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Namda art in Kashmir: A Story of Histories, Hardships and Hopes

BY Geeta Vaishnavi

The valley of Kashmir holds in its depths a kaleidoscope of natural scenarios and

human cultures. On the one hand, some of the natural havens that Kashmir can claim

as its very own are so amazingly picturesque that the valley has been called many

times and by people from supremely varied linguistic, cultural, religious and

geographical backgrounds as the ‘paradise on earth.’ On the other hand, the human

beings who have lived in Kashmir with their families and communities for centuries

have, over these centuries, developed rituals, practices, ways of thinking, artistic

schools, architectural styles, handicrafts, cuisine and aesthetic sensibilities which have

borrowed from intersecting cultural groups which, in time, have coalesced into

forming a shared and uniquely composite identity. The art of felting i.e. applying

soap, water and pressure on wool to create a kind of fabric entirely different from

what is expected from weaving has travelled across the Eurasian world for millennia,

but the form it takes in Kashmir collectively termed as ‘Namda’ is, again, claimed by

a number of people to be unique to Kashmir. For centuries, these plain or embroidered

felted rugs have been synonymous with Kashmiri life and have existed almost as a

given in all Kashmiri households. A matrix of factors, however, has created an

unprecedented crisis for Namdas, Namda making and the place of Namdas in

Kashmiri life.

The craft of felting has been a part of the human experience for thousands of years.

There are debates about the time and place of its origin. While some believe that its

earliest traces can be identified in Mazandaran, Iran, others identify Yarkand as the

birthplace of felting. Whatever the truth may be, it is undoubted that felting as a

means of producing tents, floor coverings and sometimes even articles of clothing has

been widely used by the nomadic communities of Eurasia. The Scythians used felting

to produce tents in the 5 th century BCE, just as the Kazakhs living in the Sinkiang

region do today. An early Bronze Age cap made of solid felt is just one of the many

items made by felting that have been found from Jutland and Slesvig and which now

have a home in the National Moseum in Copenhagen. In 1939 CE, a late Bronze Age

horse bridle incorporating a carefully filled felt strap of sheep’s wool was found in

Hesse, Germany. It seems that felting was a process that quite suited the time and

resources available to nomadic communities and hence was enthusiastically adopted

by many such communities, traveling with them to almost all corners of the Old

World. Of course, there were regional specificities in felting processes and design

techniques. Chinese influence, for example, can be observed in the kind of felting that

exists in Turkistan, the Indian subcontinent and Tabriz in west Asia. Today, the

tradition of felting is alive and well in Kirgizstan, Sinkiang, Turkey and parts of the

Indian subcontinent, among many other regions.

The origins of Namda in particular are also shrouded in mystery and many conflicting

claims exist regarding the same. Some believe that the Aryans, who were nomads

themselves, brought Namda to the Indian subcontinent in the 5 th -4 th centuries BCE as a

part of their horse saddle jackets. The Sanskrit word ‘Namata’ is even claimed by some as the root word for Namda. A far more popular legend associates the arrival of

Namda with the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605 CE). It is said that the emperor

had once ordered his exchequer to arrange for a saddle covering for his horse which

was badly affected by the cold weather. When this was declared, a wise old man from

the East stood up and offered to prepare one such piece of cloth himself. He did so by

applying the process of felting and embroidered the finished product with colorful

threads to make it lavish and attractive. The emperor was so delighted by the

innovativeness and hard work of the old man that he granted him several villages as

reward. This old man’s name, as the legend goes, was Nubi, and the article of cloth he

introduced later came to be known as Namda from that name. Another legend

suggests that in Kashmir, Namda was introduced before 14 th century saw the arrival of

Islam. The growth and prosperity of the craft of making Namdas, as in many other

crafts in Kashmir, has been associated with the efforts of the Sufi saint Shah

Hamadani and the Sultan Zain ul-Abidin (r. 1420-1470 CE).

Notwithstanding the exact origin of the craft, Namda or the felted rug, along with its

cousin Gabba i.e. an assortment of old rugs stitched together to serve as floor

covering, is an inextricable part of the Kashmiri culture and, in some ways, is born out

of the Kashmiri culture. It has been a tradition in Kashmir for people to sit on the

floor, be they rich or poor. Even honored guests are welcomed and offered a seat on

the floor. This tradition annually led the Kashmiris into trouble as the harsh Kashmiri

winters made sitting on the floor uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous from

the perspective of maintaining health. Hence, floor coverings were introduced in order

to protect the inhabitants and guests of the household from the biting cold and also

beautify the home space in an inexpensive manner. Namda is generally made by

mixing low quality wool with low quantity of silk. The process of making Namda has,

more or less, remained unchanged for generations. First, the fleeced wool undergoes a

process called ‘carding’ which removes all the impurities from the wool. Thereafter,

the artisan makes the border of the Namda on the designated mat. This border’s

purpose is to emphasize the main design of the felted rug. After that, layers of wool

are placed on the main body of the mat. Thereafter, a soap solution is sprinkled on to

the layers. Contact with the soap solution immediately starts binding several layers of

wool fabrics together to form a felt. This process is then aided by rolling up the mat,

tying it with the help of a rope or ropes and applying pressure with hands and feet for

an hour. Then, the rug is unrolled and left out in the sun to dry. After this process is

completed, we find what can be called the plain Namda. The final step of the process,

using Kashmiri aari work to embroider intricate and colorful designs on to this plain

felted rug, is optional.

There are mostly three kinds of Namdas based on appearance and the process used to

create them. Firstly, the plain Namda is the very basic form of the felted rug. Without

any designs whatsoever, this rug nevertheless serves the purpose of protecting the

inhabitants from the cold floor and is an inexpensive option to do the same. Secondly,

the ‘embroidered Namda’ is where the Kashmiri aari work comes alive with all its potential. Colorful threads dyed by master dyers are applied by skilled embroiderers to create absolutely beautiful designs on the relatively plain surfaces of the Namdas.

These designs generally range from geometrical patterns to floral and animal motifs.

More specifically, some patterns regularly applied to create embroidered patterns on

Namdas are: double khatamband (a tessellation basd on octagons and squares),

aemberzul (daffodil design with eight white petals and a yellow center with an

emphasis on the octagonal pattern created by the petals), Taladaar (the word ‘tal’

means ‘ceiling’ and this type of motif is specifically aimed at reflecting the design of

the ceiling), gul-i-akhtab (inspired by the sunflower) etc. The third type of Namda is

called the ‘cut work Namda’ i.e. using wool itself to create memorable designs. The

price of Namda varies based on the cost of the material, the size of the product and the

type of Namda required among other factors.

The tradition of making felted rugs has been turned into an occupational craft by

many communities. These include Pinjara and Mahasuri communities and the Sama

Muslims of the Kachchh region. Apart from Kashmir, felted rug making is practiced

in parts of Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The story of Namda also hints at a wide trade network that had always existed

surrounding Kashmir and which has evolved constantly. It seems that raw wool was

imported to Kashmir in early times before it was made into Namda. As the popularity

of Namda went beyond the Kashmir region, felted rugs started to be exported. In the

modern era, the biggest importers of Namda became the European countries along

with Japan.

It is recognized that the production of Namda has, in spite of its deep and long-

standing connection with Kashmiri life, witnessed a sudden and catastrophic decline,

with production reducing almost 100% between 1998 and 2008 CE. It has been listed

as an ‘identifiable endangered craft’ by the development commissioner, handicrafts.

Kumari Nayan Tara Singh, assistant professor at the National Institute of Fashion

Technology in Srinagar, identifies a few possible reasons for this decline:

Firstly, due to constantly fluctuating cost of raw materials, there has been a lack of the

same to to the artists’ inability to purchase the raw material at a high cost and expect a

profit from the finished Namda. The lack of a proper carding machine which has also

declined in production severely inhibits the production process of Namda.

Secondly, like many of Kashmir’s handicrafts, Namda making was usually a

hereditary profession and involved the labor of the entire family in one way or the

other. However, the changed socio-economic circumstances in the twentieth century

have highly impacted this state of affairs. As the profit margin continues to dwindle,

many Namda making families who feel severely underpaid and under-appreciated for

their craft now prefer moving away from the vocation altogether. This is especially

prevalent in youngsters who are leaving the family trade to pursue more lucrative

career opportunities.

Thirdly, the lack of awareness among most of the Namda making community about

the new digital marketing tools available for the producers to directly engage with the

customers severely impedes their ability to gauge the market demands and produce

Namdas accordingly. The continued dependence on middlemen has also led to a deep

curtailing of the Namda makers’ income relative to other artisans more attuned to the

increasingly digitized marketplace.

These challenges, among other factors, have crippled the Namda making communities

to the point that the age-old tradition is now threatened with complete extinction. The

loss of the Namda will amount to an incalculable and irreversible loss for Kashmiri

life, culture and history. Not only for the intangible value of cultural identity shared

by millions, but also in view of the very tangible loss of livelihoods for thousands of

hereditary Namda makers, it is the moral responsibility of the authorities and also that

of well-meaning general populace to aid the revival and reshaping of the craft to help

it survive in a fast-paced transforming world.

In a happy departure from the rather gloomy pattern of the slow demise of traditional

handicrafts the world over, the crisis of Namda has been duly noted and acted upon by

the government. In November 27, 2021, Union Minister of Skill Development and

Entrepreneurship Shri Rajeev Chandrashekhar announced the launch of two new pilot

projects with the aim to revive the Namda art in Kashmir. The two projects are

entitled ‘Revival of Namda craft of Kashmir as a special pilot project under Pradhan

Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) 3.0’ and ‘Upskilling of artisans and weavers

of Kashmir under Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), component of PMKVY.’

These pilot projects were aimed to benefit 2250 artisans from 30 Namda clusters

across six districts of Kashmir (Srinagar, Baramulla, Ganderbal, Budgam, Bandipora

and Anantnag) and the RPL initiative aims to upskill 10900 artisans and weavers of

J&K. Courses of upskilling and re-skilling would be taught to 25 batches in three

cycles, each cycle lasting three and a half months, thereby the whole process lasting

14 to 16 months. The training delivery partner for this upskilling initiative were Mir

Handicraft, Srinagar Carpet training and Market Culture.

Launching the project, Chandrashekhar stated that India has a rich heritage and is

home to several traditional art forms. It is the vision of the Government to revive and

promote traditional and heritage skills and to give them support to make them

economically sustainable. We should strive to offer them exposure to the international

markets so that the world becomes aware of our vibrant culture. He added that the

people of J&K sought support to boost the local economy through customized skill

training programs. This prompted the MSDE to come up with this program “…in a

bid to meet the economic aspirations of the local youth and take them on the path of

development.” The Minister also appreciated the efforts of the MSDE officials, the

National Skill Development Corporation and Sector Skill Councils as this custom

designed program was conceptualized, processed and sanctioned within a record

period of just two months.

Apart from the laudable government efforts to rescue the Namda craft from imminent

obscurity, the Incredible Kashmir Craft brand created by Arifa Jan is committed to

return the Namda craft to its former glory and has been noted by those in the upper

echelons of power for its significant contribution regarding the same.

Namdas are not only an integral part of Kashmiri culture, but also a token of the

human journey as a whole. Thousands of artisanal families have built their entire

livelihoods on this craft, a craft that once defined Kashmiri life and one that has come

face to face with complete extinction. Through centuries of nomadic mobility and

intercultural interaction, the art of felt which has become an invaluable way for

ensuring the survival of millions, has found a uniquely local expression in Kashmir

through the form of Namda. While economic, social and cultural issues have led to a

severe decline in the Namda making tradition, both the government and private

individuals are trying their best to revive, adapt and preserve this ancient art. With

efforts underway to revive the craft and upskill and incentivize the craftspeople, it

seems that the future of Namda is hopeful.


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