Noorbagh’s legendary Aari workers losing their thread to mean machines

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When some Indian celebrities and prominent personalities began donning designer outfits with Kashmiri Aari embroidery on them, it brought to mind the unsung artisan class of the valley who since centuries has been keeping the needle art alive amid trying times.

By Fahim Matoo

Some legends trace their craft survival in exigent epochs, when the valley had nosedived into the cauldron of crisis. It was, however, their needle devotion that constantly saved the day for them throughout the chequered history of their homeland. But perhaps, not anymore! As today, they’re up against a different treachery, which has already taken a monstrous machine form, and is now devouring the native needle—Aari—workers in guise of pace and price.

This might sound a prelude of a fall-from-a-grace story, but that’s exactly what has become of Noorbagh’s native Aari workers.

Their domicile holds a distinction of housing some finest needle workers of Kashmir. Most of these artisans appear unassuming—the quintessential commoners bereft of complex worldview. Relentless working inside their residential workplaces has now left most of them with a bad back and poor eyesight. Yet, they continue to do what their forefathers did—religiously serving the art, which found its roots in Kashmir with the arrival of a certain saint from Hamdan along with his crafty followers.

As traditionalists, these men produce some of the best needle works in the valley. Their products adorn some finest showrooms in the world.

Inside a maze-like alleyways in Noorbagh—where the brunt of early-90’s military offensive is still blatant—Mehraj-ud-Din Bafanda’s workplace is hemmed between two medieval rundown structures. The master craftsman sits with a room full of workers.

Bafanda with his workers inside his workplace. (Pic: TIP/Fahim Matoo)

Ambiance of Bafanda’s workplace is totally engrossing. His Aarikaem artisans wear solemn and silent body language, while using a sharp-edged needle to put their creatively at work. Patiently and with a sense of devotion, they create floral imprints on fabrics. Often, as these needle designs hit market, they become instant popular embroidery trends on Kashmiri dresses.

“This art is our legacy,” says Bafanda, with a brooding face. “It has withstood the test of tumultuous times before coming this far.”

As a seasoned artisan, Bafanda is witness to a silent cultural demise of his craft and class amid the chilling carnage in the valley during nineties. Those who could manage to survive the trying times then, are now among the countable native workers left in Noorbagh’s labyrinth of threads and tapestry.

Aari work is considered appropriate for all seasons—as it can be done on velvet, silk, cotton, cotton-silk, chanderi and many other fabrics. It’s typically done on suits, stoles and shawls. Apart from clothes it’s found on home furnishings like bedcovers, cushion covers, among others.

It’s believed that the needle art was introduced in Kashmir in 12th century by Persians, who came to the valley as followers of Shah Hamdan [R.A], the Sufi-scholar who preached Islam in Kashmir. Since then, it has passed through a great transformation.

“This art-work is a specialty of Kashmir artisans,” Bafanda says. “The purest essence and forms of nature like birds, leaves, trees and many such natural motifs are replicated in this embroidery with multi-colour threads.” Such features have only made Aari embroidery as a fashion statement on the designer outfits.

A colourful Aari embroidery. (Pic: TIP/Fahim Matoo)

Even some designers from outside the valley prefer Aari designs over others. One ace Indian designer was lately heard saying that floral texture of Aari works bring ‘a whole new design element and meaning’ in his works. Its constant camouflaging into different forms in the ever changing fashion industry makes many wonder about Aari embroidery and its essence.

But then, this fame has also come with a curse. Natives are now losing their threads to mean machines, promising quick and cheap designs.

“These days many customers prefer cheap machine-made designs compared to costly hand-made ones,” says a middle-aged Aari worker. “And sadly, this is happening right under the nose of officials who otherwise kept our community in good humour for the sake of photo-ops and cultural events, pledging to safeguard our community’s interests.”

However, such concerns are nothing new in the valley, and now sound almost like a clichéd comment on the fading culture. Most of these neglected native sectors, once making Kashmiris self-sufficient, are now facing the situational woes and the official apathy, thus forcing many of these artisans to switch over to machines.

“I recently started machine work,” says Bilal Ahmad Sheikh of Noorbagh. “A suit that takes a day to get completed can take only one hour with the help of machine. Also, no one wants to purchase hand-made items because of high price.”

Sheikh now designs with machine. (Pic: TIP/Fahim Matoo)

This silent transformation started in mid-2000 when machines arrived and unsettled the native needle workers. Since then, it’s been taking a toll on traditionalists.

“After lot of efficiency, bad back and weakening eyesight, we hardly earn around Rs 150 per day,” rues Mohammad Yusuf Bhat, a middle-aged artisan. “The biggest beneficiaries of this profession are now those machine artists.”

Often used as the cultural showpieces for “peaceful Kashmir”, these native artisans were provided an artisan loan in 2012. But till date, says Shakeel Ahmad Khanday, another needle artisan from Noorbagh, “we didn’t receive any subsidy.”

But Director Handicrafts Inderjeet Bhagat says government annually gives 10 percent interest subvention on loans availed by the artisans under artisan credit card scheme. However, much of it, laments Khandey, remains on paper.

“We’re promoting Kashmiri artisans everywhere so that they get their rightful remuneration of their skill,” says Sajid Yahya Naqaash, Joint Director Handicrafts, Department, Kashmir. “We’ve already sent subsidy to artisans but due to lack of resource, some cases are still pending. Department is working on it, and this issue will be addressed soon.”

A specimen of Aari work. (Pic: TIP/Fahim Matoo)

Meanwhile, in the hub of Aari works, roaring machines are now clearly threatening the craft legacy.

“Earlier this room used to be a crowded place,” says Bafanda, taking a long blank look around. “But now, people mostly work from home, as new generation is hardly attracted to this sector due to its deplorable state.”

Indeed, some mean machines do wreck havoc on culture. At Noorbagh, it’s only evident.

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