Kashmiri carpets, which ruled the world at one point in time, faced decline with the emergence of new techniques, deteriorating quality, and political turmoil inside their state of origins. However, a man from Lalbazar, Srinagar, is fighting hard to bring the glory back to its name. In this seventh part of the Kashmir In Capital series, Kashmir Observer talks to Umer Hameed and narrates his story of popularizing the Kashmiri carpets in New Delhi.
By Romaan Arora
UMER Hameed came to Delhi as a fledgling and fresh-faced merchant in 1993, when his hometown was caught in a searing strife. He had arrived to secure his late father’s legendary legacy in Delhi.
Almost three decades later, and at the age of 52, the Lalbazar man has not only secured his father’s legacy, but also rose to become a carpet czar in the capital.
“By 1989, as the situation turned explosive back home, my father became anxious about me and our family business,” said Umar while recollecting an era when aged fathers in Kashmir had started shouldering their young sons’ dead bodies.
“Being the lone son, I was supposed to address my father’s growing concerns about me and our nosedived business.”
But it wasn’t a walkover for him.
Kashmir was changing, so was the idea of normalcy when the young and restless started campaigning for the armed resolution. Social hangouts and public places soon came under a lock and key. Migrations and massacres only escalated the crisis. The surplus sorties flown on a war-footing and reinforcement in every nook and cranny of the valley rang war alarms. And in an ensured militant-military combat, big businesses became shut shops.
But before the situation turned tense in Kashmir, Umer’s date of destiny had come in that momentous year—1989—of the massive upheaval itself. Then appearing in his MBBS entrance exam, he came out dejected.
“The moment I saw everyone cheating inside the examination hall, I tore my question paper and made my decision to move out,” he recalled.
Such curt decisions based on merit would later give him an edge over his contemporaries and competitors in the capital.
“Being ethical and upright was my father’s way of doing things,” he said. “And as his heir-apparent, I had to demonstrate his DNA in my demeanour.”
His father, who had already worked with East India Carpet Company, had attached a great value to his name because of his enterprising and welfare work in Kashmir.
“Even today, whenever I visit the valley, carpet weavers and sellers often tell me: ‘While the floor is ours, the roof over it is all because of your father!’ The great man touched many lives during his lifetime with his principled professional conduct.”
Umer’s father worked for around 50 years and played a crucial role in establishing the carpet industry in Kashmir.
“Even CIE [Cottage Industries Exposition, one of the biggest Kashmiri Carpet brands] used to consult my late father regularly for his expert take and trade tips,” the son said.
But unlike his father, the journey to Everest wasn’t a fairy-tale for Umer.
The rug stalwart started his business initially from a rented apartment in Jungpura, before moving to Lajpat Nagar, the place where he now sits comfortably.
“It was harsh winters back then. I came here by road and started selling carpets from my rented accommodation,” continued Umer, while recollecting his struggling days in Delhi.
“I didn’t have any other alternative apart from moving out. Everything was shattering in the valley back then, and no one wanted to stay there. There was no private sector and the already crumbling public sector had fallen apart.”
On the face of it, the carpet man’s chronicle of moving out may appear usual to the story of any other struggler. However, the load upon his shoulders was heavier as he had to start a completely new brand from scratch in the national capital.
“And since I was still trying to adjust myself with Delhi’s demanding life, it was impossible for me to pay 50 per cent advance to the carpet weavers, which is norm in our line,” he said.
But being a resilient rugman, Umer lived up to the expectations.
“The buyers wanted a peaceful environment to buy rich Kashmiri carpets and I provided them the same in Delhi inside this premises of Hannan’s Oriental Rugs,” he claimed with a reference to his shop.
While building his brand, he was mindful how the carpet industry of Kashmir had seen many challenges and changes over the last 50 years. The industry renowned for its woollen items started producing silk carpets in the late 1970s.
At that time, it was unrivalled across India.
“The least quality of Kashmiri carpets used to have 324 knots per square inch,” he informed. “Now, tell me how a carpet from the rest of India, which usually has less than 100 knots, can match the Kashmiri carpets?”
Following the arrival of silk in the 80s, the boom in the entire carpet industry in Kashmir was so massive that, according to Umer, the weavers in Kashmir used to smoke a hookah of milk instead of water.
Half an hour into the conversation, he went to offer prayers and came back with two cup of tea and a variety of snacks.
“There is a stark difference in the work culture,” he resumed the conversation by drawing parallels between Kashmir and Delhi.
“Working in the valley is working at home, in an aesthetic and peaceful environment. Plus, one can go for a routine check-up, like what my dad did.”
However, as per Umer, the capital requires a professional workforce, and if you don’t apply to that term, you can’t sustain the fast-moving nature of the city.
As part of his regimental routine in Delhi, honesty and quality have emerged as his mantra of success. His hard work, as per him, has made him what he is today – The Vice-Chairman of the Carpet Export Promotion Council (CEPC).
“I am called the Russian King because most of my buyers are from Russia,” he said, while referring to the fame he has earned outside India.
“In one way or the other, I have dominated the Russian market at least to some extent.”
Because of his quality experience in dealing with a variety of clientele, his friend—running a multi-storey complex in Kremlin—once offered Umer his showroom.
“My Company is the only one in Kashmiri carpet industry, which brought a revolution of modern designs and created a fusion of traditional with modernism,” he said with a pleased look on his face.
“And for that I credit my father’s three small, yet vital suggestions: ‘Never sell on credit, never get a bank loan, and never do overbuying’.”
The journey to this level, however, was full of hurdles. Umer was hassled at multiple occasions in the very initial years of his career in capital and he still remembers the scratches done all over his car.
“But, Almighty had a different plan for me, and that’s why I am talking to you here.”
However, as the ‘great power comes with great responsibility’, the same seems to be the case with Umer Hameed.
As a trade leader, he has dedicated himself to the renaissance of Kashmiri Carpets and reorganization of the entire industry.
“The moment I became the Vice-Chairman of CEPC, I started batting for establishing a regional office in Srinagar as there was none.”
“Also,” he added, “because of my initiative, the government reduced GST on carpets from a whopping 18% to a mere 5%. I fought for it and luckily whole of India benefitted.”
Nonetheless, it’s quite hard to take the Kashmiri Carpets to their days of glory as now the material used in its making is ‘the recycled silk’ procured from Sari mills in Karnataka.
In his own words, Umer narrated how he told the same to the then Union Minister of Textiles, Smriti Irani, when she was planning to promote Kashmiri carpets on a global level.
“All the stakeholders were called by her in the meeting and the moment the union minister mentioned her plan, I intervened and asked her ‘what rubbish are you going to promote?’ The maximum life of today’s Kashmiri carpet is not more than three years. You can’t promote anything nonsense.”
Even after tons of such problematic conditions, Umer never bowed to the trouble and is still popular across the region for the finest and premium quality Kashmiri carpets, which is, nowadays, a rare sight to see.
“I have the best carpet in the world right now,” said Umer while showing me one piece out of his premium and flagship collection which contains 6,400 knots per square inch, allegedly the highest in the world.
“It took four and a half years to complete it and the woman who made it gave birth to two kids during that period. It was a once in a lifetime watch and I’m blessed to have the legacy of holding it,” he added.
Nevertheless, dedicating all his life to creating a stronghold of royal Kashmiri carpets in Delhi and earning the fame that other dream for, Umer still addresses himself as a tourist intending to go back to his homeland once call for the same is made by his heart.
“The peace of life is missing here,” the mountain man said.
“I am enjoying my stay here but it’s not permanent. The moment I would realize that my time has come, I’ll quietly move back to my Kashmir.”
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