Shaheena travels to handicraft exhibitions in different cities of India. She is known for her motivational speeches to women artisans and till date, she has given over 100 motivational speeches at awareness camps held for the promotion of arts.
In 2008, Shaheena Akthar from Srinagar city started Kani Shawl business and she is now providing employment to many artisans. Not only this, she has also connected hundreds of distressed artisans with her.
Of the six siblings born in a modest family, she was the only one with a college degree in arts. She had to drop out due to the family’s economic condition in 2004. Hailing from Nowshera area of the city, her brother (who was associated with kani shawl) introduced her to the business. Before that Shaheena got training which she started from 2004.
“I started learning shawl weaving from my elder brother, while our father, Ghulam Ahmad Rather, used to tin-coat (kalai) copper utensils,” she recalls. Four of her siblings, including two brothers, became shawl weavers but her penchant for innovation began getting her business recognition.
“At that time there was no concept that a woman would do any kind of business. My papa was a laborer and today I feel very proud. My brother was running one loom but today we have hundreds of looms and shops,” she told Rising Kashmir.
After her years of hard work and dedication, she won two exemplary awards after which she never looked back. In 2014, she received the Jammu and Kashmir’s exemplary entrepreneur award for her Kani shawls. Similarly, in 2017, she was felicitated by Hindustan Times at its sixth edition of 30 young achievers from the region.
The Kani shawl artisan and entrepreneur provides employment to about 1,000 people including Pashmina spinners, weavers, dye givers, washermen and women. “Now people run all the affairs majorly Kani Shawl. But in addition to that, we also do Sozni work and connect other artists, arts in Kashmir,” she said.
Many artisans are linked with her. She is in touch with 200 artisans who do the Sozni work and nearly 100 Kani shawl artists are associated with her. Shaheena said they have many looms at many places in Srinagar and it has become a place of employment for many unemployed youth and artisans.
She started living with her mother in a part of their ancestral house and travelled to Amritsar in 2019 to participate in a handicraft exhibition. Shaheena took a loan to put her business back on track and today it’s flourishing despite Covid-19 impacted business. She said Covid-19 affected the handicraft and handloom sector badly in Kashmir and artisans faced tough time owing to the lockdowns.
“Many artists have been discouraged by the continuous economic losses due to pandemic situation. Artisans do not want to work,” the entrepreneur said. She said there are economic crises throughout the world. “Earlier, we used to participate in Dubai exhibitions (global fair) for three months and we used to sell our products there but that also has been affected,” she said.
Shaheena said, earlier, she used to participate in an international fair in Delhi during which she would have a sale of Rs 35 lakhs but last year her sale came down to Rs 2 lakhs only. Weaving the Kani shawl is a traditional and intricate art, but artisans rarely get the returns because the intermediaries pocket the gains.
After registering with the J&K handicrafts department in 2008, she went for an exhibition the next year which was the turning point in her carrier. “Few educated women join the shawl sector. That exposure gave me confidence and insight into the demand. People abroad prefer real shawls or products instead of colourful ones. I even saw my shawl displayed in a showroom in Italy,” she said.
She credits her knowledge about customer preferences to her travels to handicraft exhibitions in different cities, including Delhi, Jaipur and Amritsar. She is invited by the handicrafts department to give motivational speeches to women artisans and till date, she has given over 100 motivational speeches at different awareness camps and programs held for the promotion of arts.
Shaheena recalls that when she started the business, there were very few women. “Fortunately, today whenever there is any event I see 50 percent women doing the business and it is an encouraging sign,” she said.
“More women are joining handicraft business. They realize that a woman is not insecure when she leaves home to do something in life. Girls can take on any challenge and have the capability. I work more than my brothers,” she said.
“When women enter a field obviously other women get encouragement and support. They also try to do something as they know the women will support them,” she said. Shaheena is also making artisans aware of the market prices which she said will end the role of middlemen, who often make most of the profit.
“Those artisans who are capable and have the guts to do something, we encourage them to open their own centres and units to do direct marketing of their products. During awareness programs, I often ask women not to fear and come forward and do their own work at ground level,” she said.
Shaheena said quality control of any business is very important and one has to be well versed and ready for both profit and loss.