In Kashmir, Khatamband ceilings have come full circle

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Even as the valley is fast losing its traditional household aesthetics to concrete structures, the resurgence of Khatamband ceilings in recent past has restored some medieval charm. Behind the design revival is the Old City’s marketplace and its master carpenters.

By Touba Shaheen

Just outside his sonorous and sawdust-filled workshop at Srinagar’s Babademb area, Afzal talks about an artistic expression—the Khatamband woodwork—while basking in the spring sun. Around him, scores of similar workshops make the marketplace some kind of woodland, where special workers are on the job to restore the lost legacy.

But back in the day, when this part of Brari Nambal lagoon—now acting as Gateway to Old City—was being filled to lay a road stretch, this transformation of the place was hardly on anybody’s mind.

Today, at the sidewalk of the same road, the master carpenter class is working to restore the pristine glory of Kashmiri households .

“We hit the market when it was totally indifferent to us,” Afzal, a skinny man in his late forties, recalls the time of the market inception, some two decades ago, when the buzzing lane would wear a deserted look. “It was a challenge to recreate Khatamband and other allied designs, because handicrafts had mostly faced a situational demise and emergence of new housing patterns and designs had created a new market appetite.”

But eventually, the new market—where initially traders and workers would be caught yawning and dozing off inside their workshops in absence of clientele—created its own unique and distinct buzz. Soon, as vehicles started pulling over in front of these workshops, it led to a chain reaction. Many more workshops came up to recreate the Khatamband ceilings in Kashmir.

What these workshops attempted to restore, unwittingly, was the fading sign of Old City houses, known to enchant sightseers for their unique touches and architectural patterns. Many of those rundown structures have now become a signpost of Kashmir’s rich heritage past. “If you happen to see the heritage structures of Old City, you will realise that the Khatamband was a way of life for our ancestors,” says Mushtaq Misgar, an Old City carpenter, referred as Wusta, the master, by his colleagues and customers. “And mainly, it had to do with climate. Khatamband ceiling has long life and suits climatic conditions of the valley.”

Taking long drags of hookah at his Babademb workshop, Master Misgar, a man in his mid-sixties, says that cement ceilings which are now becoming a regular feature of Kashmiri households cause many health problems .“But Khatamband,” he says, “comes with lots of health benefits. It retains the heat during winters, and gives cooling effect during summers.”

As Kashmir’s traditional interior design, Khatamband is an art of making decorative ceiling. It’s made by fitting small pieces of polygonal wood into each other in geometrical patterns, held together by beadings. In Persian language, Khatam-Bandh means ‘coming full circle’. The ceiling design, many say, was brought to Kashmir by Mirza Hyder Tughlaq in 1541, during the Mughal era.

But some also believe that the famous scholar-saint Shah Hamadani [R.A] who visited the valley to propagate Islam also brought Khatamband artists, among his other followers from Persia, during the 14th century. His shrine in Old Srinagar called Khankahi-Moula beautifully expounds this connection. The shrine has the most complex Khatamband Installation. In fact, the marked presence of Khatamband ceilings in shrines of Kashmir only establishes the link between the two.

At a small distance from Babademb woodland, some faithful are solemnly entering the gates of Dastgeer Sahab shrine. What’s standing in the name of sanctum sanctorum at Khanyar marketplace is the refurbished structure of earlier gutted structure — known for its deep-mystic value and its captivated Khatamband ceiling, adorned with fine floral Naqqashi designs.

At one of the windows, a shrine warden sits with praying lips. He takes one to that unfortunate summer day, seven years ago, when flames erupted and engulfed the shrine structure. “It was June 2012 and most of us were beating our chests seeing the holy shrine known for its mystic aura and marvellous design turning into cinders,” the shrine warden, introducing himself as Saleem, says.

If you ask any devotee here, he says, they will bat for the old shrine, “because its ambiance was designed so aesthetically that it would turn worshipers into captives, giving them solace and peace of mind, which is the main purpose of their shrine visit.” The new shrine structure has been mostly designed on old lines, but its concrete face-lifting makes many nostalgic about the vintage version.

At his workshop, Afzal is still basking in the sun, while talking about the uniqueness of Khatamband—whose seamless geometrical pattern makes one feel as if s/he is staring at a starry sky.

There are basically two elements in Khatamband making — one is the beading, called Gaj-Patti and second, the polygon called Posh (Flower). Mainly, he says, light Fir wood is used in making of Khatamband because “of its light weight and unbendable nature”.

Some 600 odd master carpenters of Srinagar’s Old City, says Afzal, can still recreate 100 odd aesthetically pleasing designs. Most of these artists come from Safakadal, Eidgarh and Lal Bazaar areas. Their aesthetic designs used to mainly adorn the ceilings of houseboats and shrines.

“Since people mainly frequent shrines to get some sense of solace,” Afzal says, “our forefathers created the seamless intersecting Khatamband lines on their ceilings, in order to make the shrine aura meditative and magnificent.”

But now, as Khatamband ceiling is becoming mainstream in the valley, the likes of Afzal are also receiving some orders from military installations—thus, making many believe that even command posts want to saviour, besides consume, some part of Kashmir in them!

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