The Trials and Tribulations of Kashmir's Handicraft Artisans

Strolling through the narrow alleys of Kashmir, one can smell the sweet fragrance of saffron. Once hit by the cool breeze, they are reminded of the soft warmth of the Pashmina shawls delicately embroidered in paisley patterns. They are astounded by the fine craftsmanship on the papier mache and carpets, which make them a prized possession worldwide. The Kashmiri valley has not only been blessed with unparalleled natural beauty but also with artisans of the highest calibre who have been creating breathtaking handicrafts. In the valley, these handicrafts are not just art but also a way of leading life and, quite naturally, a means of livelihood. 

 

The scenic beauty of Kashmir

 

For centuries, Kashmir’s handicraft industry has carried monumental importance in preserving the culture of the land and providing them with an economy. Although the sophisticated charm and richness of Kashmiri handicrafts have never failed to woo any onlooker, however, in recent years, a great shift has been observed in the sales and production of these artefacts marking a certain decline. More than 250,000 of the total Kashmiri populace depend heavily on the handicraft industry for their source of income, and it's been a while since they have begun complaining about the unfortunate shrink in the market size of their products.  While we indulge in admiration of fine craftsmanship, the handicraft industry is facing significant challenges such as insufficient practical support and the labor-intensive nature of the work.

 

The handicraft sector in Kashmir has always had its fair share of challenges. It's true, those mesmerizing crafts never fail to leave onlookers in awe, but let's be real, potential buyers often hesitate to even touch them because of those sky-high price tags. The artist's pricing is primarily influenced by two factors, and one must grasp the industry's nature to truly comprehend it. This industry is labour-intensive and time-consuming. The skills utilized in these crafts are the very ones that have been traditionally handed down to artists, taking decades to master and weeks, if not years, to replicate. Artists can produce only a stipulated amount of products at a given point in time. the artist quotes a price point that adequately reflects both their effort and time, but unfortunately, this often goes unnoticed by the buyer, resulting in a decline in demand for the product as a whole.

 

Snippets from Memeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Masterclass

 

According to a report produced by the CDI (Craft Development Institute), Srinagar, the industry has witnessed a catastrophic decline of 20% in the income generated by the products within the nation, and a whopping 25-45% decline internationally in the year 2020 when compared to that of 2017. The report further attributed the loss to the unorganised nature of the sector, high pricing and lack of innovation on the periphery. Digging deeper into the issue, it becomes apparent that the pricing of the products is highly inconsistent, largely due to the intervention of agents and middlemen. These intermediaries acquire the crafts from the artists and often inflate the prices unreasonably, exacerbating the problem. As a result, the artist is left with a measly amount when compared to what the agents make. This is a sheer case of ignorance that is discouraging the artists and ultimately leading the craft to its grave.

 

Adding to these challenges was the unfortunate and unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns. It brought to light the unforeseen challenge of "Blocked Inventory." Based on the exceptional sales performance until 2018, artists and local traders decided to invest heavily in inventory, banking on market projections derived from past records. An enormous amount ranging from 700 to 1200 crores was invested, only to face the painful reality of inventory blockage caused by the untimely announcement of COVID-19 lockdowns. This resulted in two significant issues. First, the existing inventories saturated the demand for new products, creating a stagnant market. Second, the blocked products faced challenges in reaching any market, adding to the artists' frustrations as their payments remained stagnant as well. What followed next was a widespread unemployment crisis as the commercial ecosystem failed to function. It was reported that Kashmir witnessed a staggering unemployment rate of 17.04%, reaching a record high. 

 

Picture from MeMeraki's Papier-mâché collection

  

Adding to the challenges, the post-COVID situation sparked conversations about the militant uprising in the Kashmir region. Drawing from previous instances of political unrest, heightened security measures were implemented by the armed forces, resulting in a significant decline in tourism and further exacerbating the already challenging market situation that the artists rely on. The political unrest poses a parasitic challenge to the handicraft market in Kashmir, disrupting the entire production process from sourcing materials to promoting the products. The conflicts not only make it difficult to obtain necessary materials but also hinder the artists' ability to promote their work. With concerns for their safety, artists are often unable to venture outside, further increasing their reliance on external agents who may fail them.

 

Furthermore, market researchers have noted a concerning trend of declining quality in handicrafts. This brings our attention to the challenging situation of introducing cheaper mass-produced items into a market heavily reliant on tourism. Mass-produced items took over the souvenir business, leaving the original handicrafts in a state of deprivation. While these products were cheaper and lacked quality, they offered durability and easy availability, which couldn't be said for the meticulously handcrafted ones. Moreover, tthe machine-made products appeared indistinguishable unless observed with a keen eye and felt with an elevated sense of art and craftsmanship. The availability of these cheap knock-offs significantly hampered the market, impacting as much as half of its size and affecting every household that relied upon the age-old traditions. Quoting from Firdaus Mallik's interview with The Kashmir Life, she states, “The main reason the handicraft business is declining is that the costly authentic handicrafts are outwitted by the cheap machine-made products”. However, it has also managed to capture the attention of a small but dedicated group of authentic art collectors. Their obstinate search for truly handmade products is the reason why the industry still manages to survive. The biggest blow, however, was yet again to the families of the artists as they witnessed a gradual decline in the transmission of this art form to the younger generation.

 

Following the story of Syed Ajaz Shah, a National-award-winning Kashmiri papier mache artist, one gains insight into the harsh realities faced by artists in their daily lives. In 2008, Shah was conferred the award for his extraordinary craftsmanship on a tiny papier mache jewellery box. He considered his association with the craft to be a spiritual one. He believed that he would keep the family tradition ignited in the best possible way. Little did he know that he would encounter such a predicament where he would be forced to sell his award-winning work for a meagre amount of Rs. 30,000.as he was grappling with the challenge of treating his ailing father. Shah’s art continues to be his greatest accomplishment but it is immediately overshadowed by the battles that he needs to fight on a daily basis. At the lowest point, he resorted to selling most of his artworks and prized possessions to purchase an autorickshaw in order to make ends meet. However, despite these circumstances, he continues to promote the art and actively participate in exhibitions and workshops.

 

Snippets from Memeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Masterclass

 

The challenges outlined above serve as a stark reflection of the reality that the system has consistently failed the artists. Undoubtedly, artists have always held the value and authenticity of their works in high regard, but they have not been adequately rewarded for their efforts. Despite the government's commendable efforts to mobilize the industry, widespread unawareness continues to hinder the desired progress. To preserve the authenticity of handcrafted works, the CDI (Crafts Development Institute) is offering GI (Geographical Indication) tags after meticulous scrutiny and evaluation. Since 2008, over 5000 handicrafts have been granted GI tags, reinstating faith in the artists and their traditional crafts. Additionally, the CDI has introduced specialized courses in handicrafts such as papier mache, copper plate decoration, wooden carving, and more. These initiatives aim to attract younger generations to the industry and promote it in an organized manner. Despite these efforts, the outcomes remain limited as many artists are unable to take full advantage of the programs. To address this situation, the government has introduced several funds to support the artists and protect them from exploitation. Additionally, the Export Promotion Council of Handicrafts (EPCH) organizes award functions to motivate and recognize the artists along their challenging journey. The Tourism Department and the Ministry of Textiles also demonstrate a special interest in preserving the handicraft sector of Kashmir since it is both unique and brings great business back to the country.  Despite all these measures, the handicraft industry continues to face a devastating decline, exacerbated by the lack of support during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. The artists have barely recovered from the nightmare that pushed them to the brink of abandoning their art altogether.

 

To summarize, given the prevailing circumstances and the concerning statistics, it becomes crucial for us to take immediate action and empower the Kashmiri handicraft industry. This entails educating the artists about the existing governmental support and equipping them with digital skills to navigate the evolving market landscape. Failure to do so would only contribute to the industry's gradual decline and the loss of a valuable cultural heritage. The enchanting landscapes of Kashmir embody both natural beauty and artistic brilliance. However, the heavy reliance on the immediate market poses a significant threat to its flourishing handicraft industry. Time and again, the region has captivated markets and hearts with its vibrant offerings, promising to stay true to its roots. Yet, without substantial support, the industry faces the looming risk of collapse. It is therefore imperative to address this crisis promptly, as the erosion of Kashmir's rich heritage would be an irreparable loss.


References:

BAHADUR, BILAL. 2021. “Crafts In Crisis.” Kashmir Life. https://kashmirlife.net/crafts-in-crisis-vol-13-issue-24-275787/.

Bhat, Ishfaq A. 2015. “Economic Potential of Handicrafts of Jammu and Kashmir.” International Journal of Science and Research (IJSR). https://www.ijsr.net/archive/v6i12/ART20178749.pdf.

Hassan, Ruheela. 2020. “(PDF) PROBLEMS AND REVIVAL OF HANDICRAFT INDUSTRY IN KASHMIR -AN ANALYSIS.” ResearchGate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/347890552_PROBLEMS_AND_REVIVAL_OF_HANDICRAFT_INDUSTRY_IN_KASHMIR_-AN_ANALYSIS.

Irfan, Shams. 2009. “CDI introduces course in craft industry.” Kashmir Life. https://kashmirlife.net/cdi-introduces-course-in-craft-industry-53625/.

Shah, F. 2018. “Award-Winning Kashmir Artist Forsakes Craft, Drives Autorickshaw to Survive.” The Wire. https://thewire.in/the-arts/for-this-national-award-winning-artist-auto-driving-was-more-feasible-than-his-craft.

Shah, Mohd R. 2016. “An Assessment of Handicraft Sector of J&K with Reference to Central Kashmir.” Hilaris. https://www.hilarispublisher.com/open-access/an-assessment-of-handicraft-sector-of-jk-with-reference-to-central-kashmir-2223-5833-1000258.pdf.

Singh, Gurcharn. 2017. “Role of Handicraft Industry in J & k Economy Original Research Paper Gurcharn Singh Commerce.” Worldwidejournals.com. https://www.worldwidejournals.com/global-journal-for-research-analysis-GJRA/recent_issues_pdf/2017/June/role-of-handicraft-industry-in-j--k-economy_June_2017_7012569816_4607498.pdf.

Yasmin, Effat, and F A Bhat. 2013. “An Evaluation of Handicraft Sector of J&K – A Case study of District Budgam.” Euacademic.org. https://euacademic.org/uploadarticle/27.pdf.

References

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