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Reviving Pashmina

Post by on Sunday, November 21, 2021

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 In 1804, when Napoleon Bonaparte gifted a few Pashmina shawls to his wife, Josephine of France, the empress was so enthralled with the fabric that in only a few years she began to spend as much as 20,000 golds on the shawls every year and amassed as much as 400 Pashminas in her collection. France being the cultural center of those times and empress Josephine being the eminent trendsetter gave the Kashmiri Shawls a special status amongst the French bourgeoisie or amongst the European elite altogether in coming years.

 
In France, the Kashmiri shawl became part of La Corbeille, a groom’s gift to his wife. Amongst the English too, the Kashmiri shawls commanded such esteem that after the Dogra Maharaja, Gulab Singh, signed the treaty of Amritsar with the British Crown, he was asked to deliver three Pashmina Shawls and twelve Pashmina Goats (six male and six female) as an annual tribute to the British Crown.
 
The English who gave the Kashmiri shawl its anglicized name ‘Cashmere’ tried, with tooth and nail, to copy the Kashmiri shawl-making, but they could only produce a cheap counterfeit that came to be known as Paisley Shawl and was machine produced on a mass level in Paisley Scotland. Currently, the Irish Cashmere has a significant market share in the world, but the British or European counterfeits never reached the heights that Kashmir’s Pashmina cloth once enjoyed or currently enjoys around the world.
 
Due to its innate softness, eye-catching handiwork, signature warmth, and most importantly for being a status symbol, the Pashmina has always been considered worth more than its cost by the rich and prosperous around the world.
 
For the eastern elite, the Pashmina has long been a part of their clothing. There are even some designs of the Kashmiri Shawls that are named after the kings of the past. One of the designs in shawls called the Shah-Pasand (King’s Choice) is still produced by the artists in Kashmir.
 
The members of the Safavid, Qajar, Mughal, and Ottoman dynasties were known to be in great love with Pashmina and often gave the Shawls as Khillat, the royal gifts. 
 
Unfortunately, the glory days of Pashmina that have lasted almost six hundred years soon faded away and a gloom set in into the workshops of the Kashmiri artisans during the lateral part of the 20th century. With the change in dressing patterns and the eradication of the gentry around the world in the 20th century, the Kashmiri shawls began to go out of fashion. The workshops began to close and the progeny of the traditional artists who had been into shawl weaving for hundreds of years began to move to other professions that aligned with the perceptions of modern work – one which offered the men to wear suits in the morning and sit for the day behind wooden tables in shiny offices.
 
Nevertheless, attempts are being made on an individual, governmental and societal level to revive Pashmina, the so-called, soft gold of Kashmir.
 
Junaid Shahdhar, an MBA graduate from Srinagar’s Khanyar started a Pashima store namely Phamb in 2016 and became the first person in Kashmir to take the Kashmiri Pashmina to the world through the internet.
 
Apart from giving jobs to nearly 2500 artisans, his efforts have resulted in introducing Pashmina to the world market again. Junaid has also forayed into the clothing line with the soft Pashmina fabric.
 
“I am the first person in Kashmir who has taken Pashmina into the clothing line and it has shown significant results. One may buy a Pashmina shawl once in a lifetime or maybe twice or thrice, but you would always need more clothes. So, taking pashmina into clothing is very productive in a commercial viewpoint,” Junaid says.
 
Junaid’s Pashmina goes to Europe, Canada, America, the Middle East, and various other parts of the world.
 
The Phirans, Nehru Jackets, Frock-suits, and other clothing items that Junaid’s tailoring team make from original Pashmina cloth are particularly favored by the local populace. According to Junaid, he offers the best possible price and good quality product. 
 
There are three varieties of Pashmina available in the market. One: machine spun and machine woven, two: machine-spun but hand-woven, and the third is both hand-spun and handwoven. Although all three categories are favored by the clients in the market, only the third category Shawls that are both handwoven and handspun are GI tagged by the government as genuine Pashmina.
 
The wool used in Kashmiri Pashmina is very soft and Chinacate; around 10 microns. Fortunately, it comes from a goat that is raised in Ladakh. Kashmiri artisans do not use the Pashmina that comes from China and Mongolia. The wool from those countries is around 17.5 microns thick, and if the artisans would use that in the shawls, they may not be qualitatively refined.
 
The word Pashmina comes from the Persian 'Pashm', which means wool. In Kashmir, both the woven fabric or the unspun wool of domesticated Changthangi goats is referred to as the Pashmina. The wool especially comes from the underbelly of the Chanthangi goat which is endemic to the rocky strenuous mountains of Ladakh.   
 
The creation of a Pashmina shawl involves collecting the fine hair of the goat and hand combing the fiber to maintain its exquisite quality. This delicate fiber is then spun manually on a spinner, subsequently woven with hand on a loom, and afterward, carefully dyed, embroidered, and washed in the waters of the Jhelum.
 
Many Pashmina Shawls, called the Kaani Shawls, do not have any thread embroidery and are rather woven in designs and motifs right on the loom with sharp and small wicker sticks called the Kaani Tuj.  Pertinently, those shawls that are woven as plain cloth on the loom, are manually embroidered with silk and cotton threads with a needle around the borders and center. The work is called Sozni in common parlance and the artisans who do the work are recognized as Soznigar. 
 
To an eye, no two handcrafted Pashmina Shawls seem the same. Over time, the shawl makers have come to embrace modernity to remain relevant and have adopted various patterns from around the world. While the Chashme Bulbul weave retains its timeless quality, the French Chantilly lace patterns and Swarovski crystals amongst many other embroidery patterns are now being woven into the shawls to give them a contemporary look.
 
Though Pashmina Shawls are very costly, there are many other online stores in Kashmir, apart from Junaid’s Phamb, that have taken Pashmina to the global market. Their actions have led to the surge in demand for genuine Kashmiri pashmina around the world, but unfortunately, the artist's base is thinning and giving serious hiccups to the Pashmina trade in Kashmir.
 
While speaking on the subject of the thinning Pashmina artist base in Kashmir, Junaid adds, “According to me, artists don’t need money, they need respect and love. Previously they were not treated well by the merchants and any other group of people at the hierarchy of the trade but nowadays we have realized that they are the backbone of the Pashmina industry and therefore we try in every possible way to give them respect and monetary benefits that befits their work.”
 
Though it is easy to presume that the machines could easily fill the void that the artists have left in the weaving sector but according to the artists, weaving Pashmina is no less than an art and a machine would never replace the hand. The artistic nature of the pieces is also a factor that Pashmina can sell at any given price.
 
According to Mushtaq Ahmad, a Pashmina artist from Bakura Ganderbal, the pashmina shawl can have any given price, depending on the quality of its art. “Like the other pieces of art, Pashmina Shawls as well can have any given price. It all depends on the kind of work that an artist puts into the piece," Mushtaq says.
 
Pertinently, only an inch of hand-work called the ‘Fido’ on all the sides of the three-yard-long Pashmina Shawl can take anywhere between 30 to 45 days. Some artists spend years to come up with exquisite masterpieces of art and these shawls are costlier than gems in the market. Unfortunately, due to low returns and inconsiderate wages given by the commissioners, not many people are drawn towards the profession of Shawl-making. 
 
Mushtaq says that those artists who are intelligent and fairly crafty are in very high demand, and they also earn a good amount of money, but, “those who are not well endowed in terms of skill, struggle to make enough money. 
 
The artists say that the people would be drawn towards the weaving and embroidery sectors of the Pashmina industry only if the good returns start to pour in.
 
“If the government would devise a mechanism that would increase the earnings of the artists, surely more people would be drawn towards weaving,” says Hilal Ahmad Shuhlu, a pashmina artist from Srinagar’s Eidgah.
 
Shuhlu has been into weaving for the last 30 years and remembers those glorious times when people used to come into the weaving sector with great enthusiasm.
 
“Nothing equaled the work of Pashmina weaving back in those days. Nowadays the weaving business is not fetching half the amount that we used to earn thirty years ago, and then again, the inflation has sky-rocketed. The artists are pushed against the wall and have to make the two ends meet with great struggle. Only those people are still doing weaving who cannot move to the other trades,” Shuhlu says with great disdain in his voice.
 
Shuhlu and his brother spend eight hours a day toiling on shawls at their wooden loom. They say that it would take one to two years for a person to learn to weave, yet, those novices whose families have been involved in the weaving sector have been found to learn more quickly than expected. But the problem is, there are no new recruits into the sector.
 
Surprisingly, the weaving sector, due to its immense toil, is the sole area that is giving the jitters to the Pashmina industry, because other sectors of the Pashmina are attracting people on all fronts, even in the sphere of Pashmina washing. Since Pashmina washing is an arduous task that requires unique skills, only a few families from the washermen community of Srinagar’s Aali Kadal used to be previously involved in the sector for the past seven centuries. 
 
Nowadays, attracted by the potential of making quick bucks, many people have entered the arena of Pashmina washing and they dip their shawls in Jhelum, Dal Lake, Nigeen, and various other water bodies at Aali Kadal, Bota Kadal, Nishat, and Nallabal areas of Srinagar city. 
 
Tariq Ahmad Mir from Batyar, Aali Kadal has been working for ten years in the Pashmina washing sector and he says that he has seen a sturdy growth in this sector.
 
Tariq gets 200 to 300 shawls every day for washing and these he dips into Jhelum at a specific Ghat on the banks of Jhelum at Aali Kadal. 
 
He has learned the special technique of pashmina washing from the washermen families of the area for whom he used to work previously.
 
Pashmina has the potential to become the economic backbone of the Kashmir valley because it once was. During the Dogra times, when Europe was experiencing the euphoria of the Kashmiri pashmina, the local economy heavily relied on the shawl industry.
 
Currently, from spinners, weavers (shawl Baaf), embroiders (Soznigar), Darners (Roufgar), Purzgars, and washermen, hundreds and thousands of skilled people are involved in the Pashmina industry—not to mention the countless herders of Pashmina goat in Ladakh.
 
Recently, the government of Jammu and Kashmir recognized the Purzgars that were responsible for clipping the errors, getting rid of the flaws, and braiding the loose threads at the end of the shawls, as a vital pillar in the Pashmina industry. The Purzgars are now entitled to the benefits that other artists and individuals involved in the Pashmina sector were taking earlier. The government hopes that such benefits would keep the spirits of the people involved in the industry very high.
 
The government has also secured a GI (Geographical Indication Mark under WTO) to establish the authenticity of the hand-woven fabric and its wool and set up a testing laboratory in Srinagar that gives out the GI marks.
 
Additionally, scientists at the Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir, have succeeded in making a clone of the Pashmina/ Changthangi goat. Researchers hope that cloning would solve the threat posed to the pashmina industry by the extinction of the goat in its endemic region, the Changthang plateau of Ladakh.
 
But since the experiments have shown that while the Pashmina goat can survive at lower altitudes in Kashmir, they do not produce the same quality of Pashmina wool, therefore, there are numerous attempts to preserve the goat in its natural habitat. 
 
Pashmina Goat Project, a social enterprise startup has been instrumental in creating global awareness and protecting the Pashmina goat not only in Ladakh, but also in China, Tibet, and Nepal.
 
“As a small organization we have been constantly advocating about the great initiatives of the Government and also communicating to the global audiences that this ecosystem needs to be looked at from many other lenses and not just from the lens of commerce,” Babar Afzal, the founder of Pashmina Goat Foundation said while speaking with Rising Kashmir.
 
 For its work and impact, the Pashmina Goat Foundation has received various accolades from around the world, and its founder, Babar Afzal, has received appreciation from people of all walks, including the former president of India, Pranab Mukherjee during his tenure. 
 
With people like Babar Afzal, Junaid Shahdhar, and Hilal Shuhlu, the Pashmina appears to be in safe hands for now. But that doesn’t absolve the rest of the institutions, ordinary people, and the government from protecting this extraordinary legacy.  Pashmina was, is, and will be the glorious chapter of Kashmir's fantastic heritage and its collective imperative to protect it.

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