Kashmiri carpets to adorn the new parliament house

There is hope among carpet weavers in Kashmir that the prestigious assignment will also draw attention to their plight and bring in fresh opportunities with better pay

A salesman shows a hand-woven silk Kashmiri carpet at a shop in Srinagar (Photo: getty images)
A salesman shows a hand-woven silk Kashmiri carpet at a shop in Srinagar (Photo: getty images)

Mudassir Kuloo

A dozen master craftsmen assisted by a team of 50 artisans and weavers have been busy weaving 12 carpets for the new parliament building since OctoberNovember last year. The carpets are all set to be delivered later this month, apparently a month before the deadline.

Kashmir’s hand-woven carpet industry has been on the decline for the past several years. Machinemade synthetic carpets are cheaper, lighter than the carpets made of wool and thus easier to maintain. Not many can afford to buy the more expensive silk carpets either.

That is why there was considerable excitement when Tahiri Carpets received the order to supply 12 exclusive carpets for the new parliament building. They wanted the carpets to be masterpieces but with traditional designs.

One of the finished carpets therefore portrays a leopard in the jungle. A combination of 12 colours—ranging from red and orange to blue and green—are being used to portray animals in the forest. Some of the threads were dyed dark red to depict blood around a deer.

Another finished carpet covers an area of about 90 square feet—11 feet in length and 8 feet in width— made with silk-on-silk, which means both the threads and the knots are made of silk. It took some time to source super quality silk, confided sources, but the toughest challenge was to select the twelve master craftsmen out of 120 craftsmen working for Tahiri Carpets to work on the coveted project.

But while the wages of the craftsmen engaged in weaving the carpets for parliament house have been doubled to Rs 500 per day from the usual Rs 225-250 a day, in general the wages of the craftsmen have remained low and virtually stagnant for years. While carpet exporters have been given incentives, the lot of the craftsmen has been unenviable.

Manzoor Ahmad Bhat (35) from Budgam has been weaving carpets for the past 15-years. But he regrets his decision to take up the ancestral occupation. He is struggling to feed his family of five.

“I normally am paid Rs 200 as daily wages after working for over 10 hours. Notwithstanding the tall claims about Kashmiri carpets and their export potential, we (the artisans) have always found it difficult to make ends meet. Top businessmen and politicians use Kashmiri carpets but the highly skilled artisans are not paid wages of even an unskilled labour,” Bhat lamented.

“Job opportunities in Kashmir are few. The situation has worsened since 2019. I still earn Rs 200 per day and I have no option but to continue this work.” An estimated three lakh people associated with handicraft including shawl weaving, papier-mache, wood carving etc. have similar tales to tell.

Dr Gagan Deep Kaur from Laurentian University in Canada has done extensive research on Kashmiri carpets. “The carpet industry is in decline due to extremely poor wages to the artisans, poor access to the market to sell their products and a few sellers dominating the market,” she says.

Kashmiri craftsmen at work. A 10-hour work day yields just a few centimetres of carpet (Photo: Mudassir Kulooƒ)
Kashmiri craftsmen at work. A 10-hour work day yields just a few centimetres of carpet (Photo: Mudassir Kulooƒ)

While poor wages have forced artisans to leave this profession, the lack of access to the market compels them to sell their products relatively cheap to the middleman or to cartels of big traders. Better wages, expanding local demand and ensuring direct access to the market for craftsmen are imperatives, she underlines.

Depending on the intricacy of the design, an artisan can at best weave a few centimetres each day. A carpet usually takes four to eight months to complete. But middlemen pay them around Rs 30,000 for six months of back-breaking labour and take away the rugs. The same carpets are then sold at a much higher price that often run into lakhs.

J&K government’s own figures reveal there has been a 45 per cent decline in exports of handicraft in the last five years. While handicraft worth Rs 1,151 crore were exported in 2016-17, the figures dropped to Rs 635 crore in 2020-21. This included carpets worth Rs 299.56 crore and shawls worth Rs 172.52 crore.

However, Handicraft and Handloom Director Mahmood Ahmad Shah says, “We are forming societies of artisans which will receive financial assistance from the government. Last year the government gave financial assistance of Rs 10 crore to artisans. The government also provides financial assistance to children of artisans.”

Too little, say carpet weavers, many of whom are not aware of the schemes. Who is cornering the money meant for them, they wonder.

Prized Possessions

Kashmiri carpets can be of pure silk, of wool, of silk on cotton and a combination of materials. Besides the design, the colours and the motifs, what distinguishes the handwoven carpets are the knots. While 200 to 900 knots per square inch is considered ‘world class’, the really expensive ones with 2,400 to 3,600 knots can take two to three years to weave and. They are obviously rare.
The really expensive carpets are ‘silk on silk’ ( in which both warps and wefts are made using silk). Silk is also a material which is soft and yet strong. It is lightweight and yet durable with silk carpets lasting centuries, changing hands from one generation to another. It is also fire-resistant, capable of withstanding heat up to 160 degree Celsius.
The motifs on the carpets can range from floral designs to depicting a hunt or a tree with birds. It can show an exotic garden with flora and fauna. There are also modern designs such as geometric patterns that are preferred by some over the traditional. Some motifs depict the forest with lions and leopards, deer and peacocks.
Hand-woven carpets take both time and patience. Choosing the right material and the finest quality of silk yarns for exclusive carpets is the first step. Washed and dried, they are then dyed in the required colours. It is not uncommon to have 12 or more colours on a single carpet. The designer (Naqqash), the dyer (Rangrez) and finally the weaver (Kalimba) are at the heart of carpet weaving.
Once the design is settled, the Talim—the written code of design— is carefully explained to the team identified to execute the job.

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