The Struggle for the Survival of Craft and Creativity

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A Kashmiri woodcarver creates intricate designs on a walnut wood table

The centuries-old craft of walnut wood carving in Kashmir is staring at an uncertain future as there are only a few woodcarvers left who are struggling to keep this art alive

By Malika Kaloo

In a small, dark showroom in the interiors of Srinagar in Indian administered Kashmir, Mohammad Idrees displays decades-old wood furniture.

Idrees is a woodcarver who has been crafting intricate designs on planks of walnut wood since 1976. 

“I don’t sell all the artworks I make as I want to save some of these works for our future generations to see because wood carving is alive only as long as a handful of people carry this traditional legacy forward,” he says. 

Kashmir is renowned for its expensive and intricate handicrafts, one of them being walnut wood carving.

From ceilings to railings, from furniture to showpieces, walnut wood can be carved into beautiful things that represent the tradition of the people of this small Himalayan region. 

Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, a Persian Islamic scholar, introduced this art in Kashmir in the 14th century and it has become a part of Kashmiri culture ever since.

Over the last few decades, wood carving has been dying a silent death as there are not enough artisans to promote this art.  

Idrees is one of the few people struggling for its survival.

He has two sons. One of them works in Turkey as a journalist with the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation and the younger one lives in Bangalore, India. 

“My father was also an artisan, and he was very passionate about this art but none of my kids is interested in carving business, and this is what worries me,” says Idrees. 

Once the most prevalent profession of Kashmiris, the skill of wood carving is slowly disappearing with the younger generation. The main reasons are the amount of time and patience it requires, and the unstable political condition of this region.

According to Idrees, demand for wood carving increased during the pandemic since most of the customers are from high-income groups who were least affected by the economic conditions. However, there were not enough artisans to meet this growing demand.

Shakeel Qalandar, an industrialist who owns one of Kashmir’s biggest wood carving facilities, says that wood carving was popular in this part of the world because it was one of the few jobs that could be taken up by people inside their homes, without worrying about the harsh winters of Kashmir.

Walnut wood artwork is on display in Srinagar showroom

“As wood carving is a complex and time-consuming process, our younger generation is no longer interested in this craft. This has resulted in a sharp decline in the number of people associated with it,” he says. 

Political instability, according to Qalandar, is another big factor in the youth’s disengagement from wood carving as they do not see a future in Kashmir and want to go overseas for education and work.

Kashmir is a conflict zone and most of the businesses suffer financially due to shutdowns and curfews that could last months at a time. The wood carving industry is no exception, but it has managed to survive because of the demand in the international market. 

“We export artworks around the world, but the market is especially big in the Middle East and Europe. Even though our products may be expensive, there is a certain segment of society that wants to purchase these goods. This is the reason wood carving is still thriving,” says Qalandar.

Despite this, the independent artisans who spend years working on a single piece, do not get a fair share of earnings.

“This is usually because middlemen sell or export the crafts for much higher prices, but they give only a meager amount to these artisans,” says Qalandar.  

“I have been a woodcarver for at least 30 years. It is not easy to work in Kashmir because we are not appreciated for our art. It takes a lot of patience and artistic skills to create beautiful things out of simple planks of wood,” says Miraj-ud-Din, a worker at Qalandar’s factory. 

The artisans want the government to intervene and ensure that they get the recognition, appreciation and earnings they deserve. Another possible solution they put forward is setting up colleges of fine art where the youth can learn the magical art of wood carving as a full-time course. 

However, the question that remains is how can these suggestions be put into action, considering the limited opportunities and political instability?

The future of walnut wood carving in Kashmir seems blurred. Even though this industry is coping with the challenges, its survival in the long run is not guaranteed.