Kani Shawls are Art, History and Culture Wrapped as One
Kanihama village, birthplace of this signature shawl
When Shabir Ahmed, a Kani shawl weaver from Budgam district in central Kashmir, prepared to quit this pashmina weaving craft, a new hope sprang in his life. Thanks to that, Ahmed didn't have to give up the skill his ancestors were famed for, one which he had inherited as his cultural legacy.
Ahmed has been weaving the Kani shawls for 65 years, but recalled that recently the artisans have been facing the toughest times. "Many even believed that this style of pashmina weaving craft would vanish from the national and worldwide market," said Ahmed.
Shabir Ahmed, has won a national award for promoting the Kani shawl craft that once thrived in the Kanihama village, it takes its name from. Kanihama, a village in the Budgam district of central Kashmir, has 500 households, out of which, 300 are associated with pashmina weaving craft. In Kashmiri, the word 'Kani' refers to the little wooden rectangular spool that is used on the handloom to weave these shawls.
Locals told The Citizen that Kanihama village is known as the birthplace of Pashmina and Kani shawl weaving and has been hailed as a handloom village. For decades, the Kanihama hamlet, located on the national highway that connects central Kashmir to the northern parts of the region, has been a centre for making Kani pashmina shawls.
According to Ahmed, "our village is home to a number of national award winners. On August 7, 2017, I was honoured with a national award in Jaipur, which coincided with World Handloom Day. The artisans have gained fresh optimism as a result of receiving such awards." Their homes, however, remain modest, and the artisans say they hardly make a profit even though they manufacture the gorgeous shawls that sell for millions of dollars all over the world.
"The Kani shawl industry in Kashmir has gone through many ups and downs. The younger generation has no desire to pursue this profession," lamented Ahmed. The younger generation in the village are mostly educated but would rather do something other than continuing their craft as a profession
However, in 2020 the Government of Jammu and Kashmir had officially titled Kanihama as the handloom village of Kashmir. Locals told The Citizen that the area is globally known as the home of the handwoven Pashmina and Kani shawls. The village they said is now being developed to also become a must-visit tourist destination. However, some others say that merely giving it the "handloom village" status is not sufficient. "The authorities should come forward and provide free pashmina looms to the artisans or at least a subsidy," they said.
The local artisans say that they are "not making much money and are yet leaving no stone unturned to preserve the craft," but added that the village has not been developed for years. They say that the recognition comes late, "but we hope the government will fulfil its commitments," said Farooq Ahmad, a weaver who has also received a national award.
In 2021, a common facilitation center was established in Kanihama village by the administration, to encourage the local artisans. The center has generated new hope among the artisans and villagers, and now hundreds of young pashmina artisans are being trained here. Mohammad Ashraf, 40, a craft teacher at the common center, told The Citizen, that "the government has posted 20 women artisans to teach pashmina weaving at the center. Those who are promoting Kani shawl craft, and are enrolled in the center, are being given Rs 1,500 as a monthly allowance".
Over the last three years, the pashmina weaving craft has also been widely adopted by the villages bordering Kanihama. The center itself is located at the famous Ski Resort road Gulmarg, where tourists throng and purchase Kani shawls at the facilitation center. This is a welcome change from the days when Kanihama's artisans faced numerous difficulties when selling their products. Now the artisans bring their products to the center for exhibitions. "It has become a new platform for us, where our products are being sold to tourists," said Ahmed.
The artisans said that "in a few months, officials will develop a QR code-based Kani shawl application that will give product specifications to the buyer". This will help both the artisan and the buyer. According to an official who wished to remain anonymous, there has been some infrastructural development in the village. The houses have been painted and 50 solar inverters have also been provided to handloom artisans. The government has given 30 sheds to the handloom village for free. "Each costs over one lakh rupees," said the official.
He added that the government had organised five exhibitions at resorts, at Gulmarg, at theTulip Garden, Pahalgam and Surajkund, to introduce this indegenous Kashmiri craft to tourists.
According to Mohammad Ashraf, a craft teacher working at the handloom department, the village produces 700 handmade shawls a year. "The artisans in the village assure a quality product to the customers. We are witnessing a lot of machine made stuff in the markets which is falsely branded as handmade. However, now a customer can easily spot an original when they see the shawls made at the Kanihama village," he said.
Ghulam Nabi, an artisan, said the focus now was on the Geographical Indication (GI) tag. "The Kani shawl has got the GI tag years before. But its label has not been launched yet," added Nabi. Now a gateway set up on the Gulmarg National highway, showcases Kanihama as a handloom village. Subsequently tourists and art lovers are encouraged to stop at Kanihama to see for themselves how the pashmina shawl is woven.
Budgam Deputy Commissioner of, Shabaz Mirza said that the agenda was to develop this village and to promote Kani Shawl and craft all over the world. "We are introducing its artisan weavers locally and internationally so that they can showcase the shawls production, demonstration, exhibitions and sale without the involvement of brokers or any third party dealers," he said. Mirza added that the beautification of the village was also a priority and more facilities will also be provided to the craft center on the Srinagar Gulmarg Road.