Kani Art: One of the oldest handicrafts of Kashmir, representing rare and exquisite craftsmanship
By Geeta Vaishnavi
This article will take you to Kanihama, located on the Srinagar-Gulmarg highway, known as Kashmir’s Handloom Village where the artisans meticulously weave delicate pashmina yarn to create elegant Kani Art motifs on the finest of shawls. The Kani Art is one of the oldest handicrafts of Kashmir and still surviving the onset of modern style embroidery as it retains the rare and exquisite craftsmanship that has been passed down generation after generation. Kashmir is the only place in the world where Kani Shawl that has great potential in the international market is woven through spools and the design is embedded in the weaving process.
Kanihama village, known for producing the exclusive designs of famous Kani Shawls, was given the special status of ‘handloom village’ by the Indian textiles ministry. The government of Jammu and Kashmir has also granted a geographical indication to the Kani Shawl, making it illegal to sell shawls made outside of the Kanihama area as Kani Shawls. These recognitions have come about because of the hard work of talented craftsmen and artists of the Kanihama village who are serious about maintaining the authenticity and exclusivity of the traditional Kani Shawls. Moreover, the much-needed validation is bringing many opportunities to take Kani Art, which has attracted people from all over the world, to new heights. The Kani Shawl weavers are also provided opportunities every year to showcase their artworks at national and international exhibitions.
The Kani Art
Kani Art, indigenous to Kanihama village of district Budgam and traced back to 3000 BC, is a form of Kashmiri handicraft mostly seen on embroidered Kani Shawls, and woven from yarn coat of pashmina goats, reared in the Union Territory of Ladakh, that makes it feathery and warm. The Kani Shawl is among Kashmirs principal exports since the time of Mughal rule, making it the oldest handicraft of Kashmir. Kani in Kashmiri means a small wooden oblong spool. This exquisite shawl was once coveted by Mughal Kings, Sikh Maharajas and British Aristocrats. The Ain-i-Akbari records that Emperor Akbar was an avid collector of Kani Shawls that are today found in the world’s finest museums like Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the department of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Three things make Kani Shawls special and unique: The way they are woven, they are a premium version of Pashmina (referred either to the material or to the variant of the Kashmir shawl that is made from the wool of domesticated Changthangi goats) Shawls, and they are costlier.
The Kani Shawl, made from Pashmina yarn and kani sticks (wooden oblong spools), require a great level of expertise and focus to weave. The Pashmina goat, found in Ladakhs mountains, provides the yarn for a Kani Shawl. The animal has a coarse yet extremely fine winter coat. It protects the Pashmina goat from freezing temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius. Once the dreary winter days are replaced by long, beautiful summer days, the Pashmina goat undergoes hormonal changes and as a result, the animal sheds its winter coat that does not serve any purpose.
Families who are associated with the weaving of Kani Shawls work for 5 to 7 hours a day. A Jamawar Kani Shawl (fully covered with kani motifs or pattern) takes about 6 to 18 months, depending upon the complexity of the design being woven which makes it costlier than any other Handloom product. Depending on the intricacy and complexity of the design being woven, an artisan weaves a maximum of a few centimetres per day. The aesthetic recreations of design found on Kani Shawls are inspired by nature and woven with a twill tapestry technique. The shawls are also covered in floral patterns embroidered with multi-coloured threads.
A designer or naqash creates a pattern. The weaver following a code prepared by the designer brings it to life with numerous bobbins or petit sticks loaded with yarn of different colours. There is no embroidery. Neither does the bobbin shuttle from one side to the other of the warp. Instead, sticks of different colours are inserted at different points across the warp thread. The Talim patterns used in Kani Shawls look- alikes or machine-woven shawls are sold commercially across Kashmir and other parts of India and beyond.
The locals are pleased of the fact that the Kani Art practise has been restored not just in their hamlet, but also in other regions of Kashmir, particularly in the neighbouring villages of Batapora, Mazhama, and Roshanabad. The original Kani Shawls are available in the price range of Rs 50,000 to Rs 3 lakh. The Kani Shawls have become a key source of income for the weavers, spool and loom makers, and dyers who live in the aforementioned villages. Apart from sending them to Schools, Colleges and Universities, the majority of the weavers are teaching their children the craft of Kani Shawl weaving. They say it is because of the Kani Art that they have been able to provide for their families for the last nearly five decades. “The government should do more to make the lives of shawl weavers better and other villages of the Kashmir valley should get the handloom tag too.”
The present prospect
The governments decision to designate Kanihami as a handloom village has significantly boosted shawl production in the village. In addition to providing funds for the installation of new looms, the government is planning to build a trade facilitation centre at Kanihama for weavers to display and sell their wares, as well as live demonstrations of shawl creation, particularly for visitors. Moreover, the government is providing recognition and legitimacy to the people associated with the Kani Art. In this connection, two weavers of Batapora area in north Kashmir’s Tangmarg won National awards for producing the best shawls on spools.
The Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom Kashmir is planning to erect an entry gate marking Kanihama as a handloom village so that tourists and art lovers will stop by to find out how the Kanishawl is woven.
Furthermore, Rs 5 crore under a centrally funded scheme will be spent on the beautification of the Kanihama village where the houses will be painted with a uniform colour and weavers provided solar lights and work stations. A modern cafeteria will also be set up in the village where tourists can refresh and relax. A common work-shed is being built that would be utilized for the weaving process and sell handloom products.
Craft of Kani shawl weaving came to Kashmir from Persia. During the Mughal period, more than 10,000 Kani looms were functional in the valley. It was during the reign of Zain ul Abideen (Budshah). However, with time the art faced setbacks and lost its glory. This period saw major blows to many handloom crafts in Kashmir. Kani shawl weaving would have totally disappeared had not a family saved this craft even during the craft impediment. This family is known as the ‘Wani family of Kanihama’. And since the 1700s, they have held onto this technique and revived it later on. Kani Art is a rare craft form of Kashmir that has persevered testament of time. Today the government officials say, the main aim of developing Kanihama village is to promote Kanishawl and spread awareness about Kani Art all across the world, besides introduce its artisans’ weavers’ locally and internationally so that they can manage its weaving, production, demonstration, exhibitions and sale without the involvement of brokers and enthral audiences globally with 'Kani shawls of Kashmir'.