G20, World Bank And A Heritage Kashmiri Craft

The Willow Wicker Crafts Of Kashmir Are Blooming Again

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PEER MOHAMMAD AMIR QURESHI

The G-20 meeting in Srinagar holds a very special place for the willow wicker crafts people of Ganderbal in central Kashmir. These artisans say that showcasing their products for the international delegates at the G-20 meeting gave their craft a new lease of life. Before that, most of them used to make products for domestic use only.

Now, tourists from within the country and abroad seek their products. Designers from diverse places visit them with new ideas for their product range. The willow wicker craft of Kashmir is blooming again.

“Now we have so many bulk orders from within the country and abroad that we don’t even have time to sit,” says Bashir Ahmad Dar, a skilled craftsman in his 50s.“Before the G-20 meeting last year, we were feeling that our heritage willow wicker craft was on the verge of extinction,” Darcomes from a family of willow wicker craftsmen who have kept alive this craft for centuries.

Ganderbal is known for its natural splendour, including lush green woods, snow-capped mountains, and freshwater lakes including the exquisiteManasbal– the lake considered the “jewel in the crown.” The sacred Amarnath Cave and the Kheer Bhawani shrine are popular pilgrimage sites of Ganderbal. Sonamarg and Naranag are among the popular tourism destinations here. In the delighful Ganderbal, traditional crafts such as wicker and willow weaving have flourished.

The Willow Works Of Peerpora

Peer Showkat Ahmad, the confident 28-year-old from Peerpora in Ganderbal is committed to preserving his forefathers’ timeless craft. Showkat is Bashir Ahmad’s nephew. Together with his father and uncle, Showkatardently champions the art of wickerwork, ensuring that this cherished tradition endures.

Willow Wicker Craft is known as Keani Keam in Kashmiri. The craft is testimony to the creativity of Kashmir’s master artisans, boasting a long tradition spanning centuries.

The locals refer to the crafts people as Shaaksaaz. This sophisticated industryinvolves the exquisite weaving of willow reeds. It thrives most notably in Ganderbal district. The region’s unique geographic location provides the optimal soil and climatic conditions for developing and cultivating the willow wicker crops.

The journey starts with the planting of saplings. Once sprouted, each sapling is severed and replanted, allowing for the annual collecting of shoots. This cycle continues, producing a continuous harvest until the sapling is eventually uprooted. The planting season normally lasts from February to March, with a mature willow plant reaching a height of 2-3 meters.

The Laborious Process

The laborious harvesting process finishes in October. After the crop is harvested, the withy is precisely wrapped based on length and girth, signalling the start of its industrial voyage. The harvest is sold to a contractor, who distributes it to numerous craftspeople along with comprehensive instructions for the products to be made.

When the artisans receive the raw material, they first soften it by boiling the raw willow. This is done the traditional way in gigantic water boilers fired by wood. The bundles are buried and weighted down by massive boulders and left to simmerovernight. After boiling, the softened bundles are retrieved and carried on to the next step: bark removal.

This delicate operation is carried out with a particular arrangement of sticks locally called zealan. The bark is recycled as fuel. The withies are dried in sunshine for days, till there is no trace of moisture left. Once again, the dried withies are arranged in bundles according on length and width. 

‘G-20 Meeting Gave Us New Direction’

Traditionally, the art was used to make commonhome-use products like trays, baskets, and storage containers.Showkatand his uncle Bashir say that with more and people preferring to buy synthetic or plastic products, the art was gradually dying.

“A little more than a year ago, we used to think that this craft is seeing its last days. But just before the G-20 conference, the government intervened, and a Kolkata-based NGO named Kadam showed us new direction,” says Bashir Ahmad.

Showkat says that the NGO encouraged them to weave new products in modern designs. The big break for us happened when the government requested a willow wicker craftsman to display his products at the exhibition organized for the G-20 delegates.

“The guests were delighted by this ancient craft. Many national and international delegates purchased pieces from our collection,” said Showkat Ahmad. Now these artisans are engaged in meticulously crafting an array of exquisite wicker willow items including fruit baskets, bread baskets, picnic baskets, lamp shades, flower baskets, dog baskets, cat baskets and more,” says Showkat with enthusiasm.

“Many times, foreign tourists specially come to see our craft. It is indeed a matter of pride for us that we are preserving and taking forward one of Kashmir’s heritage crafts,” adds Dar.

The artisans are happy that Jammu and Kashmir Administration regularly organizes exhibitions where they can display their products. Showkat is thrilled that their extensive collection featuring hundreds of unique designs is sold across the nation and abroad.

Designers from many parts of the country interact with the artisans and suggest innovations in their product range. “We have incorporated leather handles and zip chains in many of our items, which have been met with great admiration from our customers,” says Showkat.

Bashir Ahmad Dar says that for generations, their family has been engaged with the wicker willow trade. “I have spent 35 years weaving these delicate objects. We have ten youngsters to master this craft, and they are working on over 150 new concepts,” says Dar. With increased revenue, there is renewed hope among the artisans. The heritage craft supports about around 10,000 families.

“It is an enriching experience to participatein trade shows and exhibitions. “We interact with new people everywhere who give us new ideas of the emerging needs of the market, and we incorporate these ideas in our work”

Youngsters Learning the Craft, Taking The Baton Forward

“The encouraging news is that the new generation is enthusiastically learning the art of wicker willow crafting from us,” says Dar. He is appreciative of the efforts of J&K Administration, which regularly facilitates the craftsmen to showcase their products nationwide.

“Previously, our exports were limited. But now,hundreds of Kashmiri wicker items are being shipped worldwide.By the grace of God, we are generating substantial revenue and providing financial support to over twenty families associated with our company, Peerpora Willow Works,” highlights Dar.

“Many times, foreign tourists specially come to see our craft. It is indeed a matter of pride for us that we are preserving and taking forward one of Kashmir’s heritage crafts”

Peer Showkat Ahmad says it is an enriching experience to participate in trade shows and exhibitions. “We interact with new people everywhere who give us new ideas of the emerging needs of the market, and we incorporate these ideas in our work. I am highly grateful for the support that we have received from the district administration and the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts,” saysShowkat.

Clearly, for the wicker willow industry of Kashmir, happy days are here again.

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