Kashmir’s willow wicker craft—locally known as veer kani, is getting a new lease of life with the artisans creating new designs and targeting robust markets.
“Willow wicker is an indigenous craft and it has been part of Kashmir's craft industry for centuries now,” a master artisan, Ali Muhammad Shah, told Greater Kashmir. He however said that the craft has been facing many issues on part of the policies and support from the local market.
“We have been going to the pillar and the post for many years now. All we faced till now was lip service from the government agencies. But with the recent initiatives taken by the industries department under the JTFRP project, we have been gaining momentum in the production as well as in the market level as well,” he said.
According to artisans, the willow-wicker craft, locally referred to as keani keam, has been practiced in the Kashmir region since centuries. It is a hand-skilled craft involving weaving using willow reeds.
Veer Kani basketery is made from the stem of a plant called ‘willow wicker’ traditionally processed using zero chemicals and 10 percent eco-friendly.
Artisans believe that a deeply rooted local market has encouraged them to pass this art form from one generation to another contributing immensely in the Kashmir livelihood and handicraft sector.
“People of Kashmir are blessed with a deep sensibility of arts and crafts. A mesmerizing combination of geo-climatic conditions and human creativity,” said master artisan, Abdul Ahad.
“We have been in the process of making traditional designs and products. However, after the recent training and workshops with the Kadam Haat, our designs have completely changed and they are now market driven,” he said.
He said that the artisans are now making and weaving full-fledged and wide-range of products which include, kitchenware, plantery, basketery, home décor, lamps, wall plates, home utility, dustbin and baskets.
“We want to explore the best of our crafts and take it to international platforms,” said Bashir Ahmad, an artisan from the Kachan area of Ganderbal. “Basket-weaving is one of the world’s oldest crafts and is widely practiced in the valley but it also needs some more innovations and craft techniques. That would not only help us to tap the international markets but it will also give a wide-range of market acceptability to all of us.”
Several areas in villages in the central Kashmir’s district Ganderbal and south Kashmir’s Kulgam remain abuzz for fulfilling the demands of the customers across the world throughout the year. They say that the craft of ‘Shaakhsaazi’ has gained momentum during the post constitutional changes that occurred in Jammu Kashmir and simultaneously COVID lockdown was in place. They said a lot of people who had swapped their business, came back and resumed their traditional works in their respective areas.
Notably, the willow wicker craft is also known as Shaakhsaazi. The word ‘Shaakhsaazi’ comprises two words, ‘Shaakh’ meaning slender pliable branches and ‘Saazi’ meaning the act of weaving.
Kachan, Umerhaer, Shalabugh, a few remote villages, in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district have pioneered the craft of weaving the famous willow baskets. The village earned the status of ‘Model Village’ in 2002 and is the largest producer of willow baskets in the valley. People also call it Kashmir’s ‘willow village’. Around 90 percent of the people in the village have been associated with the craft for the last fifty years.
Over six thousand families used to earn their livelihood from the business but things have changed in the village now.
For Muhammad Sultan Wani of Kachan, who is engaged in debarking shaakh, says that the few years have been a boom to the craft as due to lockdown lot of people return to it and also took many initiatives for the market enhancement.
“I have been into this craft for over 60 years. I have been just doing the work of debarking and not weaving while as my wife who has been a biggest support to me has been engaged into weaving and crafting the products,” Wani said, adding “This gave us a decent livelihood as I have six daughters and two sons and I am satisfied and thank almighty for this kind of work.”
Wani said he vehemently supported this craft at a time when it saw its worst phase. “I never got out of this craft. I never thought of doing something else. I too faced immense hardships, so did my family…. Today you see my grandson is doing this work with me and that gives me a lot of hope not just for myself but for the whole of my community,” he said.
Another elderly artisan, Muzafar Ahmad Shah, who has been doing this craft for over 40 years, said that with the new designing techniques, the demand for the craft and the willow wicker works has picked up tremendously.
“I have personally noticed that last two years have been really helpful for our sector. It is obvious when you make any universally accepted designs.
Cluster coordinator from Kadam, Imtiyaz Ahmad, said that the cluster of willow wicker works have been linked to the vibrant market windows including, Myantra etc. He said that willow weaving is an indigenous business sector of the Kashmir region, which has an acceptance in every-day life in our culture. He said that it was also a known fact that the products from other crafts are mostly used for decorative purposes while as the willow wicker craft lies serves both as a decor and a household utility item to store and carry edible things during special occasions.
“We have seen how these items have become part of our special occasions including Eid or a wedding ceremony,” Ahmad said, adding that the willow wood earlier was commonly used for making distinctive products like kangri, wicker baskets etc.
He said that the government has been really working in close coordination with the organisations to uplift the craft and make some difference.
“Under the programme, we have been developed several training modules for the artisan community of the Ganderbal and also taught them new designs which have received immense response from the market and industry sector,” Ahmad said. “All we need to do is ensure that the artisans also work with perseverance and ensure that quality production is done on a regular basis which will generate more orders from the national international market.”
According to locals and farmers, the process of willow cultivation is cumbersome, they said that the willow cultivation is carried out by planting saplings.
“Once a sapling sown and later sprouts, it is later severed and sown into the land to harvest its shoots every year. These saplings continue to produce an annual harvest until it is uprooted,” said Showkat Ahmad, a local harvester. “These saplings are sown during the months of February March till end of the month. A normal willow plant grows up 2–3 metres in its height and the crop is harvested in the month of October.” He said that the wicker willows are found in wetlands as well as in rice fields. He said that later the processing starts and the crop is sold to a contractor who in turn assigns it to various artisans with the description of products that artisans have to make.
“What you see in the market like crafted items of wicker are baskets, flower vases, room dividers, lamp shades, curtain rings, trays, cycle baskets, chairs, racks, holders, swings and the traditional Kashmiri Kangri,”
Sajid Nazir, a senior official from the department of industries, who looks after the willow wicker cluster project, said that a lot has been done and a lot more is yet to be conceived for the artisan community of the willow wicker works. He said that the government , with the help of the consultants, was aiming to upgrade this craft.
Co-founder of Kadam, (a non-governmental organization), Payal Nath, who is spearheading the operations of her organization from West Bengal, Kolkata has worked towards creating opportunities for the semi-skilled or skilled natural fibres handicrafts artisans via training and professionalizing them.
“Our sole aim is to bring an unorganized handicrafts industry to be in somewhat professionally run organized sector by upscaling vision, skill & living conditions in the poorest communities of the natural fibre artisans has been her mission and works passionately teaching a few things and learning a few,” she said, adding “Kadam Haat with the support of Jammu and Kashmir Government has brought together artisans Kashmir to create sustainable handmade products. We are continuously upgrading and reaching out to the artisans with some new designs and new market offers.”
She said that Kadam Haat has a huge range of products designed by using natural fibers like Sabai Grass, Bamboo, Cotton & other natural grasses. These products include home & kitchen products such as baskets, mats, trays, runners & cutlery as well as lifestyle products such as bags.
CEO, Jammu Kashmir Economic Reconstruction Agency and Jhelum Tawi Flood Recovery Project, Dr Syed Abid Rasheed Shah, said that several pro-sector initiatives have been taken to bolster the growth of the craft. He said that he was personally monitoring the livelihood projects-funded under the JTFRP. “It is really heartening to see artisans marking some positive changes post our intervention,” he said. “We are planning to help each and link each artisan to the greater market. This won’t just help them to get into a larger market space but it will also give them more and vibrant employment avenues.”
Tracing the history, the locals say that seeds and some finest artisans were imported from European countries by Maharaja Hari Singh in the 19th century during his reign to establish an organised willow industry in Kashmir.