It was a chance project in 2005 that made textile conservationist Madhu Jain delve deep into the handicrafts of Jammu and Kashmir. “I had started working on this project that was commissioned by the Government of India, which centred around Kashmir. We started gathering information, with the aim of creating employment for Kashmiri artisans. Also, we wanted to take the narrative around the arts and crafts of J&K further, and not just restrict it to the popular embroidery,” says Jain. The research and information gathered then has now culminated into a book titled The Living Art and Craft Traditions of Jammu and Kashmir, which was released a few days ago at the Royal Fables event by Dr Karan Singh and Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi.
“We wanted to create more economic opportunities for the craftspeople and artisans by devising ways of sourcing, developing, marketing and popularising Kashmiri handicrafts in India and abroad. I made elaborate presentations to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Arts and Design, American Museum of Natural History, and Rubin Museum of Art,” says Jain, as we meet with her at her Noida home.
The book has separate chapters on papier mache, metalwork, wood and wicker work, stone ware, nomadic and Basohli crafts. The chapters, written in an informal style, trace the history and origin of the craft, and shed light on their contemporary state. For example, metal craft is traced to the first Tibetan prayer wheel, spotted in Ladakh by Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien in 400 AD. All religious objects were crafted from copper and brass and are embellished in silver by the sergars — the silversmiths of Ladakh. “I spent a lot of time over texts and books and simultaneously spent time at the Amar Mahal Museum, which I had complete access to, courtesy Dr Karan Singh. I have reproduced many personal photographs and artefacts of his in the book. The late Sabina Sehgal Saikia helped edit material for this book,” says Jain.
The book, she says is the need of the hour, to help document and preserve these dying arts — a cause which has been the textile conservationist’s calling card for the last 30 years. “The handlooms of Kanchipuram are all almost empty. Soon they will be relics of the past. The biggest worry is that all the kids of the weavers and crafts people in Kashmir are no longer interested in carrying forward their traditional arts. Most of these crafts were passed on orally, it still was the long-standing living embodiment of the guru-shishya parampara. But now all the younger people are diversifying, many have opened travel agencies and such,” she laments. Jain feels that’s comparatively easy to preserve things than to revive and recall them from posterity. “I was recently giving a talk about bamboo silk ikat at Sarawak in Malaysia, where they are taking major steps to preserve their textiles — they have already lost the old craft of Songket, a brocade weave. To revive a lost craft is so difficult. The Kunbi sari, here in India is facing a similar threat,” says Jain.
But all is not lost, she feels. The comeback of the sari is a good omen in her books, but one needs to be cautious. “I see the sari making a comeback, and many designers have made it more accessible by contemporarising it. But, I also see loads of people wearing kalamkari, which is digitally printed. It has nothing to do with the artisan. Lots of synthetic fibres are being mixed in the names of original weaving,” she adds. The key is a multi-pronged approach from all sides — designers, the government and private individuals and organisations. “The minister (Smriti Irani) wears a lot of distinct handlooms and weaves and is doing her bit. We need a collective effort, we keep forgetting that it’s the designers who set the trends. We, the designers, need to do our sourcing of materials more responsibly. And we need more museums to help conserve and document,” she signs off.