The Traditional Wicker Willow Craft of Kashmir
By Suhail Ahmad Bhat
Kashmir is not only renowned for its beauty but also known throughout the world for artistic work and grandeur. Kashmir having a vast cultural and ethnic diversity has a variety of crafts, techniques and arts to flourish on the land.The various handicrafts are in tune with its age old splendid civilization, which has been perfected over centuries. Kashmir, the center of indigenous arts hadalso adopted some techniques from neighboring lands in the near past and has now become a hub of many arts and crafts. These crafts are manufactured by the skilled artisans and exported to the international markets. Some of Kashmir’s handicrafts which have garnered international attention are Khatam-band, Sozni craft, papier mache, silver work, wood carving and wicker willow craft. In this article, the main focus will be Kashmir’s only un-mechanized craft: wicker willow craft.
The origin of wicker manufacturing can be traced back to the Sumerian civilization in 400 BCE. The Sumerians used wicker woods for transport, housing, home décor, utensils etc. However, the wicker willow art’s history is dated back to ancient Romans and Egyptians. In Jammu and Kashmir this handicraft was introduced in the 20 th century. Locals believe that Maharaja Hari Sing brought 12 kgs of seeds and skilled craftsmen from Europe for making the wicker willows. Before this the Kashmiris produced wicker willow baskets and Kangris for domestic use and for storage purposes. Mr. Andrew, an Englishman, established a technical institute in Srinagar in 1914-16 to introduce new techniques of wicker weaving in the area around Bag-e-Dilawar Khan. The present techniques of weaving in Kashmir has evolved from the teachings of that old
Kashmir’s wicker willow craft is locally known as “Veer Kani” and “Keani Keam”. Wicker is the term used for the products made from thin slices of willow wood and the craft is known as wicker willow.Wicker handicraft, the technique of basket and furniture weaving, is a well known forest based cottage industry of ‘Shaakhsaazi’ community, playing an important role in socio- economic and cultural heritage of Jammu and Kashmir.‘Shaakhsaazi’ community living in the valley derived their name from Kashmiri word ‘Shaakh’ and ‘Saazi’ meaning slender pliable branches and the act of weaving respectively. The wicker handicraft is tribal in nature and deeply rooted in local folk tradition. The Shaakhsaazi community mainly lives in the areas of Shalabugh, Harran, Kachan areas of Ganderbal district and in some parts of Anantnag and Budgam districts of the valley. Artisans of Jammu and Kashmir are known worldwide for making different products from the willow wood. Now the art has gained widespread popularity and is commercialized for making various other home décor items.The wicker products are known for their aesthetic quality, biodegradable and eco friendly substitution for the conventional synthetic materials.
The wicker craft manufacturing passes through different stages and processes, the first and the foremost step is collection of the wicker. The collection of wicker is being done in three phases: spring collection (Sonth-e-Kaeni) from April to May, summer collection (Wahraat-e kaeni) from May to July and autumn collection (Harud-e-kaeni) from October to November.The Shaakhsaazi community collect the wicker commonly known as Kaeni from local forests or wetlandsand from the plantations grown in homestead or agroforests by the handicraftsmen. The different varieties of willow found in the valley are Posh, Katch, Lun and Veer Kaeni– these are deciduous shrubs or small tress native to western Himalayas particularly Kashmir growing up to 6 meters. The collection process of the wickers is a laborious work and takes days for the wicker handicraftsmen to accomplish.
After the collection of the wickers including the cutting of twigs or branches and cleaning, it is graded according to the requirement for different designs. Thereafter, it is soaked in the water for about 24-48 hours or instead of soaking boiled in water tank for about 10 hours so that the peeling of the bark would be an easy process. Immediately after peeling the bark wickers are dried up in an open shade. Finally the wickers are tied up into small bundles for storage or sale. The tools used in the wicker handicraft are traditional, simple and inexpensive. The main item is “Plank” which gives a weaver a firm ground on which the material is being set. A “Lapboard” is placed by the weaver on his lap which acts as a platform for the handicraft. Some other important tools are:
Bodkins helps in inserting stakes and handles into weaving.
Coiling tool helps in pulling thin wicker pieces and coiling.
Champak and Tchalan used for mixing charcoal in Kangri.
Knives in Kashmiri language called as Ande and Darko used for cutting wicker and finishing
touches on weaved handicrafts.
Hook locally called as “Aari” and is used for making holes.
Rapping iron helps in beating down the weaving.
Rush threader is a lacing tool
Shave locally called a Chorez is used for shaving the pith.
Shears (Kanchi) pruning tool.
Willow brake is used for peeling the bark.
In weaving process the techniques involved are plaiting, wicker, twining, and coiling. The process of wicker weaving is mostly done by the men. For example collection, weaving and marketing. But there is a joint participation of women along with men to a certain extent especially when it comes to cleaning of courtyard, shed and supply of water for soaking and storage. Willow wicker craft is used to make a wide range of products both for domestic and international markets. There are two ways by which the weaving is being done depending upon the characteristics and design of products. In the first case the thin splits of willow are woven by interlacing one on the other to make products which are small in size and don’t have much weight like baskets. In Second kind the skeleton of the product is made using thick willow logs after which the split willows are woven on it. This is done in case of bigger products like furniture which needs much strength. Some most famous products of the wicker willow handicraft are Kangri the traditional fire port, the different kinds of baskets and furniture. The wickers are often dyed in various colors and different geometrical shapes are produced by the multidirectional weaves.
Wicker willow handicraft is a traditional and integral part of the rural culture and socio economy of Kashmir. It is a forest based cottage industry having roots in the rural folks. Earlier the products were made to help farmers. It’s the only art form which is not mechanized yet. It is world famous due to uniqueness in art, quality and design. This craft is in constant jeopardy due to competition with synthetic products, lack of modern techniques, lack of governmental support and unorganized marketing facilities. This handicraft deserves a planned attention and policies which will help to conserve and preserve the traditional craft and cultural heritage of Shaakhsaazi communities of the valley.