Kashmiri Artisans: An Endangered Community

Srinagar getting ‘World Craft City’ title is ok, but the craft and craftsmen are in bad shape

Sajjad Bazaz

Srinagar has become the fourth Indian city to be recognized as a ‘World Craft City’ by the World Craft Council (WCC), following its designation as part of the UNESCO Creative City Network (UCCN) for crafts and folk arts three years ago.
The WCC recognition is considered an esteemed designation given to cities that excel in the promotion and development of traditional crafts and craftsmanship. This recognition acknowledges the city’s commitment to preserving and promoting its unique craft heritage and supporting local artisans.
The economic benefits by virtue of this designation includes a boost to the local economy by attracting tourists, investors, and buyers interested in authentic crafts, thereby increasing market opportunities for artisans. It also means cultural preservation, ensuring that these traditional craft practices are passed down to future generations.
The most important aspect of the recognition is the support for local artisans in terms of funding, training, and opportunities for international collaboration and exchange. However, in the context of this benefit, local Kashmiri craftsmen are not fortunate as the majority of this highly skilled community has been living in abject poverty and their plight lacks attention of authorities.
Let me deliberate upon the issue.
Our craftsmen have been hailed for making our handicrafts a prized possession worldwide. Their skillful craftsmanship has captured the hearts of millions of people. But there are countless stunning shades of life in our artisan community. Their own hearts have been bleeding. Their craftsmanship has failed them to prosper, as growing miseries owing to situations around them have been taxing them. They have not grown to a size (standard of living) which could have motivated them to entirely bank on their skill to carve out their livelihood.
Reason is lack of financial resources as well as a dingy working environment. The flow of money from the formal system has not been smooth for them. In the name of financial support, the influential hijack the craft of these artisans for peanuts. In olden days, exporters and middlemen used to fleece the artisans by giving them small loans and in exchange taking their crafts at a very marginal price. They used to sell these pieces of art to the outside world at lucrative prices. Thus there was a yearning gap between the people who used to produce it and those who used to sell it.
Today this situation has not changed much. Artisans continue to be in a dilemma for lack of proper financial resources. What artisans today need besides hassle free financing, is social protection. Examples galore where craftsmen because of the working conditions fell victim to some diseases like tuberculosis etc. For being underpaid, they couldn’t bear the expenditure to fight out these diseases. Precisely, our artisan community is today an endangered community.
I have some stunning tales to share in the context of the plight of our artisan community. By virtue of my organizational job profile in the bank, an old aged lady hailing from downtown Srinagar approached me with an application for financial assistance to undergo heart valve surgery. Her breathlessness was speaking for her ailment. On verification we learnt her husband was an artisan who was rendered handicapped after a severe heart stroke some years back. Prior to his ailment he was earning Rs.4,000 to Rs. 5,000 per month feeding his family of four members. After the ailment, his income had dropped to Rs.3,000 per month. Living in a dilapidated two room set, he would hardly see his two ends meet. Now with a squeezed domestic budget, the ailing artisan was left with no option but to seek financial support for treatment of his spouse. It took him more than a year to accumulate only half of the money required for treatment of his better-half. Her surgery was only possible when the bank paid the rest of the money to the hospital from its corporate social responsibility fund.
It is still in my mind when a paper machie artisan suffered a brain stroke and his family virtually came on the roadside for want of financial support not only to seek financial assistance for treatment of their only bread-earner but also to have two meals.
It was astonishing to note that dozens of similar cases were reported from downtown Srinagar and other artisan cluster dominated areas. In all such cases, I observed that the education of their children became an immediate causality.
Meanwhile, what we have observed is that the benefits of globalisation and the liberalisation of trade policies and economic reforms opening up new markets have not percolated down to our artisans despite producing hand-made products with such dexterity. It’s also a fact that our artisans have failed to realign their art and craftsmanship skills when technology has been fast integrating into the production processes of handmade products across India. But at the same time, the government too cannot escape the responsibility of providing them support in terms of modern infrastructure, hassle free credit, management and market development facilities.
Story of ailing Kashmiri art and the artisan is not new. I have never heard stories of the flourishing handicrafts sector, except mention of our arts and crafts as one of the outstanding products delighting consumers across the globe. The kind of hype our hand-made products have received is not matching the ground situation. Basically, it’s not that consumers turn away from these articles. The biggest threat to this sector remains poor production of articles in terms of volume and lack of quick response to consumer trends. To meet the production timelines has been a big worry as its failure has turned away the customers. It’s here machine made replicas, and imitations of authentic Kashmiri products have flooded markets which are being sold as genuine handicrafts at low prices. This has drastically reduced the market share of our hand-made products.
Our artisan community has never been able to pull itself out of miseries – they continue to work in poor conditions with negligible financial support and very meager returns. Not only this, from a marketing point of view the products stand hostage to influential people who have never allowed a broad-based marketing strategy of the sector.
So, gaining back the market acceptance for handicrafts when machine-made competitors offering the products at less price, needs dedicated resources and serious investment – of course hard work is inevitable. Investing time and money in the craft sector for expanding its markets are measures that are overdue and merits consideration. Notably, marketing is not a futile move; it would be an investment in sustainable development for our artisans.
Over a period of time, we have witnessed overwhelming growth in the socially conscious, ethically and environmentally responsible consumer segment. With right positioning and proper branding strategy to promote these positives we can convince the consumers of meaningful benefits to them. Besides, there should be no hesitation to pitch our handicrafts in the domain of luxury brands. During the course, highlighting artistic skills, aesthetic and cultural values by showcasing our crafts as one-off pieces makes sense.
So, any marketing strategy should push our crafted products in the elite markets. This would certainly raise its value. Investment in the research and design capacity of artisans also needs to be included in any strategy that seeks to address the marketing and market demand problems confronting artisans. Let assistance from professional designers to artisans is also facilitated to integrate new ideas and tradition. This would certainly lead to a new set of products and can ultimately be pivotal to salability.
Last but not the least. One of the cost effective and result-oriented efforts would be to take film makers and television serial production houses on board for promoting Kashmiri handicrafts. This can be done by appropriately embedding Kashmiri handicraft items in their sets. Even while scripting dialogues of a film or a serial, production houses can be influenced to make a mention of our handicraft items decorating the sets.
Precisely, what we need today is the reincarnation of the Mughal period which was in fact a period of prosperity to artisans in handicrafts. In Mughal times the demand for hand-made products came from feudal lords and nawabs of India who used to decorate their durbar with handicrafts. Thus, bringing handsome earning opportunities at the doorsteps of the artisans.
(The author is former Head of Corporate Communication & CSR and Internal Communication & Knowledge Management Departments of J&K Bank)

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