"It's been months since I paid my kids' school fees": Kashmiri carpet weaver

Kashmir's carpets are famous around the world but trade is going through a crisis and it is reflecting on the craftsmen. There is a series of reasons: low salaries, long working hours, a fall in the number of foreign tourists, fewer takers for "expensive" traditional carpets and the availability of cheap Afghani, Irani and Chinese carpets in the market

Jigyasa Mishra & Swati Subhedar

The colours in the Kashmiri carpet shop were dazzling. The mood was grim.

"If it continues this way, I will commit suicide," carpet weaver Parvez Ahmad said with tears in his eyes as he separated colourful threads in bright colours – blue, orange, maroon, pink, red, golden and silver. Behind him, eight artisans wove intricately-designed, soft and colourful Kashmiri carpets in a small manufacturing unit in downtown Srinagar.

"I work from 7:30 AM to 7:30 pm, but I get only Rs 150 a day. I have a wife and three children. How am I supposed to survive?" asked Parvez. He broke down as he spoke.

Kashmir's carpets are famous around the world but trade is going through a crisis and it is reflecting on the craftsmen. There is a series of reasons: low salaries, long working hours, a fall in the number of foreign tourists, fewer takers for "expensive" traditional carpets and the availability of cheap Afghan, Irani and Chinese carpets in the market.

"It's been three months since I have paid the school fees of my children. They have been suspended from their school," said Mohammad Rafiq, another weaver. "I get Rs 150 a day. Only Allah knows how am I managing."

Kashmir's three-decade insurgency has witnessed long spells of violence that have had a direct impact on the number of tourists visiting the state, and carpet sales.

Bashir Ahmed, 34, lives in Srinagar and is into the carpet manufacturing and selling business for many years. He said: "Post insurgency, the number of foreigners visiting Kashmir has gone down consistently. They were our prime customers. The unending violence has affected poor carpet weavers the most.

"Though the number of tourists visiting from Asian countries has gone up, but they don't have the kind of purchasing power Europeans or Americans did," he added.

'We are finding it difficult to meet ends'

The 'manufacturing unit', where these weavers were making their carpets, was actually a house. Outside, tourists wearing colourful sweaters and jackets walked about in the chill.

Inside the house, there were weaving machines on the ground floor. Raw material used to make these carpets was kept on the third floor. There were dyed cotton and silk threads in multiple colours.

The Old Market in Srinagar is a hub for buying traditional Kashmiri stuff. Outside, tourists were negotiating with shopkeepers to get good deals. Inside, these artisans were telling us about their struggles.

"Earlier we used to get Rs 300-350 per day, but now we are finding it difficult to meet ends," added Shoaib, a weaver.

"I can't even invite you to my house. It's in pathetic condition. I have no idea for how long I will live," said Parvez. "My wife does some stitching work. She earns around Rs 2,000 a month. Thankfully my family is not dependent on me. They would starve and die," said Parvez.

Markets these days are flooded with fake, machine-made Chinese, Irani and Afghani carpets. Unfortunately, customers these days don't want to buy exquisite, but expensive, traditional Kashmiri carpets.

The real issue, said the weavers, is that the artisans have spent half of their lives weaving beautiful carpets and don't possess any other skill set.

"Low salaries and long working hours are driving youngsters away. Most of them have seen their parents and grandparents suffer and don't want to take up weaving. If this continues, the weaving business will soon die," said Bashir.

Machine-made carpets are the real culprits

"Why would anyone want to pay artisans who take around one-and-a-half years to make one carpet, when there are others who manufacture four carpets in a day using machines?" asks Mohammad Rafiq Sufi, who has been into carpet manufacturing and selling since the last 40 years.

As a young child, Rafiq would see his grandfather and then his father weave intricately designed, colourful carpets.

"I didn't study much. My father used to weave carpets and that's how I learnt. I found it to be very interesting. Picture this -- around four artisans are needed to weave a 10 by 10 (100 feet) carpet. If they work from 8 am to 5 pm, they will still need 15 months to make a carpet. That's how time consuming and elaborate the whole process is."

He added that Chinese, Afghani and Irani carpets, that are not as expensive as authentic Kashmiri markets, have flooded the market. "These carpets are machine-made so one can roll out as many carpets as he wants in a day," he added.

The main grudge that these weavers and manufacturers have is that they are of inferior quality.

"We use only the best quality silk and raw material. But those who manufacture carpets using machines, at times they use raw material far inferior than wool," Rafiq said.

'Even Kashmiri shopkeepers are deceiving customers'

"Even Kashmiri shopkeepers have started deceiving customers. They sell them inferior quality Irani and Chinese carpets and charge a high price telling them that they are traditional Kashmiri carpets," Rafiq said. "This is the reason why these weavers are suffering. How will they earn when their stuff isn't even selling in the market?"

Shoaib, who has been selling silk and cotton threads to carpet manufacturers for many years, said: "The reason why our carpets are so expensive is because we use authentic silk. But, sadly even the customers these days prefer to buy low-priced carpets."

"We are not against outsiders selling carpets here. My only objection is that shopkeepers and sellers should stop passing off cheap carpets as authentic Kashmiri ones. That's not done," said Bashir.

So, what is the way out?

"Very soon this weaving business will die. From the 1990s, it came down to 40% in 2000s. Now it's hardly 10%. There was a time when every street had a loom. Look at the situation now," said Rafiq.

"We want the government to intervene and help us. If this continues, we won't have a single weaver in Kashmir and that day is not very far. Low salaries have driven youngsters away. The first thing that the government should do is to impose a complete ban on these cheap quality carpets."

The only saving grace is that there are still a handful of weavers who are passionate about this art form.

"I have been doing this for long. I think I am losing my eyesight. But this is what I want to do," said Farook Ahmed, a 68-year-old Kashmiri weaver. "The immense satisfaction I get when a carpet gets made is unparallel to any amount of cash."

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