Monday, September 24, 2012

Crafts And Craftsmen Of Kashmir

Kashmiri crafts are prized for their intricacy, complex designs and elegant styles. I am always attracted by their nature-inspired patterns and skillful use of colour.  Flowers, trees, birds and animals inspire their papier mache, carved walnut woodwork, metal work, crewelled curtains and their woven and embroidered pashmina shawls. 

Papier mache shikara on carved walnut wood table
Carved metal pot looks out onto a garden
Embroidered chinnar leaf-curtains in my house
So sought after are these products that fakes are now mass-produced and transported all over the country and, worse still, back into Kashmir!  Shawls from Ludhiana and Amritsar find their way into the hands of Kashmiri vendors and most exhibitions in Indian cities have at least one stall of "reasonable" (cheap!) semi-pashmina (containing not a thread of pashmina - the prized wool of the high altitude Himalayan mountain goats).  Apparently there is a large market for these pseudo-pashmina shawls and stoles for people no longer want to buy the 'once in a lifetime' shawls (which last considerably more than a lifetime), preferring to wear them for a short while and replace them
 with newer styles.

Trying to find authentic products even within Kashmir is quite a job.  We were fortunate to have met Renuka, a pleasant lady who works with local craftsmen in Srinagar and who gave us the address of the Beigh family of Kashmiri embroiderers.  I had only one afternoon free for shopping and had to decide between crafts, food (walnuts, apricots, saffron, honey, spices) and textiles.  Textiles won hands down and then it was a decision between woven shawls and embroidered ones - each is an art in itself - and I chose the latter.

The Beigh family 'karkhana' (a factory) was in a small lane flanked by large houses which had no names or signs anywhere!  Fortunately our driver knew exactly where it was and said it was a pink coloured building, the only one in that lane.  We climbed up a few flights of stairs to enter a large, many-windowed room with a threadbare carpet covering the entire floor.  At each window were placed two large cushions that served as seats for the embroiderers.  There was a basket of yarn in one corner and a large mass of old threads hanging on the opposite wall.  This was all the equipment in the karkhana!  Four elderly men sat, embroidering quietly and as we entered, two younger men came up and greeted us.
Skeins for embroidery
Old threads for darning
A shawl embroiderer
We sat down and over cups of kehwa (a Kashmiri spice-rich tea) and biscuits, spoke of this and that - of crafts, the difficult times faced by craftsmen, of the wonders of Kashmir and its treasures (which, according to them was the culture and hospitality that far outshone the natural resources), of their experiences in selling the products within and outside India and so on.  We met the oldest member of the family, a Master craftsman, who struggles with asthma as he continues to embroider.  All his sons are national award winners.  We were told that the youngest generation now goes to school and apprentices in the evenings but before that, none of the children had time for education.  Each shawl takes a minimum of three years to complete, many larger and more intricate ones take twice that time.  Several hundreds of workers are also employed by this family; each person is assigned a specific shawl.  The embroiderer decides the pattern and colours and works on one piece at a time.  The old threads hanging in one corner were fragments from ancient shawls that were saved and used to darn old shawls that their customers brought in.
Master craftsman and head of the Beigh family
 We were then led to the room that housed their current stock - not just shawls, but embroidered materials for salwar-kameez, embroidered sarees and more.  They brought out pieces of different kinds of materials and styles as we were not sure what we might want to buy.  The price depends on the material, the weave, whether it is factory made or hand woven and on the quality of embroidery.  It was interesting to see how the same fibres can be woven in various ways to give different textures; the open and soft textured pashmina (inevitably factory-made) is considerably less expensive than the closely woven pieces done by hand.  The shawls may be left in their natural colours (off whites, brownish greys) or dyed before the embroidery begins.
The shop in the karkhana
Surrounded by shawls of all kinds, it was very difficult to decide what to buy.  However, through a gradual process of elimination (and several visits to the mirror!), each of us identified one shawl which we felt we absolutely must have!  It was an interesting experience and very poetically described by the younger family member, who acted as salesman.  He said, "I believe that you have come all this way in search for something that belongs to you, which is being kept in my custody until you claim it."  Of course, we pay for it!  But the work is so fine and done with so much care that I am happy to support this tradition - and also to nurture the belief that I have come to collect "my piece" amongst the hundreds!

My shawl
Someone in my family bought an off white shawl with large, brightly coloured leaves and flowers, another person bought an elegant and intricately embroidered black shawl for evening wear.  I bought a grey shawl with a beautiful weave and a delicate, embroidered border.  A wondrous border in soft colours - peach (one of my favourites), sky blue, baby pink and tiny dots and stripes of red.  The family members who did not buy anything (i.e. the men!) were replete with tea, biscuits and conversation.  Finally, with many gracious invitations uttered by one and all, we bade farewell to this incredibly creative family.  We drove away with hearts so full of happiness that it dripped out, mingled with the sunshine and fell all over our precious shawls, making them look all the more beautiful.

Detail of embroidery

Monday, September 17, 2012

Valleys And Waterways Of Kashmir

I had very little time to explore this fascinating land of towering mountains, green, shaded vales and innumerable water forms (rivers, streams, lakes, glaciers).  I spent a couple of days in the Srinagar and Anantnag districts of Kashmir and my focus was largely on meeting people I knew.

After attending various functions and meeting family friends, we found ourselves on the road that connects Srinagar to Anantnag.  It is crowded and dusty in part but also passes through some very scenic stretches.  We crossed fields green with unharvested rice, the Lidder river (and its tributaries) lined by willow, poplar and chinar trees, fields where saffron grows, orchards of apple, pear and apricot.  The road weaved gently round the undulating terrain as we moved from mountain to mountain.  The skies were cloudy, threatening rain when we set out, but the clouds gradually lifted and reluctantly allowed the sun to shine through.  As soon as the sun broke through, we got a glimpse of layers and layers of towering, ancient mountains - some pine covered and some stark and bare, whose presence we were earlier unaware of.  We were suddenly surrounded by shades of green, brown and grey.  This is the magic of the mountains - they can disappear and appear at will (or when the weather permits it)!

Srinagar is crowded and dusty and one tends to forget that it is one of the most picturesque capital cities of the country.  Until one moves past the construction to see water and mountains stretching out endlessly.  The Jhelum river flows silently through the city and enters the gigantic Dal Lake.  Mountains rise in the distance.  In the background, hidden away in a corner, is the tiny, tranquil Nagin Lake. The lake is relatively quiet; shikaras (small local boats) glide along its surface, transporting flowers, vegetables or the occasional visitor!  A row of houseboats stand placidly in the distance, awaiting tourists.  We ventured on this lake one evening during sunset, when the colours were a rich orange-gold that turned to a pale peachy-pink.  Then night fell and the lights from the houseboats and the city came on like little glowing torches.

The next morning, I stood and stared at the lake for a long time - birds hopped from leaf to leaf, the lotus plants were fresh and turned towards the sun (the flowers had all fallen off during the heavy rains of the previous days), the water gleamed and mumbled to itself - secrets of all that it had witnessed perhaps.  I walked away, at peace with the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Attending A Kashmiri Wedding

I have just returned from a trip to Kashmir that began as I was invited for two weddings.  It was a hurried on-the spot decision to go; I threw in a few clothes, other essentials and flew to Srinagar.  There is now an almost direct flight from Bangalore (with a halt in Delhi) which has made Kashmir quite accessible to the southern region of the country.

The last two years have been relatively peaceful in the valley and tourism has surged.  Hotels have been packed and roads jammed with vehicles.  This was the off season yet I saw a fair number of visitors and hotel bookings were still hard to get.  I assumed this was because it was wedding season in Kashmir - just after the weeks of fasting and before the onset of the winter harvest, but in fact the visitors were largely tourists.  The weather is normally clear at this time but this year the rains have been late everywhere.  I reached to find cloudy skies that burst open to release torrents of rain that lasted right through the wedding ceremonies.

The wedding  was in a small town near Pahalgam (two siblings were getting married on consecutive days- this is quite common in Kashmir; it makes sense to arrange events when infrastructure can be shared and family can keep themselves free for two or three days at a stretch).

We arrived at the family house to find preparations in full swing.  An open area had been covered for the cooking.  An array of pots and pans stood by a long shallow trench that was being filled with firewood.  Huge pieces of mutton were carried in, spices were washed and cleaned.  The open kitchen was being prepared for cooking.  The stoves were lit, several men sat with wooden slabs and mallets, pounding the meat for hours before it was put into the clay and metal pots and simmered over the wood fire.  While this was in progress, another tent had been set up where folk dancers and musicians would perform while family and friends sat around.

On the first night we represented the groom's side and went to the bride's house for a late night-early morning feast (wazwan) that lasted several hours, in which we were served all possible kinds of mutton dishes along with lots of rice and tiny amounts of vegetables.

There was much singing and dancing at both houses.  We returned early morning with the newly wed bride who was welcomed her to her new home with more singing.

Meanwhile the mehndi raat for the next day's wedding (where we represented the girl's side) was in progress.  Henna was applied in intricate patterns on the girl's hand and subsequently on the hands of the other women who were present.  Folk  musicians and dancers sang and played till just before dawn broke and then everyone dispersed to get a few hours of sleep.

The following day we witnessed the nikah or actual wedding (which takes place in the girl's house).  The prospective bride and groom are not present on this occasion.  Instead they are represented by close family members who initially ask the bride and groom (in the presence of two witnesses from each side) whether they agree to this marriage.  After they have consented, the representatives, the witnesses and the qazi (religious head) meet in the girl's house.  The boy's family provides a sum of money and jewellery which is handed directly to the girl.  A contract is drawn up stating the amounts given, the names of the representatives and the witnesses who are present at the ceremony.  This is signed by the participants and the wedding is complete.  Dates and cups of milk are handed out followed by large plates of meat.  Some of the food is consumed, some carried back, then everyone disperses.  In the evening, the groom and some members of his family visit the bride's house where they are welcomed with songs and gifts.  There is much feasting and music after which they return home along with the bride.

Seven days later, the newly wed couple visit the bride's house where they spend a few days.  This marks the end of the wedding ceremonies.
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