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Rural craftsmen working hard to keep Keani Kaem alive

Once a flourishing rural cottage industry, traditional wicker work, has lost its sheen and is now on the verge of dying out, however, still some are continuing with this craft and are hooked to it…

Post by on Saturday, June 26, 2021

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Humaira Nabi

Five Kilometres away from the town of district Ganderbal; on the bank of the gushing river Sindh, a run-down house is dimly lit with a smoldering candle. A muffled melody of some music could be heard in the distance. Inside the house, a man, barely visible, is sitting in a corner inside a small room. A radio set, hung on a wall, reverberate a Sufiyana Kalam of Rashid Hafiz, the man sings along. The man is busy interlacing a bunch of colorful withies. Oblivious of anyone’s presence in the room, the man, Khoje is absorbed in his work.

A resident of Kujar Ganderbal, Khoje was born with moderate mental subnormality. He lost his mother at an early age. He along with his sister, were raised by their father Ali Mohammad Parra, known as Kaak in his neighborhood. Kaak, raised his kids in utter poverty by doing Sozni Kaem (needlework embroidery).

Khoje was sent to learn the art of Keani Kaem (traditional wicker work), at an early age. He learned the art and started making beautiful wicker products. With an earning of around 300 rupees per day, he slowly became one of the bread earners for his family.

Khoje got married in 2016. Not satisfied with the profit earned in Keani Kaem, his wife told him to leave the craft and look for some other means of lucrative earning. He started working as a labourer at construction sites. With an earning of 500 a day, the family was now content with what they had. But the fortune was short-lived. History repeated itself; Khoje lost his wife while giving birth to her second child.

Khoje now takes care of his two kids, just like kaak did. Khoje reverted to the craft of Keani Kaem.  He spends his entire day working twisting the wickers into different forms of products. More than an earning, Khoje now sees Keani Kaem as a means of self-expression and satisfaction.

“I will never leave this art. It has now become a part of me. I think I was cursed because I left this craft. I will continue doing it till I die,” Khoje said in a hushed tone.

On being asked if he is satisfied with the money he earns from the craft, he said, “Whatever little I earn, I am able to feed my family; my children are enrolled in a government school.”

“What else does a man need?” he asked.

Few steps away from Khoje’s home, Nazir Ahmad Dar, 55, has a totally different reason to be hooked to the craft.

“I was sent to learn the craft of Keani Kaem at the age of 10. Being the eldest of the siblings, my parents had high hopes for me. But I was a slow learner; it took me many years to learn the art. My father worked hard to raise us, as he grew old, he found it hard to make the ends meet,” Nazir Ahmad said.

“I grew up as the first generation learner of Keani Kaem. I started making a living out of it. My two younger brothers followed me. Our house soon became a hub of the craft; young boys from neighbouring villages would come to our place to learn the craft. Together we earned a good amount to assist our father financially,” he said.

A father of two daughters and a son, Nazir’s only concern is to get his daughters married in families with decent family background. For which he needs to give higher education to his daughters; which is only possible if Nazir Ahmad hooks on to the tradition of Keani Kaem.

“On an average, I work for 10 hours a day and I earn 400-450 rupees. I do not know any other craft that I can carry out to feed my family. I face difficulty in meeting the financial needs of my family but I never let that impact my children’s education,” Nazir Ahmad said.

Willow wicker craft, locally referred to as Keani Keam, is a hand skilled craft involving weaving of willow reeds using hands. Willow weaving is an indigenous forest based cottage industry of the valley. The products from the craft are used as household utility items and for ornamental purpose too. Because of geographical advantages, Ganderbal district provides the best soil and climatic conditions for the cultivation and production of willow wicker crop. Shallabug, Kachan and Kujar areas of Ganderbal are known for the production of quality wicker crop and its products.

In Kashmir the wicker is harvested three times a year- spring collection (Soenth-kaen), summer collection (Wahraath-kaen) and autumn collection (Harud -Kaen). The crop is then assigned to a group of artisans, who process the crop for over a month and make it thin and flexible enough to be used by the craftsmen. The process includes washing, soaking, boiling, and peeling.

Ghulam Mohammad Wani, 75, has been associated with the craft of keani kaem, since his childhood. Ghulam Mohammad while recalling the golden times of this dying art said, “our village was a hub of the craft, in every home at least 2-3 people were associated with keani kaem. It was mandatory for youngsters to learn any craft of their choice and Keani Kaem was one among them.”

“Craftsmen would assemble in the lawns along with their tools at early morning; they would sing and work together. There was a blessing in our work those days. Now, parents no longer teach their children the art and rightly so because one cannot make a living with the craft now,” he added.

On being asked, why is it a male-dominated profession, Ghulam Mohammad refuted the claim and said, “Women used to be the central figure right from the harvesting of the wicker crop to the product formation. They even helped in the most laborious step of boiling and peeling the wicker.”

“Now you barely get to see men doing Keani Kaem, looking for women doing it, is beside the point,” he added.

The wicker handicraft plays an important role in the socio-economic and cultural heritage of Kashmir. The craft doesn’t require heavy capital investment and infrastructure such as machinery and buildings, thus keani kaem has a significant contribution to rural industrialization in Kashmir.

 Owing to many factors including the burgeoning growth in substitute products, rapid changes in consumer tastes and paucity of attention from the authorities, the wicker work in the state has lost its place in the market.

Proving to be less profitable, Bilal Ahmad Parray, 45, left Keani Kaem, only after being two years into the craft.

“There was no sense of continuing the work. I have seen people earning a healthy amount from the craft but now there is no market for Keani Kaem products. People have switched to plastic products which are comparatively cheap and durable. So, after two years into it, I switched my mode of earning and started running a grocery shop, which is much more profitable and less laborious than Keani Kaem,” he said.




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