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12 Incredible Photos That Capture How Kashmiri Artisans Are Struggling To Save A Dying Art

By Rouf Sadiq Tantray

Willow wickering, craft where artisans manufacture different types of products by weaving willow rushes and reeds, has its roots in Central Europe and West Asia. It is said that Ganderbal district provides best soil and climatic conditions for the cultivation of this plant in the Kashmir valley. Legend has it that 12 kg seeds and some fine artisans were imported to valley of Kashmir from European countries by Maharaja Hari Singh during his reign and afterwards many people got associated with this newly introduced craft.

According to artisans, there is no regulation on the rates given by contractors to them, neither are the rates fixed for selling these products. Contractors fix prices and rates of their own depending on the demands in local and national market.

Artisans are in a fix whether to continue or switch to other sources of earning. There are no visible efforts by any government agency to regulate the prices or to protect the craft from the threat of extinction.

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Labourers peel off the bark of boiled withies. These labours work on a daily basis. Special apparatus called ‘Zelan’ is used to peel off the bark. Zelan is a pair of 3 feet long stick bound together tightly. Withies are placed into the gap between the two sticks and are pulled from other side letting the loosened bark part away. I remember when I was younger, I used to peel the bark of the withies with my cousins. Those days there used to be a huge rush at boiler sites. People would fight over the number of stacks of withies. For peeling every bundle of willows, one used to get Rs. 7 in those days. Now, that trend has died. Owners have to get labours for peeling, who work from morning to evening and are paid about 400 rupees on a daily basis.

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Withies are left to dry in the sun for at least two days. Later, the owners weigh and stack withies into bundles, which are later sold to workers and contractors as raw material.

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A worker starting up a base of the product. Usually these workers work in places that are locally called ‘Kaarkhans’. They are usually housed in makeshift rooms of size 10×8 feet, specially made for this work.

On this assignment, I travelled to many villages in district Ganderbal and came across some Kaarkhans that were housed in abandoned houses, shops and tin sheds. Many workers had covered the walls and roofs with thermocol for insulation and warmth.

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A worker mounting up the Willow withies over a base. When the base is set up. Some withies are inserted into the spaces created by weaving reeds of base. Usually the base determines the size and shape of the product.

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Different products are of different shapes and it demands weaving reeds over the withies differently. This weaving usually leaves workers’ hands and feet bruised and cut. Some items are woven in coloured reeds at the behest of contractors and the colouring agent used is believed to have health hazards, taking a toll on the health of the artisans.

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Supported by his feet, a worker weaves up the reeds over willow withies. In Gundirehman village of Ganderbal district, I came across a worker who has mastered art of weaving reeds with both hands. “It eases weaving and saves my time,” he told me with a grin.

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I saw transistors in most of the Kaarkhans I visited during my shoots. At some places, I saw workers listening to music using their cell phones. “I love listening to Kashmiri folk music and news bulletins on the transistor,” said Habibullah Lone, a weaver.

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A worker checking up the firmness of the basket he has made. Willow products are robust and strong. These are watered, varnished and dried up before put up in the market for sale.

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Mohammad Sonaullah of Shallabug village cuts off unwanted pieces of reeds and withies from the base of a tray. He has been in this craft from 1957. He told me he has seen this craft for a long now. “I was in 3rd standard when a worker, Ghulam Mohuidin from nearby village Gundirehman introduced this craft in our village and set up a unit. Most children did not like school, so along with other boys of the village, I joined this unit.” He further said, “It has become a tradition that runs through generations. We do not need to teach our children the basics of this craft, but they are not interested it. They prefer education over it.”

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Ghulam Ahmad War of Gaadora village has been in this craft for almost 35 years now. While talking to me he said, “There was a time when people used to make products for promoting the craft but now most people do it just for money, hence the quality of products has come down. I still put my heart into every product I make, working is worship for me. This craft has given me a livelihood for so long,” he added with pride.

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The contractors collect work from workers and every fortnight load these products in trucks and lorries to transport to other parts of state and country. Usually during festive seasons, the demand get escalated.

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Some workers have also abandoned the craft. They can be seen working under schemes like MNREGA as many find it easier than the craft of willow wickering since it requires one to sit in one place from dawn to dusk and this amount toil hardly fetches 200 rupees for the day.

Many workers I interacted with said, “Our younger generations are not taking up this craft. Most of our children prefer education and some prefer other sources of income.”

Note: This story was commissioned by Youth Ki Awaaz, as part of our Zoom In contest where Rouf Sadiq Tantray was one of those selected.

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