Meet the Artisans
Himalayas, in one of India’s most majestic states, Kashmir, a group of women artisans are contemporizing crewel embroidery that resembles crochet and dates back to the 1400s. Scarves, bedding, sheets, clothing—all forms of textiles are enhanced with this hook stitch in patterns that sing of Kashmir: saffron, tulips, lotus and lilies.
The designs are stenciled on paper, first. And then transferred to the fabric, before being embroidered, using wool thread on cotton fabrics.
Brought over by Damascus craftsmen and popularized under Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin’s rule, one of the most revered rulers of Kashmir who governed from 1420 to 1470, the embroidery is an art form passed down through the generations. Yet, such a deeply entrenched heritage is struggling in the modern era.
Artisans lack a constant supply of work. Payments dwindle in slowly. It’s hard to make a living by stitching simply.
Hunarmand, a Kashmir-based non-profit working with Mela, is trying to create opportunities for these women, by opening more markets for their beautifully stitched products.
Jahangir Ahmed Bhat, Project Manager for Hunarmand in Srinagar, says “there is satisfaction in the work.” A post graduate, specializing in craft management, he hails from rural Kashmir. Bhat is compelled by the women who practice this art.
“Whenever we receive an order that really brings energy and hope in us. I immediately start visualizing the impact of the order and the changes work will bring in the lives of women.”
Bhat’s hometown, Kulgam, lies 68 km outside of Srinagar; known as the “rice bowl of Kashmir,” it’s a deeply agrarian community with most people growing rice, apples, or raising livestock. Nestled in front of the Peer Panchal range of mountains, the innermost range of the Himalayas, Kulgam has a surreal landscape. Yet, life can be strenuous for locals.
Tasleema Akhter, a master artisan, who now works with Bhat, grew up in Kulgam as well. She, and her three siblings, were raised by her grandmother who was “left to fend for us,” Akhter recalls.
To make a living, they reared cattle. Embroidery was a pastime as a child.
At 8 years of age, she was learning how to perfect hook stitches from her relatives. Embroidery stayed a hobby for years?—?until 4 years ago when she signed up to work with INTACH, India’s National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, a project that started in 1984 to help artisans around the country.
Now, she says:
"Work is Worship"
The transition from a hobby to a serious source of income started when she was 16: she began working as an individual artisans for local traders. “There was no financial security as the work used to be irregular,” she says. “Most of my time, I was sitting idle.”
Work was underpaid and payments trickled in long after they were due. Then, after five years of going solo, she decided to join an artisan group like Hunarmand (which translates to “skillful”). “Actually, here, it means skillful women,” says Bhat.
Akhter became one of these skillful women. Today, she’s regarded as a master artisan and supervises other women, learning the craft. Operating in a group was the answer, she says: “The artisan group provides equal working opportunities to all of its members and is working as a unit.”
In Delhi, AIACA, the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association, supports this group of women in Kashmir. A member-based organization, AIACA gives out craftmark certification to these products to ensure that they’re made in a socially-conscious way. AIACA provides these groups with skills training, access to loans, and helps them market their product. Given that the women don’t have export licenses, AIACA steps in and does the packaging, labeling, and sales.
The latter has been particularly helpful to the cluster of Kashmiri women. In the last two years, AIACA says they’ve seen immense growth. From making $2,000 a year, they’re now making 30 times that; or nearly $60,000 worth of sales.
What a change, thanks to an age-old craft.