Ghulam Mohammad Shah earns his livelihood embroidering Pashmina shawls, stoles and other woollen items. Forty years ago, he was content, because his job meant his family would never have to go hungry. Today, the workers in this field struggle to make ends meet.
Shah recalls how back in the day, every household used to have to 4-5 workers in the embroidery trade, with the profession helping sustain entire families. Now, he worries that this art will die in next three or four years. The younger generation is not interested in learning this craft because it is not lucrative, he says.
“Embroidery workers are struggling for their livelihood as we barely earn Rs 100-150 per day that too if we work overtime. Why would my son take up this profession and earn absolute pittance? The art of embroidery is dying in Kashmir Valley, It’s in the last stage and it will last for 3-4 years,” he says.
The embroidery work is locally known as “Aari or Sozni Kaem”, meaning needle work. Finer thread is used for Sonzi embroidery as compared to Aari work.
The art is famous for its workmanship as it requires a lot of concentration. Workers sit in one place for hours, and over the years, some workers also experience loss of eyesight.
Colourful threads are used to embroider these shawls. The centuries-old art used to provide employment to literate and illiterate workers in rural and urban areas alike. It acted as a subsidiary source of income for farmers who remained unemployed during the off seasons. Unfortunately, the introduction of machines has affected the industry.
Shah says customers choose machine-made designs over their handmade counterparts as it is cost-effective and requires lower production effort. While a handmade shawl costs around Rs 2,500, the same shawl made by a machine will cost around Rs 500.
Machines have forced us to either shift to machine work or try some other profession and surrender this art.Ghulam Ali Shah, Artisan
Several other artisans in the Valley have a similar story to tell. Artisan Abdul Majeed, from the Kangan area of Ganderbal district, says that Kashmir is not only popular for its beauty, it is also famous for producing one of the best handicrafts in the world, embroidery on shawls being among them.
“Earlier we used to occupy a room where artisans would work together, it was sort of a workshop where 20 to 30 people from one area would work together, but now people mostly work from home as newer generation is not learning this craft. Moreover, the kind of attention and respect we used to get earlier is missing nowadays,” he says.
This industry is in shambles.Abdul Majeed, artisan
In order to preserve this art, the Jammu and Kashmir handicrafts department has started a training programme. The department website defines the programme as: “Approximately, 7,500 to 8,500 trainees are imparting training annually through these training centres. Presently the department has 553 training centres with 13,000 as intake capacity”.
But the unfortunate fact is that many of these training centres are without training instructors or masters, who pass on the skill to younger artisans. “These training centres need to have a master who would teach the art to new aspirants. There are many vacant posts in many of these training centres where there are no masters to teach,” said a member of one of the Srinagar based training centre, requesting anonymity.
The Quint tried to contact the Director, Handicrafts, JK, but his office said that he was unavailable owing to the Darbar move.