The uniqueness about handicraft is how it is representative of epoch, place, and culture. When the three are seamlessly inter-woven, that piece of craft becomes timeless. A remarkable illustration of one such contemporary classic is the Kashmiri shawl.
When temperatures in North India hover in single digits, shawls and stoles from Kashmir are draped in style. Almost every wardrobe usually has a splendid pashmina Sozni (needlework, from the Persian term soz which means needle) hand-me-down, lovingly passed on from the grandmother, to the mother, to the daughter. Some of these are tremendously gush-worthy and almost always have a delicious story of how they became a prized possession.
While the origin of shawls in Kashmir remains obscure, the craft goes back a few hundred years. Historical records dating to the 15th century throw light on patronage provided to the embroidered and woven craft by royalty, particularly the much-admired eighth Sultan of Kashmir Zain-ul-Abadein and later Mughal emperor Akbar and his sons Jahangir and Shah Jahan. There is a very compelling note on the splendor of Kashmir’s shawls by Abul Fazl, one of the navratans, nine gems, of Akbar’s court and author of Akbaranama and ‘Ain-i-Akbari’. In the latter work Fazl mentions how pashmina was a luxury export article from Kashmir to many countries. It was Akbar, says Fazl, who encouraged the development of Jamavar, pashmina fabric woven in running length so it could be tailored into the Jama, the flowing tunic-like dress worn by men in those times.
These jamas were intricately embroidered and sometimes in such a way that the base material was not visible. Overtime heavily patterned shawls, whether embroidered or woven, came to be known as Jamavars.
A Kani is considered to be one of the most complicated weaving techniques of the textile world. Skilled artisans employ the double interlock twill tapestry weave to create its distinctive patterns. Kani literally means small sticks, and these are what construct the design. Colored threads are wound on the Kanis which are subsequently used as bobbins that are gently passed through the finely laid warp and weft by the weaver. For a complex design over a thousand such Kanis can be used to build the pattern. So painstaking is the process that in a day barely an inch can be woven. The reason a Kani takes almost a year to complete and commands a premium price.
The Kalamkari shawl on the other hand is lighter in work but looks equally stunning. In a Kalmakari, traditionally the entire design is painted with a wood kalam, pen, after which it’s handed over to the embroider who highlights the outlines and fills certain motifs to lend an embossed look to the shawl. These days the digital printing technique is being ingeniously used to make the colored pattern and bringing down the shawl cost.
A vibrant play of colors and design is the distinguishing feature of the papier mache shawl. They ape the painted patterns of the papier-mache art seen on boxes and other artefacts. A variety of stitches is used on this shawl and what makes it stand apart from other sozni shawls is the use of minute knots throughout the pattern which truly gives it a painted papier-mache feel.
The rich catalogue of shawls of Kashmir is an acknowledgment of the artistic talents of the Valley. Where once only men were involved in the arts, now women too, are being trained in all forms of embroidery. Women putting down their signature designs on the embroidered classics is a sign of the changing times.