. After this, the bark is peeled off the stems using the zealan.
The stems are then used to make different products. Some of the stems are used in their original form while others are cut. The stems are woven and mounted over a base. The reeds are used in their natural pale tan colour or they can be dyed in shades of blue, green, pink or red. The patterns and designs are created by weaving the stems in different directions.
As things stand, the future of willow wicker is not under threat. “Machines can’t replace hands. Like making copper utensils, weaving shawls and dyeing are done with the help of machines, wicker weaving cannot be done with machines,” says Farooq Ahmed. And that’s precisely why Kashmir’s willow wicker weaving will never die out, unlike other crafts.
(Wasim Nabi is a Srinagar-based freelance multimedia journalist)