Locals of Ashtangoo village in North Kashmir's Bandipora are fighting to retain the dying art of carpet weaving which was once livelihood to 95 percent of households of the village.
Carpet weaving in Kashmir was introduced by Sultan Zainul Abideen in the 15th century when he brought some Persian artisans to the valley and trained the locals in art and craftsmanship.
After the reign of Buddha Shah, the valley's carpet weaving suffered a major blow until the middle of the 18th century, when it was revived by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The Mughal era is known as golden-era of carpet weaving and it is said that the artisans of that time lived a comfortable life and enjoyed a level of artistic dignity.
Hailing from Ashtangoo, Ulfat after completing her graduation took to learn this work to retain this art of carpet weaving which was once the largest subsistence of the people in her village.
She told Rising Kashmir that in the past, they had almost 20 laborers working as carpet weavers in their home and were making a good living from this art for their children and family.
Ulfat said her village Ashtangoo, which was once hub of carpet weaving and at one time this craft attracted male heads of household as the main breadwinners for their families, but now it is very rare to find them working on looms. Some continue to work but everyone knows in the village that this could be the last generation of carpet weaving, she said.
"So, I took steps to retain this dying art although there were many options for me to opt for, because all my studies have been done with the money earned from this art as it was once the only source of livelihood for my family", she said.
Ulfat said that she has been learning this work for four or five months now and she will soon try to do something innovative in it that will draw people's attention again towards this dying art just as the artists lived a decent living from it some years ago.
She said the art that once generated employment opportunities to thousands of people in Kashmir is now rarely seen in the trade of interest of craft lovers in Kashmir. The situation could get worse in the coming years if immediate measures are not taken to restore the pristine glory of the carpet industry, the young carpet weaver said.
Ulfat said that since the concerned stakeholders have not taken measures to increase the decreasing number of skilled carpet weavers during recent years in Kashmir. Consequently the trade has ceased to be a lucrative job in Kashmir and the fact of the matter is that the new generation does not show any interest in this craft.
"A feeling among people is that there is hardly any innovation in Kashmir carpet now and it is the fact that we still follow the same designs and patterns that were available with us decades ago. If we want to gain market, we need to do innovations in the craft more and more and it is for the stakeholders to take immediate measures for reviving this dying art in Kashmir,” she said.
In the village not only men were engaged in carpet weaving but women were also skilled in this work in addition to working in the field, running their household, and looking after their children. They were earning their livelihood themselves from carpet weaving which was a perfect example of women's empowerment.
Mehbooba Begum, a skilled female artisan of the village who once led a team of 20 women carpet weavers, echoes the sentiments of carpet weavers of her village which could be the last generation of carpet weavers.
"I was 19 years old when I decided to learn this art and my father taught me carpet weaving. It took me two years to become proficient in reading the taleem (coded instructions for viewing)", she told Rising Kashmir.
Mehbooba said that she started her own loom and devoted herself to it and never stopped. "I taught 20 women the art of weaving and was spearheading them for five years in making carpets of different designs which fetch thousands of dollars in international markets,” she said.
"As soon as the demand for this carpet in the market declined, none among those twenty women agreed to continue this work because I could not pay them the same wages that I used to give them and it forced me to close the loom,” Mehbooba added.
She laments the death of weaving art that not too long ago was giving her a good living, stated that machine made carpets have replaced the handmade carpets which were once famous for their texture.
Another weaver, Mohammad Maqbool is drawing a map of India on carpet to seek wide attention towards the dying art of Kashmir. He has been knitting carpets from his early age, an art that was passed down to him from previous generations and has provided employment to thousands of other people also.
Maqbool said that carpet weaving has been considered an important industry in ancient Kashmir handicrafts and was once the backbone of Kashmir's economy and not only the artisans but other people associated with this industry were earning a good living.
He said that the changing trend and indifference of the concerned departments over the decades has led to decline of this industry.
Maqbool said that industry is also plagued because the market is abounding with cheaper domestic substitutes thus playing a huge role in pushing this art into obscurity.
He further said that there was a time when thousands of people used to earn their livelihood from this art but now due to its low demand. Artisans don’t earn appropriate amounts of wages due to which they have lost interest in this work resulting in it becoming a dying art of Kashmir.
Maqbool said that the government has been setting up cooperative groups and other schemes to boost the industry but nothing seems to work out as the artisans struggle to get their rights as well as their lost identity and they refuse to carry forward this age-old art to the younger generation.
"To seek wide attention towards this dying art, I decided to draw a map of India on it to revive the pristine status of this art", he added.
Maqbool said that he is working hard day and night to make this carpet so that maybe drawing an Indian map on this will highlight it and this dying art of Kashmir will attract the attention of the people and lead to its revival.
The journey of villagers continue to revive the dying art of carpet weaving in Kashmir and it will interesting to see how far it will go.