April 16, 2014
April 16, 2014
SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Seated among reams of mats on a bare, muddy floor, Rehati Want, 60, weaves each delicate strand of straw from a bundle to form a simple, patterned mat.
“My mother taught me how to weave mats when I was 4,” Want says. “Then I picked up the art and tried different designs of my own.”
Growing up, Want helped her mother with weaving reed mats. She began working independently and selling her own mats after she married. On most days, she starts weaving by 9 a.m. and continues until 5 p.m.
“Both my grandmother and mother would weave during my childhood,” she says. “It was our only source of livelihood.”
But now Want is the only weaver in her household. She lives with her husband, three daughters, one son and his family in a small, mud house in the village of Moti Mohalla in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital.
“Many times, I tried to persuade my daughters to weave,” Want says. “But they were never interested.”
Want’s two granddaughters, ages 5 and 7, also are not interested in learning the art of weaving, Want says. They are more focused on their schoolwork.
Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a Kashmiri author and historian, traces the origins of the craft to the 18th century, during Kashmir’s Mughal Empire.
“The art is mostly specific to the areas around Dal Lake in Srinagar,” Zareef says.
This is because the reed used to weave mats comes from a swamp plant found in Dal Lake and other swampy areas in Kashmir, he says.
The reed mat, known locally as “waguv,” is valued for its comfort, versatility and biodegradability. But its popularity is declining.
The reed mat was once the main household flooring in Kashmir, Want says. People plastered their floors with a thin layer of clay and then covered them with reed mats. But now, floors are made of cement and covered with modern thermo-cool floor covers. Unlike reed mats, which spoil when they get wet, these covers are washable, making them more popular with local families.
Until a few years ago, all 177 families in Want’s village wove reed mats at home, Zareef says.
But today, no more than 15 women in Moti Mohalla weave mats, says Ghulam Ahmed Khan, who owns a reed and wicker shop in Srinagar. Khan has been buying reed mats from Want, the oldest weaver in the village, for more than 30 years. His shop sells only her reed mats.
“I buy all the mats from Want,” Khan says. “Her weaving has a very unique design and is durable.”
Want’s health has suffered from the bent posture she must use to weave, but she is determined to continue her work, he says.
“She weaves to support her family,” Khan says.
Want is the regular income earner in her household, she says. Her husband, a day laborer, is often without work. When he does get work, he does not earn enough to support the large family.
Want says she is happy to be able to help support her family by weaving. She earns about 300 Indian rupees ($5) a month.
“Through this skill, I am able to support my family,” she says. “Otherwise, when you are aging, who is going to help you? I do not want to be a burden on my family.”
Still, her income has been declining.
Want, who weaves 25 mats a month, sells them all through Khan. Her single-layered mats sell for 150 rupees ($2.50), while her double-layered mats, which feature intricate designs, range from 250 rupees ($4.10) to 300 rupees ($5). Each mat is 4 feet by 5 feet.
The price commanded by the mats has remained flat over the years because people prefer the thermo-cool floor covers, Want says. But the cost of the reed has increased considerably because development around the lake and the draining of swampy areas have made it scarce. As a result, Want now saves little.
The profit from the sale of a mat is no more than 100 rupees ($1.65), Khan says. From that amount, he usually pays Want 10 rupees (17 cents) to 20 rupees (33 cents).
Zareef believes the poor earnings are forcing weavers to abandon the skill.
Want agrees. Education and better job opportunities also draw the younger generation away from the craft, she says.
“Education was not so common in our area,” Want says. “Both children and elders were involved in this craft. But from 2000 onward, more and more children who used to help with the weaving started going to school and stopped their weaving work.”
Want’s dedication and skill are especially valuable because so few weavers are left in Kashmir, Zareef says.
“Artisans like Want have golden hands,” he says. “Their skills remain incomparable with any machine-made work. We need more people like her to keep our traditional skills alive.”
Despite Want’s inability to pass her skill on to heirs, she is keeping the tradition alive, Zareef says.
Although Want earns little income from her work, she is determined to continue the age-old custom.
“I can never quit this art as long as I am alive,” she says. “The art represents my identity, and weaving has become a habit. It is not a mere business but a traditional responsibility that I cannot leave at this time.”
GPJ translated interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.