Shawlweaving in Kashmir

In Kashmir in mid-April, I can imagine the apple blossoms in orchards and on hopeful new plantings in people’s back gardens.  A month ago, a country-person estimated it was three weeks to blossom time, in spite of their “coldest winter in 16 years”, and I answered that ours in central Ontario would be a couple of weeks later, nevermind the mild winter here.  The climate, the range of the seasons, the trees and flowers, seem all very similar, especially after the flat roofs and sub-tropical dryness of India.

kani shawl weaving demonstration at School of Designs, Srinagar, March 2012

I was in Srinagar for two weeks, for the first time since 1985, after soliciting an invitation from the University of Kashmir, to offer a workshop on computer-assisted-design applications for the traditional tapestrywoven Kashmir shawl.  It’s a subject I have studied independently for more than 20 years, based on published photos of spectacular antique fabrics, and a tapestryweaver’s understanding of what’s required.  Shawlweaving has been observed with fascination and documented in the past and present, but usually with only the vaguest notion of what goes on in the weaving.  Myself, I was riveted by the shawlweaver’s daily challenge of weaving from a text of line-by-line instructions to reproduce dependably a subtle and detailed design with seemingly no stylistic restrictions.  The advent of the computer has contributed a lot, not only to our contemporary understanding of digital images, but to the reconstruction of old designs and preparation of new ones in Kashmir’s continuing knotted-carpet and shawlweaving industries.

contemporary shawlweaving at 4 treadlings per line of instructions

I am conscious of the need to be modest about what I could possibly teach to traditional weavers, but I had a particular point to try to get across, based on my observations of historical material, that isn’t being practised today: designs should be prepared so that there is a change of the weaver’s instructions for every two treadlings, not every four treadlings as is currently done.  The amount of weaving is the same, the instructions change twice as often, and the resulting woven imagery is more detailed and graceful, as it was in the past.  The technical nature of my proposal and its implications for the weaver’s work routine, had major influence on the planning of the workshop and the variety of meetings I had with designers and weavers.
My invitation was from the Information Technology and Support Systems Directorate, a project-oriented department responsible for integrating new computer resources into the University’s activities.  I had gotten my encouragement to inquire from an earlier project titled “Graphic Designing for Kashmiri Handicrafts”, and framed my proposal as being intended for designers and students, to take place in a computer-lab setting I expected the University would have.  There was a Fine Arts Department at an off-campus location, but no applied-arts program related to textile design.  I was reluctant to approach individual businesses, for fear of getting caught up in rivalries among competitors that I didn’t know well enough to choose between.
I arrived in Kashmir a week before the workshop was to start, just as my hosts were considering the question of who we could expect to attend.  The student world of the University, here as anywhere, is somewhat isolated from the larger community.  Because Kashmir is a cause celebre in India, and formerly gained much of its prosperity from its handicraft industries and tourism, there are numerous government departments and institutions at the central and state levels, whose mandate is to support these sectors.  The University chose to work through these institutional contacts – the Craft Development Institute, the Indian Institute of Carpet Technology, the School of Designs – and I visited several of their directors myself to describe my project and the kind of participants I hoped to attract.  In our conversations and subsequent defaults, I accumulated a picture of bureaucratic priorities, limited mandates and resources, and discouragement at their inability to remodel their constituencies in new and modern ways or even to really engage with them productively.
At the introductory, lecture-based session of the workshop, we started with about 30 individuals, some I recognized or assume had been attracted by word-of-mouth, then the doors opened and another 50 young students trooped in under escort, from the Gov’t Polytechnic for Women, who had been assigned to attend, papering the house and requiring redoubled supplies of chicken patties for the refreshments following.
In the subsequent sessions in the computer lab, attendance was divided between the Polytechnic students who sat dutifully at the computer workstations, and visits from designers wanting to engage me in their own conversations.  Naively thinking that I could get around to everyone in due time, I didn’t manage the classroom situation very well.  The visitors came and went; the students experimented using the Stitch Painter program as intended, but either recoiled shyly at my approach or sailed out purposefully when it was time for a break.  I was grateful to their teacher for convening group discussions a couple of times, but by the last day of the workshop the commitment from the Polytechnic had already ended, and I was left talking to one or two stragglers as the clock ran out.  I think my talk during the introductory session went well, but the University’s assessment of the workshop itself ought to be so disappointed I should just be glad they were too polite to tell me.
As a framework for my two weeks in Kashmir, the program at the University did provide me with wide-ranging introductions to the stakeholders in the shawlweaving industry.  Shawl designers and weavers are often characterized as two separate groups, the designers computer-literate, younger, isolated and frustrated by lack of employment, and the weavers poorly-paid and exploited, lacking the education and opportunities to improve their situations.  The history of Kashmir’s exploitation extends back long before it became symbolic of the enmity between India and Pakistan, before partition, before it became a favourite summer resort of the British colonizers, to the 16th century when it was annexed by the Mughals, then later usurped by Afghans and Sikhs, largely because of the shawlweaving production they coveted, fostered, controlled, and taxed.  European observers reported, with vicarious indignation, the conditions of captive servitude and meagre rice rations earned by the weavers.  Shawl designers were a class apart from the weavers, fewer in number and priviledged by their talent, like the painters who worked in court ateliers.  The process itself of preparing and transmitting the designs, left weavers passively following instructions and interchangeable on the order of their employers.  But even today people point to certain neighbourhoods of Srinagar having concentrations of weavers with shawl looms in their homes.  This relic of a former economy sounds like a wonderland to an artist-weaver from the West, where handweaving as an economic activity is already extinct.  The same economic imperative prompts the fashionable cynicism alike of the nostalgic and of the progressive, that tapestry shawl weaving is bound to dwindle and give way to more profitable, modern livelihoods.  I’m not so sure.
Call it the wishful thinking of an older person still in the grip of his favourite anachronisms and lost causes, but I’m more hopeful that shawlweaving will survive, and be recognized for its importance to the history of Kashmir.  The craft process from artist’s drawing to fine tapestrywoven fabric is technologically brilliant, showing a deep understanding of the digital nature of woven imagery.  It was advanced for its time, developed into full flower supporting tens of thousands of workers, and still has its advocates today.  Every Kashmiri I meet connected with the shawl industry now is young, enthusiastic, and dedicated, some of them engaged in reviving the family businesses last run by their grandfathers.  And already the connection between shawl designs and computer imaging is obvious enough to be employed by some weavers.
Because of the upsurge of militancy in the last twenty years, there may have been a lost generation of casualties and emigrants, and one might well fear an irrevocable break with the past.  But perhaps the stone-throwing has subsided in favour of a more habitable determination to reassert Kashmir’s cultural distinction and heritage.  When I first started to mention my interest in shawlweaving and the pieces of talim I had collected in the 1990’s, I was surprised that every Kashmiri I met in the diaspora could recognize and read the talim, probably from time spent in childhood apprenticeship to carpet weaving, which perpetuated the technology of the talim text when shawls went out of fashion in the 19th century.  While the talim is part of their common heritage, they are frankly incredulous that anyone outside the tradition, such as I, can read it.  There is a very strong sense of pride, proprietorship, and exclusivity that I think will motivate the survival of shawlweaving, a harmless, arduous, but closely self-identified, dedicated, and ultimately rewarding activity, just as much as Kashmiri self-determination has prompted more dangerous and costly gestures of resistance.
I have long felt there is a social dimension of my own quiet tapestryweaving activity, a nonconformist resistance to the haste and opportunism of the present era.  I would love it if a variety of the work that has become my vocation, continues to signify and reward the pride of its people, and if I, even as an outsider, could contribute to that by my study of what made the best surviving examples of shawlweaving’s golden age.  That pride is probably why it seems so difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to get a hearing, with my unconventional loom, coarse woollen threads, unfamiliar concepts, and critique of current practice – argue as I may that the differences are superficial.  It’s not about modernization or productivity, but all about restoring and upholding the tradition.


~ by Peter Harris on 15/05/2012.

One Response to “Shawlweaving in Kashmir”

  1. Such intricate work.

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