10 January, 2019

Kani shawls

From Amritsar-made machine jacquards that ape Kani patterns to a dozen qualities of pashmina, some mixed with wool, others with cheap synthetic fibres; from boatmen hawking “pure pashminas” for Rs.800 to tourists staying on houseboats on Nigeen Lake or Dal Lake to versions sold on high streets in cities ranging from Kochi to New Delhi, there is a big market of Kani shawls. Just like we see cheap chinese imitations of brands and there are originals. In Kani shawls, it is not just a brand. It is actually the difference of product. Same as diamond vs zircon or Moissanite. A machine-made, made Kani shawls are available for 2000/- also but the hand-woven Kani shawl costs about 2,00,000/- upwards. 

One celebrity, well known for his personal collection of original Kani shawls, that he is often seen wearing, is Mr Amitabh Bachchan. An original Kani shawl can be spotted even in a picture. It makes a statement. The casual drape flung over the shoulders is extremely classy. The style statement is understated, yet it can never go unnoticed. Its richness and sophistication are regal and royal. 

Just three decades ago, Kani weaving was on the verge of disappearing, for reasons ranging from a deficit in weaving skills to insufficient demand for authentic, expensive artisanal items. Today, it’s on a clear revival track, though it’s still grappling with issues such as mechanization, low wages, varying quality of yarn, weaving dexterity and fakes.

The Kani shawl, which got GI (Geographical Indication) status in 2008, is one of the most complex Indian weaves. As a symbol of Kashmiri craftsmanship, it is housed in the world’s finest museums, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the department of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Musée du Louvre in Paris has portraits of 19th-century French empress Joséphine draped in a Kani.

Kani means wooden bobbins or small sticks. Shawls are woven into intricate patterns, with the weft thrown across before coloured threads are woven in on a meticulous, coded pattern drawn by a master craftsman. It is woven with pure pashmina yarn in a natural, almond-coloured base or in cream with multicoloured floral patterns, creating a striking offset. Coloured Kanis are woven too, in hues such as red, blue, green and ochre. Kani is the softer version of Jamawar—the latter are long pieces of cloth woven in the same technique. A plain pashmina shawl takes between a fortnight and a month to weave, but one Kani with all-over floral work takes a year if two artisans work on it for an average of 10 hours a day.

While historians like Janet Rizvi think the craft developed in Kashmir, there are references to outside influences during the time of Shah-e-Hamdan, a Sufi poet and prominent Muslim scholar from Persia who came to Kashmir in the 14th century. Among his followers were shawl weavers, carpet-makers, potters and calligraphers.

The irony was all too evident in an ad last year for telecom company Idea Cellular’s No ullu banaoing TV campaign. In the ad, which came in for much criticism, a Kashmiri shopkeeper was seen selling a fake pashmina to two customers, who after checking on the Internet on their phone said they knew genuine pashminas could pass the ring test. There were unhappy and critical tweets even from former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah.

The ad was seen as magnifying misconceptions. One, that Kashmiri salesmen are a deceitful lot; two, that a pashmina shawl can be passed through a ring, which is a myth. The fact is that there are indeed some “good” fakes that could potentially confuse ignorant customers.

Each weaver must have primary knowledge of arithmetic (Kani-weaving follows an arithmetical graph). They must learn the fundamentals for a year and are then guided by a master craftsman for a few years. They put in 8-10 hours a day. A shawl takes six months to a year to complete. An artisan is paid Rs.35,000-40,000 for each shawl, in two instalments, an advance and a final payment. These weavers cannot afford a self-woven Kani shawl.

Kani shawl patterns—vases, creepers, floral designs—can be seen on engravings and hand-painted interiors of the Shah-e-Hamdan shrine. Located in Shamswari, on the banks of the Jhelum in old Srinagar (sheher-e-khas), this is one of the state’s oldest mosques. 

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