Kani shawls are art, history and culture rolled into one

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When Shabir Ahmed, a Kani shawl weaver from Budgam district in central Kashmir, prepared to quit his job as a pashmina weaver, new hope arose in his life. Thanks to this, Ahmed did not have to give up the skill his ancestors were famous for, a skill he had inherited as a cultural heritage.

Ahmed has been weaving Kani shawls for 65 years, but recalled that recently the craftsmen have faced their toughest times. “Many even believed that this style of pashmina weaving craftsmanship would disappear from the domestic and global market,” Ahmed said.

Shabir Ahmed, won a national award for promoting the Kani shawl craftsmanship that once thrived in the village of Kanihama, from which it takes its name. Kanihama, a village in Budgam district in central Kashmir, has 500 households, of which 300 are associated with the craft of pashmina weaving. In Kashmir, the word “Kani” refers to the small rectangular wooden spool that is used on the loom to weave these shawls.

The locals said The citizen that Kanihama village is known as the birthplace of Pashmina and Kani shawl weaving and has been hailed as a craft village. For decades, the hamlet of Kanihama, located on the national highway that connects central Kashmir to the north of the region, has been a center of Kani pashmina shawl making.

According to Ahmed, “Our village is home to a number of national winners. On August 7, 2017, I received a national award in Jaipur, which coincided with World Handloom Day. to receive such awards.” Their homes, however, remain modest and artisans say they make little profit even though they make the beautiful shawls that sell for millions of dollars all over the world.

“The kani shawl industry in Kashmir has had many ups and downs. The younger generation has no desire to pursue this profession,” Ahmed lamented. The younger generation in the village are mostly educated but prefer to do other things than continue their trade as a profession

However, in 2020, the government of Jammu and Kashmir had officially titled Kanihama as the handicraft village of Kashmir. The locals said The citizen that the region is world famous as the home of handwoven Pashmina and Kani shawls. The village, according to them, is being developed to become a must-visit tourist destination as well. However, others say that simply giving it “craft village” status is not enough. “The authorities should come forward and provide free pashmina looms to artisans or at least a subsidy,” they said.

Local artisans say they “don’t make a lot of money and spare no effort to preserve the craftsmanship”, but add that the village has not been developed for years. They say the recognition is coming late, “but we hope the government keeps its promises,” said Farooq Ahmad, a weaver who also received a national award.

In 2021, a joint facilitation center was established in Kanihama village by the administration, to encourage local artisans. The center has sparked new hope among artisans and villagers, and now hundreds of young pashmina artisans are being trained here. Mohammad Ashraf, 40, a crafts teacher at the joint center, said The citizenthat “the government has assigned 20 female craftspeople to teach pashmina weaving at the centre. Those who promote Kani shawl craftsmanship and are registered at the center receive Rs. 1,500 as a monthly stipend”.

Over the past three years, the craft of pashmina weaving has also been widely adopted by villages bordering Kanihama. The center itself is located on the famous Gulmarg ski resort road, where tourists flock and buy Kani shawls at the facilitation center. This is a welcome change from the days when artisans in Kanihama faced many difficulties when selling their wares. Now artisans bring their products to the center for exhibitions. “It has become a new platform for us, where our products are sold to tourists,” Ahmed said.

The artisans said that “in a few months, officials will develop a QR code-based Kani shawl app that will give the product specifications to the buyer.” This will help both the craftsman and the buyer. According to an official who wished to remain anonymous, there have been some infrastructural developments in the village. The houses were painted and 50 solar inverters were also provided to the craftsmen. The government donated 30 sheds to the handloom village free of charge. “Each costs more than one lakh rupees,” the official said.

He added that the government had organized five exhibitions in resorts, Gulmarg, Tulip Garden, Pahalgam and Surajkund, to introduce this indigenous Kashmiri handicraft to tourists.

According to Mohammad Ashraf, a craft teacher working in the hand weaving department, the village produces 700 handmade shawls a year. “Village artisans guarantee a quality product to customers. We are witnessing many machine-made in the markets which are falsely labeled as handmade. However, now a customer can easily spot an original when he sees the shawls made in Kanihama village,” he said.

Ghulam Nabi, an artisan, said the focus is now on the geographical indication (GI) label. “The Kani shawl received the GI tag years ago. But its tag hasn’t been launched yet,” Nabi added. Today, a footbridge installed on the national road of Gulmarg, presents Kanihama as a craft village. Thereafter, tourists and art lovers are encouraged to stop at Kanihama to see for themselves how the pashmina shawl is woven.

Budgam Deputy Commissioner Shabaz Mirza said the agenda is to develop this village and promote Kani shawl and handicrafts all over the world. “We showcase its artisan weavers locally and internationally so that they can showcase the production, demonstration, exhibitions and sale of shawls without the involvement of brokers or third-party dealers,” he said. Mirza added that beautification of the village is also a priority and more facilities will also be provided at the handicraft center on Srinagar Gulmarg road.

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