Srinagar’s traditional wicker craft in last throes
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Srinagar’s traditional wicker craft in last throes

Dusting a set of chairs made of wicker work in his modest shop at Hazratbal market, 50-year Mukhtiyar Ahmad Sheikh is among last generation from his family to carry on the traditional business of making wicker items.

Dusting a set of chairs made of wicker work in his modest shop at Hazratbal market, 50-year Mukhtiyar Ahmad Sheikh is among last generation from his family to carry on the traditional business of making wicker items. 

"The wicker art is dying a silent death" lamented Sheikh pointing towards his shop decked with variety of items made of wicker. The craft is popularly known as Keani Keam

Taking a deep breath, he said "there is no one to look over this traditional handicraft." Mukhtiyar's family has been promoting wicker craft from many generations and he learnt the once cherished art from his father Abdul Ghaffar Sheikh. 

He vividly remembers massive rush of customers to his shop till a few decades ago. "As a child, i used to watch my father make wicker items. There was huge demand for wicker chairs and baskets. Even foreigners thronged our shop, but gradually the art lost its sheen due to varied reasons. Almost every household in Srinagar had varied wicker items, but now it is confined to some hotels for decoration purposes," he said. 

Mukhtiyar's father left the trade two years ago and now he is carrying forward the mantle. "Our young generation is not willing to carry forward this traditional work. Due to bleak future of this trade, our younger generation prefers to pursue education and get good job to earn their livelihood."  

Mukhtiyar believes that the wicker craft did not get its due attention from successive regimes. "Wicker craft was considered one of the important crafts in Srinagar, but it was neglected by authorities by failing to promote and regulate it," he says.  

Elaborating, he said wicker items have not any officially fixed rates. "Intermediaries fix rates as per their interests. Artisans get peanuts are in a fix whether to continue with this work or switch to any other alternative. Government does not make any effort to regulate prices or to protect the craft from threat of extinction. Some artisans are taking undue advantage of the trade by selling the products on hefty rates and compromising on quality. This brings bad name to our already diminishing trade," he says. 

It is believed that Maharaja Hari Singh during his reign brought some fine wicker artisans from European countries and afterwards many local people got introduced to this craft. The raw material for wicker work is obtained from willow rushes and reeds mostly in neighboring Ganderbal district.

However, noted Kashmir poet and historian Zarief Ahmad Zarief believes that wicker work originated in Kashmir. "Kashmir had abundant raw material and artisan for wicker craft, but now the scenario is dismal," he said. 

Zarief said wicker items like Shuph, Kranjul, Zean, Faeth, Tukri and Kangri were considered to be part of Kashmiri's rich culture. "Dargah Hazratbal market was hub of wicker items as people from different areas of Kashmir thronged it particularly on Fridays. Wicker goods were used mostly on Eid or marriage ceremonies. In early eighties, a businessman in Srinagar made innovations in wicker work and made jars, screens, lamp shades and furniture. JK Arts Emporium had exclusive wicker section. Gradually, the craft lost its popularity as authorities failed to work for its promotion," Zarief said. 

"Wicker craft has immense potential for promoting our culture and absorbing unemployed youth. It is high time for Govenrment to formulate special schemes for reviving wicker art," he added.  

Mukhtiyar explains that special apparatus is used to peel off the bark known as 'Zelan' from boiled withies. Zelan is a pair of three feet long stick bound together tightly. These withies are then dried in the sun for at least two days. Then they are tied into bundles and sold to workers and contractors as raw material. This work is especially done in places known as 'Kaarkhans', he informed.

"Different products need different weaving reeds over the withies differently for different shapes. This all work is done manually by hands, leaving workers hands and feet bruised and cut. I feel introverted to speak how much I earn. The fact is even less than a common labour. By the grace of Almighty Allah, I managed to feed my family but I am not satisfied with this work anymore," he said.   

"This art is dying with each passing day. Modernisation is eating up our trade. Plastic has replicated wicker work. Authorities have failed to take measures for preservation of this art. If steps are not taken to promote wicker work, the day is not far away when it would be only found in museums," he said. "I am the last member in my family to continue this work," he said in an emotional tone decking newly made wicker chairs outside his shop for sale.

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