Shallabugh (Ganderbal): Kashmir's traditional wicker craft is dying silent death due to official apathy as the younger generation is not showing interest towards this craft due to less returns.
Shallabugh village in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district is known for its artisans in wicker willow work.
However, the artisans here complain that the non serious attitude of successive governments to explore the potential of the local economy has rendered them jobless.
In Shallabugh village over 70 percent of the population including men and women are associated with the work, however the artisans of this heritage craft complained that they have been living in abject poverty.
“We have a huge chunk of our population associated with the willow works , however over the decades due to official apathy many have left this craft to do work in different vocations in order to feed their families,” said Ghulam Nabi, a local artisan who claims to be associated with this work for the last 40 years .
"Now more than 40 years into the profession, he says, the demand for wicker craft has so much dwindled that he is hardly able to make his ends meet.
”We don’t get financial help from any government department,” he said adding that the willow products have a good face value and attract buyers but the artisans get paid peanuts.
“Due to lack of funding and incentives, the artisans are forced to sell their work to intermediaries. Later on these contractors either sell this work directly to shopkeepers or to another contractor who usually transports this work to other parts of J&K or to other states.”
Another artisan, Abdul Rehman said that the wicker work is very hectic and before the product is made it goes through different stages. “It goes through different stages right from once the crop is harvested.”
He said the skilled men and women painstakingly interweave the thin and flexible reeds into nice and fancy products. "These goods are enchanting and attractive for the customer, but at the end artisan gets a few bucks which has forced many to leave this craft.”
Many workers with whom this reporter spoke said most of the goods are sold in Kashmir itself, "while the demand from the outside is quite low." However, they blamed the poor infrastructure for low outside demand.
"The wicker products pass through many stages during the process of manufacturing. If you have the requisite infrastructure many stages can be omitted and you can produce more goods in less time" said a local who is associated with the work for the last 20 years.
Many local artisans also said that the traditional Kashmir wicker crafts have lost sheen and people no longer demand wicker products as they get cheaper plastic replacements easily available in the market.
They urged the government to put a ban on the plastic products used in place of the wicker items.
Talking to the Greater Kashmir Director Industries and Handicraft, Mahmood Ahmad Shah said “willow wicker is one of the important crafts and we need to encourage and use it with pride.”
He said that the department is working to promote this craft on a highest platform and level so that the people associated with the craft have no grievances.
“Product development, skill upgradation, financial support will boost the willow wicker sector. We are working on it,” he said adding that “for this we are creating societies in these areas and each society is being given a one-time financial assistance of Rs 1 lakh" Shah said.
“For Willow Wicker Project Ganderbal, domain expert having vast experience in working with natural plant fibres -KADAM has been engaged for the development of the Cluster. The project will lead to creation of a self -sustaining Producer Company (PC) of the artisans that would be directly linked to the markets.”
“Under the project, 10 cooperatives of the artisans in the Cluster have been registered and it is expected that more cooperatives would be formed and would be linked with the project in future,” Shah said.
He said that efforts are being made to upgrade the skills of the artisans and provide them with required financial and infrastructural support.
Furthermore, under the Willow Wicker Project self-sustainable enterprises of the artisans which would be connected with the markets at both National and International levels would be created. He said that the new products developed in the cluster and assured the artisans that marketing avenues in the upcoming events at local and national level.
District Ganderbal produces a huge quantity of wicker raw material from locally cultivated willow rushes and reeds. Villages like Harran, Shallabug, Tehlipora, Kachan, Gundi Rehman are the main centers for this craft. Wickerwork products include basket ducks, chairs, willow basket trays, baskets and many other things. Some of these items are exported, traditionally.