Sozni weaving threads tradition in Kashmir

November 9, 2015
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Ali Muhammad Beigh at his home. Photo by Anjali Rao Koppala

Political disturbances and violence often shroud Kashmir’s big valley and the surrounding mountains, but beneath the clouds, India’s northernmost state also brims with stories about the crafts that have been practiced there for hundreds of years.

One of those is Sozni weaving, a form of embroidery that uses thin needles on cashmere wool to create intricate, elaborate clothing embroidered with floral or paisley patterns. I learned about this art while visiting Srinagar, the capital city of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where I met Ali Muhammad Beigh and his family.

Beigh, 70, is one of the oldest and most revered craftsmen in Srinagar. Many people admire him for his weaving skills. When I visited his house, I saw a wall adorned with certificates, medals and awards of excellence.

The Beighs live in the old city of Srinagar, at the heart of Alamgiri bazar. It is a modest looking two-storied house with six rooms. The top floor has two huge rooms that serve as the workshop. One of the rooms holds the finished products. There is no furniture in the work room except for wooden cupboards that store the silk threads and shawls. The Beighs sit on the floor and work.

Ali Beigh inherited his skill from his elder brother Gulam Hassan Beigh, who sits silently in one corner, weaving colorful silk into shawls. His left hand is full of pockmarks from countless needle pricks. His two sons, both Sozni weavers, also are there. Ali has trained his two daughters and daughter-in-law in the art as well.

The Beighs welcomed me with an aromatic tea called “Kawa,” a speciality of Kashmir, and told me about Sozni weaving.

“Despite being illiterate, Sozni craft gave me and my family members the opportunity to travel abroad and showcase our talent in foreign countries, which I consider as no small deed,” Ali said. “It is not only a source of earning bread, but only means of preserving my heritage that will continue to live on through my work long after I am gone.”

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Ali Muhammad Beigh (R) and his son Mehboob. Photo by Anjali Rao Koppala.

“We have received so many state awards that we have stopped participating in the competitions and instead are made to judge participants now,” said Mehboob, Ali’s eldest son.

For a family that won numerous accolades over the years, they feel that the applause is not good enough to prevent this art from dying. Ali Beigh has trained about 1,000 people to master it. Most of them are girls who do not seek outside work, but support their families by making a living out of it.

Beigh said that the number of people who show up to learn this craft is dwindling with not a single person enrolled so far this year. His grandson, who is in his mid-twenties, is not keen on carrying forward the legacy.

Sozni weaving requires hard work and patience as each shawl takes two to three years to complete. The master craftsman must sit with the shawl for six hours every day to create the colorful motifs that adorn the shawl.  The floral patterns are so closely embroidered with silk threads that the pashmina base is barely visible. A shawl like this is sold in the market at a price ranging from 50,000 rupees ($763) up to hundreds of thousands of rupees.

“Since it takes up a really long time to finish one piece of work, the younger generation is not interested in pursuing it further. A daily wage of 300 rupees ($4.58) isn’t sufficient to keep them glued to this art form. Unlike us, my grandson is educated, so he wants to take up a white-collar job,” Ali said.

Ali’s youngest son, Shabir, said machine-made shawls is one reason why the art could die out. With the advent of machine and power looms, manufacturers can sell their shawls as real pashmina at more affordable prices.

“The truth is an original pashmina, on which sozni weaving is done, is way more delicate and its quality cannot be matched up by the machine made shawls,” Ali said. “Pashmina has now become a brand to sell the machine-made shawls which is akin to discrediting the hard work done by weavers.”

He said government funding for these looms hurts artisans. “When a cheap replica of sozni work made by machines on rayon material is available in the market for few thousand rupees, people mistake it to be original sozni shawl. The least our government can do is label the machine made shawls to differentiate it with the one that is purely hand-woven and embroidered, Ali said.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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