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 anyoneâ€™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. Â 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.
â€œI 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,â€ Khoje said in a hushed tone.
On being asked if
he is satisfied with the money he earns from the craft, he said, â€œWhatever
little I earn, I am able to feed my family; my children are enrolled in a
â€œWhat else does a
man need?â€ he asked.
Few steps away from
Khojeâ€™s home, Nazir Ahmad Dar, 55, has a totally different reason to be hooked
to the craft.
â€œI 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,â€ Nazir Ahmad said.
â€œI 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,â€
A father of two
daughters and a son, Nazirâ€™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.
â€œOn 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
childrenâ€™s education,â€ 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.
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, â€œour 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.â€
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,â€ he added.
On being asked, why
is it a male-dominated profession, Ghulam Mohammad refuted the claim and said,
â€œWomen 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.â€
â€œNow you barely get
to see men doing Keani Kaem, looking for women doing it, is beside the
point,â€ he added.
handicraft plays an important role in the socio-economic and cultural heritage
of Kashmir. The craft doesnâ€™t require heavy capital investment and
infrastructure such as machinery and buildings, thus keani kaem has a
significant contribution to rural industrialization in Kashmir.
Â 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.
â€œThere 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,â€ he said.