Kashmir’s iconic carpet industry, fading due to shrinking base of native workforce, is witnessing a new-age entrepreneurial revival at the moment.
At the heart of this change are the two young men giving a face-lift to the cottage industry with their unique touches and treatment.
Anguished about the steep fall of Kashmiri Arts over the last three decades owing to the political turmoil in the valley, the duo has come together to boost the vintage carpet sector with modern and innovative techniques.
The craft camaraderie between Imaad Rohella and Shahnawaz Sofi is a typical western-oriental merger. While Imaad has recently graduated in Luxury Brand Management from Italy, Shanawaz is a native artisan and a Fine Arts graduate.
To restore what they call the classic significance of the renowned Kashmiri rugs, the duo has combined the carpet weaving with the unique art of calligraphy and Zari work — innovation never seen before.
Before this carpet confluence, Kashmir would mostly resort to old school rugs. The carpets would be churned out by the home-stations — where natives would make these rugs according to the given script. The design would lie in the script mostly revolving around the rich imagery of the land, cultural elements and heritage symbols.
Those captivating carpets had to do with Kashmir’s Silk Route odyssey. Before 1947, trade between the silk route and Kashmir Himalayas was a run-of-the-mill job. But as geo-political developments took place, there was a disruption in the route and eventually the valley’s Central Asian connection was snapped.
While that influence is still glaring on the Kashmiri carpets among other crafts, but with time, craftsmen of the valley did their own interventions and made Kashmiri carpet one of the finest in the world. It would reflect arts and aesthetics—something which the valley of Kashmir is known for, especially the Downtown area of the capital city, Srinagar.
But come the militant moment of 1990s and this cottage industry would be torn asunder by the explosive strife. Due to adverse and crippling situation, market mess, middlemen culture and low dividends, the artisans started switching over to other means of living.
This silent craft departure disrupted the Kashmir’s carpet industry, now housing a few carpet weavers in some loose pockets of Sonawari in Bandipora district, and parts of Budgam while the masses have long severed their ties with it.
In the backdrop of this craft crisis, the duo’s creative campaign is seen as a new lease of life to Kashmiri carpet industry.
By introducing the Kashmiri heritage and culture in their products, 21-year-old Imaad, and 30-year-old Shahnawaz have already created a buzz in the valley where people across the spectrum are showing great interest in their creative works. The age of social media has itself helped their cause by spreading the message among the masses craving for the good old Kashmiri products lost in the buzz of modernity.
“We’re mainly focused on telling our cultural story through the modernization of time-valued crafts”Imaad Rohella, Carpet Artist
Kashmiri craft as refection of the times has always been relevant. Besides portraying beautiful meadows and mountains of the valley, many classic carpets have depicted political dramas, folklores and historical events for the world to see.
The duo wants to portray the same traditional story of the valley to the world through the Kashmiri crafts, products and design language.
“Our main vision is to keep the produce focused and coherent with the story of Kashmir,” says Shahnawaz.
“We’re working on innovating the traditional crafts and the traditional techniques we have. We’re focused on the design language of the product and tweaked it according to the modern trends. It’s all work in process right now.”Shahnawaz Sofi, Carpet Artist
Both Imaad and Shahnawaz come from Old Srinagar’s Safa Kadal area, a hub of Kashmir’s classic crafts. The community nestled on the banks of the seventh bridge of the city has already taken a pride for housing some of the finest craftsmen.
But as this area of the city falls under the defiant Downtown territory. Years of curbs have itself cast shadows on its craftsmen. Some have left the art, others are still struggling with it.
However, with the rise of the native duo, many in this craft community are now looking forward to the much-needed change to come out and challenge the art's apathy.
“We come from different backgrounds but our vision matches,” says Shahnawaz, who belongs to the carpet-weaving family and wants to take the legacy forward along with his creative passion and pursuit.
“Since I am witness to Kashmiri carpet’s fall from the grace over the period of time, the whole point of this collaboration is to restore some lost pride in our craft.”Shahnawaz Sofi, Carpet Artist
The idea of the craft collaboration emerged in 2018 when Imaad came back to the valley.
“I wanted to explore the potential that Kashmir had,” he said. “So I started reading the cultural history of Kashmir and started exploring the crafts of Kashmir and saw a great potential in it.”
It’s during this pursuit he crossed his ways with Shahnawaz and decided to collaborate for the project.
“We’re perfecting the craft with the help of innovative technology and are getting materials from wherever we can procure them across the world and trying to make something beautiful,” says Shahnawaz.
At the moment, because of the COVID scenario, the Kashmiri industry and the luxury market has been hit hard, says Imaad. “But we’re working on it, hoping that it’s going to yield a lot of benefit in the coming future.”
“There are a lot of things that need to be upgraded and different ideas and elements that could be introduced to the industry against the traditional practices,” Imaad says.
“There are a lot of different perspectives we’re taking into consideration right now. It will be a time-taking process and we’re moving one step at a time and perfecting one thing at a time and looking forward to come up with more innovative collections.”Imaad Rohella, Carpet Artist
As of now, the response is overwhelming, with people fascinated by the products that they’ve created.
“We’re more than happy to continue on the journey,” he said. “With more hard work and efforts into it, we’re hopeful that people would be responding the same way.”
(Mir Seeneen is a freelance feature writer based in Srinagar. She writes for Al Jazeera, TRT World, The Caravan among others.)
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