Branded Inequity

The graph of Kashmir crafts follows the inexorable logic of cause and effect within a system that thrived for decades on the labours of indigent craftsmen unable to keep body and soul together on the meagre wages of their toil and sweat. The vast returns on Kashmir’s undeniably exquisite specimens of workmanship rarely found their way to ease the heart-breaking afflictions of families who had kept the arts alive for generations, but saw no future now either for themselves or their progeny. As big business interests grew in influence and power, and social mores acquired new affluent hues, this exploited class found itself marginalised and barely able to survive. This set off a complex chain reaction, aided not the least by ill-designed and often corrupt government intervention meant ostensibly to help the lot of artisans.

The decline of Kashmir arts also ran parallel to new opportunities offered by education, the growth of government jobs, and the status accompanying them, resulting in a natural reluctance on the part of traditional craftsmen to pass their skills on to their offspring. White collar jobs were found to be far more respectable – and lucrative – than the backbreaking and ill-paid labour in carpet looms or embroidery and papier machie  workrooms (which had acquired the dimensions of a social crisis with the employment of child labour. Though there were stray voices, even within the class of the rich paymasters, against the practice of using children in the workshops, a boom in the export market ensured that such protests went unheard. The carpet industry, for example, employed children on a large scale in looms particularly in rural Kashmir before the curse of substituting “staple” for silk very nearly destroyed the sector.)

The ‘liberalising’ efforts of the government to prize artisans away from the clutches of rapacious masters by offering them a platform to market products directly had some very unfortunate consequences due to a large number of unscrupulous elements who suddenly crawled out of the woodwork. Greed and the dream of overnight riches put paid to quality (which, to their credit, the paymasters had ensured to maintain) as fly-by-night operators swamped the handicrafts sector even to the extent of using it to smuggle narcotics. The decline since has been impossible to arrest, and very few see a career in artisan-ship particularly in the absence of a workable policy to marry education with tradition.

The rise and fall of Kashmir’s arts is also interwoven with the region’s socio-political dynamics largely dominated, even in the immediate decades after 1947, by feudal interests and the all-powerful clergy. Even to this day, major business houses with long histories can trace their influence to patronage of one or the other section of the clergy which was the most effective channel for a tight grip on vast and cheap manpower resources. Loyalty to one clerical dynasty or another was one of the most important factors in engaging, paying, or, as was rarely the case, of rewarding this workforce. Brand Kashmir would not have acquired the overtones of inequity had corrections been applied at the fundamental level.

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