Kashmir is well-known for its handicraft and its intricate wood carving—but twenty-two-year-old Aziz-ul-Rehman from Srinagar has taken a different path and approach to art—he makes jewelry items out of animal bones. The practice is called bone crafting. Such an art practice is unique in Kashmir, with its traditional focus on finer elements of design like embroidery, Kani weaving, carpet weaving but for Aziz-ul-Rehman “working with scrap bones and wood and creating unique items with it” is his passion.
“I make different things from the bones of animals—like jewelry, keychains, knives, decorative items etc,” Aziz told Rising Kashmir.
Bone crafting is not the only art practice he does. He also makes jewelry items from scraps of wood, including decorative wooden items and calligraphy frames.
“Although I have always been interested in art and creating things, right from my childhood, I have been making things with the bones of animals from the last two years,” he said.
Aziz (who is fondly called Ajmal at his home), hails from the Gulab Bagh area of Srinagar. Pursuing a Bachelor’s degree studying at Department of Fisheries at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology of Kashmir (SKUAST-K), Srinagar, Aziz is well aware that pursuing art as a profession in a place in Kashmir is fraught with challenges and most often ‘artists struggle to make a living here.’
Aziz said he was always inclined towards art. “I didn’t like to sit idle. Whenever I would get any spare time, I would make things, play with tools etc.,” he said. “I was also into gardening and these were my hobbies.”
Recalling an anecdote from his childhood, Aziz said that he took a fascination with carving things out of scrap bones after watching his mother make Harissa (a meat delicacy in Kashmir consumed in winters.)
“During one Eid-ul-Adha back in my childhood, my mother prepared Harissa with the sacrificial meat that people would give. While making Harissa, you have to boil the meat at such a level that large chunks of meat fall off the bones. When my mother discarded the bones, I took one large bone and carved a knife out of it. I made a small pendant kind of knife and showed it to everyone with a child’s excitement. Everyone liked it,” he said. “I was quite happy and fascinated with what I had done. I still am,” he said.
It was only after several years that he would give more time to his passion. “Obviously as a kid growing up, I was more focused on my studies and years later when I discovered that knife-pendant at my home, I got interested and started paying more attention to a thing I loved.”
Making a knife out of bones is no mean feat for Aziz as “it’s an intricate and delicate work.”
“One has to be careful with carving things out of bones as bones can be brittle and can break if you apply pressure. And one has to have the right tools,” he said.
Aziz said to follow this passion, he didn’t need many resources. “Getting tools and equipment for this art form is a one-time investment which you don’t have to regularly update. Also, the raw material i.e. the bones is free of cost in Kashmir,” he said.
Aziz mostly uses hand tools to make his art pieces such as pliers, sandpaper, and hand-saw.
Collecting bones for art
Kashmir’s cuisine is heavily dominated by meat delicacies and meat is regularly consumed in abundant quantities. For Aziz, this tradition came in handy as he found an easy supply of raw materials for his work and didn’t find it hard to collect bones.
He usually collects bones from butcher shops who give them to him for free.
“I also collect bones from trips to places like Gulmarg and Pahalgam. I also collect bones from carcasses from the streets,” he said. “And of course, at home whenever we cook meat, I don’t let them throw off the bones for obvious reasons,” he said with a chuckle.
Aziz said that collecting bones and making them into art pieces is a process and takes time.
The bones he collects from butcher shops are raw and these bones have meat clung onto them. “One has to completely take off the meat and cut the ends of these bones to pull out the bone marrow because if one keeps it like that, the bone will take a lot of time to decompose. To make things faster, I cut the ends. After this comes the boiling session. The boiling session is done to kill the disease-causing microbes from bones and remove oil content from them. The bone becomes strong and hardened after this process. Afterwards, the bone is dried and once dried it is fit for carving work,” he explained.
Selling art pieces
Once his art pieces are ready, he takes pictures of them and posts them on his Instagram page and sells them. "Many people have bought my art pieces as they are unique."
Aziz said when he shared his art pieces on his social media, many people liked them. "The response was quite good and people would say they are seeing such a thing for the first time in Kashmir. I was happy with the positive response and I have continued to share pictures of my work on social media, especially Instagram."
Although still in his early stages of developing and building his artwork, Aziz said he finds most people in Kashmir less inclined towards an art form like he practices and the objects he makes. "I have noticed people like flashy and fancy stuff here when it comes to art. Not many people are interested in buying things created from bones or wood," he said, adding, "however, making objects with bones is no easy thing as it involves delicate handling of your raw material."
Aziz said he doesn't use paint on his art pieces. To decorate them, he uses the pyrography technique on them. Pyrography is the freehanded art of decorating wood with burn marks resulting from the controlled application of a heated object such as a poker.
Besides bone crafting, and making art pieces from scrap wood, Aziz also makes things from porcupine quills. "I make quill pens, earrings and necklaces from these," he said.
Aziz said he wasn’t always encouraged to do what he loved. “Earlier my parents didn’t support me as they thought I was wasting my time but today they understand that I am passionate about it and they think it’s better than wasting one’s time by loitering,” he said. “They, do, however, want me to focus on studies.”