Srinagar: Falling returns and lack of incentives had brought the art of making fancy wicker products to the verge of extinction, but timely intervention by the Jammu and Kashmir administration has revived the craft introduced in the Valley by the British.
Considered to be the youngest art in the valley’s handicrafts spectrum, wicker work involves making baskets, trays, chairs, tables and even beds using long and slender branches of willow bushes that grow in the marshy lands of Kashmir.
In order to support the wicker willow artisans, the government has made societies and announced a number of measures to strengthen the artisan base under the Handicrafts and Loom policy launched in 2020.
“We have registered most of our wicker willow artisans at Ganderbal and Charar-e-Sharif.
“In Ganderbal, we have about 3,000 to 4,000 artisans associated with wicker willow craft and very recently, we made a couple of interventions which include giving awards to the artisans,” Director, Handicrafts department, Mahmood Shah told PTI.
One of the interventions has been financial assistance to the cooperative societies.
Under this, 10 artisans form a society and the government provides them financial assistance of Rs 1 lakh so that they are able to procure raw material and basic tools to manufacture products.
“We are running the ‘Karkhandar scheme’ where master craftsmen train students. Both get a stipend as an incentive to ensure that refined skills are transferred from master craftsmen to the young generation.
“We have 15 centres where willow wicker work is taught, not only in elementary centres but advanced centres too we have ensured that the craft survives,” Shah said.
One of the main threats to survival of wicker art was reluctance of the new generation to take it up for a living.
“New generation is not ready to carry their ancestral profession forward because of hard work. These products have local as well as in demand from outside (Kashmir) but unfortunately artisans are quitting this trade day by day,” Maqbool Ahmad, willow wicker artisan for the past 40 years, said.
Ahmad said earlier there were around 300 families in his area who were into the wicker art trade, but now it has come down to less than 100.
Mohammad Shafi, another artisan who has joined the government-run centre, said the falling wages was also one of the reasons for the decline.
“Earlier, wages were so low that artisans chose other labour work rather than knitting wicker products. However, after the 2014 financial scheme for the revival of this craft, the designer came from outside to train in developing new and modern designs. We are back to this craft,” he said.
“If timely action from the government had not come, this craft was about to die,” Shafi added.
This amazing art got a new lease of life when it was included in the World Bank-funded Jhelum Tawi Recovery Project after the 2014 floods.
“This craft was here in Kashmir for centuries, it got a huge boost during the British era, but gradually this art was dying.
“With the help of the Government of India, World Bank sanctioned loan under which the handicraft and handloom sector was incorporated, the best intervention in that project was that four crafts were incorporated, including willow wickerwork, ” said Abid Mehraj, cluster development officer.
According to the guidelines from the World Bank, a consultant agency from Kolkata was hired and tasked to train the willow wicker artisans.
“Only after one workshop our master artisans had with them, we got orders from outside and leading online websites like ‘Amazon’ shortlisted our products for sale,” Mehraj said.
The income of the artisans has increased manifold. Before the government’s intervention, an artisan would hardly earn Rs 300 to Rs 400 per day.
“Now, they are earning Rs 1,200 per day and young artisans are also taking interest in this craft,” he added.
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