Kashmiri artisans stitch dreams into reality

Art revival

Kashmiri artisans stitch dreams into reality

Malik and his wife are old sozni embroiderers. Being in the craft for 30 years, they have now passed it on to their daughters. Sozni is prized world over and is unique to Kashmir. It involves the making of beautiful, intricate colourful patterns using a needle and thread on a shawl, stole or a garment. Ironically, although the shawls embroidered by Malik have made to global showrooms, bringing fortunes for its traders, he has only managed to make ends meet.

Malik and artisans like him work for meagre wages that rarely come on time. This how the system within the industry works — the trader, for whom the Malik family worked for, would pay them according to his whims, often delaying payments. In a worse-case scenario, if the trader did not like the work he had commissioned, he would simply not pay up or Malik would have to pay a penalty, which in effect meant that he was actually sharing the cost of the raw material, which was supposed to be from the trader’s coffer entirely. “If I resisted or refused, the trader would ask us to sell it ourselves,” Malik rued.   

Life was difficult, but the worst was yet to come. The crashing of the global economy strained Malik’s prospects further. Kashmir’s handicrafts, which have a huge market in Europe, USA and the Middle East were hit by recession. With vanishing buyers, exporters and traders felt the heat. Stocks piled up and therefore traders did not procure more stocks. As a result, fresh work for craftsmen also dried up. This was devastating for Malik and some 180 families and around 1000 inhabitants engaged in crafts like Sozni, carpet weaving in his village alone. Still, amidst the panic and gloom of global recession, there was a small ray of hope — the Dastkar Finance scheme by the J&K Bank. This specialised scheme aims at extending the benefits of banking to neglected segments of society — artisans like carpet weavers, shawl embroiderers and kani shawl weavers. The motive is to promote, professionalise and institutionalise arts and crafts of Kashmir.

The scheme provides a fixed capital for a loom, tools and design. To add to it, working capital for raw material, wages and other expenses. The disbursement is phased in quarterly installments subject to verification of the status of the work in progress. This would provide the artisan community — better income, improved standard of living and a launch pad for entrepreneurial ventures. Also, the bank has promised to help in marketing the products and is prioritising direct and micro-lending with the aim of doing away with middlemen in the trade. Providing further relief and assistance is the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries by agreeing to be the buyer of these products as a last resort.

Malik and his family now embroider shawls and stoles owned by them as well as outsource work to other artisans. “My monthly income has doubled,” said Malik. A father of five, he has taken steps to ensure education for all his children; something he was denied because he had to earn a livelihood  early in his life. His eldest daughter Rifat, 20, is in the final year of her graduation who funds her education by the craft she engages in. Malik’s second daughter Afroza, 18, follows suit. Another example is Malik’s neighbour Manzoor Ahmad Parray, 25, who has also benefited from Dastkar Finance. Things were tough for him and his family, all involved in sozni. But now, Parray not only embroiders shawls and stoles, but is engaged in their sale as well. Earlier, the family managed to earn just Rs 3000 per month. Now, their income has tripled with the promise of a further increase. “My shawls are sold in Mumbai, Calcutta, and Himachal Pradesh and exported by a trader to foreign lands. I aspire to export them myself one day,” he says.

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