Though it does not figure anywhere in the industrial map of the Union Territory of J&K despite the fact that tens of thousands of people from many parts of the valley are associated with the sector of willow (or wicker) works, which in local parlance is called ‘kaniel kaem’. This sector has been suffering from neglect and apathy in the past. The willow works, mostly undertaken in the rural Kashmir feeds thousands of families here. In the homes, from children to the women to the elderly persons, everyone contributes in the manufacture of the products from the willow sticks.
The raw material for wicker works is a breed of willow branches. “The willow sticks grow in the marshy lands and lakes. After harvesting, these branches are supplied by the merchants to the artisans” said an artisan, Habibullah Dar from North Kashmir’s Kupwara district. “The artisans then pack these willow branches in bundles and boil them for several hours in a specially made water boiler. The water is kept boiling by burning huge logs of wood and worn automobile tyres beneath the boiler. The boilers are kept burning for months together. This is a very sensitive job and needs a special care”, Dar added. He further said that the properly boiled willow branches are chiseled and the upper skin layer is cleared by a special tool made up of hard wood and the willow branches are then dehydrated under the direct sunlight. “The wooden yellowish branches are to be converted in to final shape by the skilled artisans. Every product is woven by the artists with special care putting their both blood and sweat in it”, he added.
Different charmingly designed articles like baskets, lampshades, chairs, tables, sofas, flower pots, sweet trays, dust bins and other articles of common household are made from this willow sticks. The demand for the items of willow remains at its peak during the marriage seasons. The demand for such products remains all time high during such seasons. The willow baskets packed with fruits and sweets are often exchanged as good will gesture on the special occasions like marriage, Eid, Diwali or Holi. “For the increase in life span of these products, it is mandatory to spray water to them, particularly in the hot weather conditions so that the products may not go brittle”, said Ghulam Rasool Ganie, of Kachchan Ganderbal while being busy with the wickers. The firepot known as 'Kangri' in local parlance, an earthen bowl is also encased in wicker works. The Kangri of Charar-e-Sharief area of Budgam village is most famous all over the valley for its decorative look and multi-coloured wicker sticks. Kangris of Bandipora district sell like hot cakes on the commencement of winter every year. Notably, during the winters, every member of a family has and keeps his/her own Kangri. Decorative and multi-coloured small Kangris for children are liked by one and all.
In Kashmir, Haraztabal area in the outskirts of Srinagar city is the most known place and is the hub of willow works. Besides, other areas like Shopian, Anantnag, Budgam, Bandipora, Handwara, Ganderbal, Baramulla, Kupwara and other areas are also known for such works. Though, tens of thousands of people from all over the valley are associated with this profession, the government is yet to put this sector in the industrial map of the state, said an artisan. He further said that like the fruit and other industries in the valley, the willow articles are exported not to other parts of the country but to the foreign countries as well. These articles are of high demand particularly in foreign countries on the basis of the fact that they are eco-friendly.
The misery involved in the sector is negligence of the government and financial institutions. A little bit of attention can boost this sector to new heights. Sajad Ahmad of Harran village of district Ganderbal who is Doctorate in Geography through Kashmir University used to lend a great helping hand to his parents during his doctorate studies prior to getting a job. “Observing that to get a government job was a hard nut to crack in this unemployed-hit valley, I decided to embrace the sector, help the parents and also earn something for me”, Sajad Ahmad said. Notably, during the last few years of consecutive turmoil in the valley, the people associated with this sector had to suffer huge losses. “There was no demand of our products from any part of the country not to talk of abroad due to which we landed in utter frustration resulting in our huge losses”, Sajad further said.
Due to lackadaisical attitude of the government towards this sector, most of the people associated with this profession are fast shunning this sector and switching over to other sectors. Also, with the advent of modernization, the young people are reluctant to take up the works. Willow works and its products are the inseparable part of the Kashmiri culture and tradition. If the government continues to show a step-motherly attitude towards this particular sector, it will become next to impossible to revive its past glory. It is high time for the government and concerned authorities to come up with proper planning vis-à-vis the revival of this sector and save the same from the extinction.
(Author works in J&K Bank as Associate Executive)