By: Basharat Bashir
In the age of digitalization and high technologies, many traditional art forms are fading away with time. But in the small village of Kashmir, the vigorous efforts of a man named Ghulam Mohammad Kanihami from the Wani family revived the old age craft of loom-woven called ‘Kani’ and became successful to maintain its legacy. Now, this art of handloom marks India’s one of the most precious cultures.
The art of weaving Kani shawls was first brought to Kashmir in the 15th century by Persian and Turkish weavers, who introduced this mysterious art to Ghiyas-Ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin, the eighth sultan of Kashmir. Since then, this art form flourished in Kashmir and now capturing the hearts of many across the world. This delicate and beautifulKanishawlsonce used to be coveted by Mughal Kings, Sikh Maharajas, and British Aristocrats.The Ain-i-Akbari records that Emperor Akbar was a passionate collector of Kani shawls. In the 18th century due to the heavy taxes were imposed on the trade of Kani pashmina, almost all the weavers had stopped making Kani shawls. In the 20th century around fifty years ago, Ghulam Mohammad Kanihamiwho was a member of the legislative assembly of Kashmir but his love for the beautiful craft drifted him away from politics to a new journey to revive art which he got from his forefathers. He decided to set up a small loom in his house and hired an artisan to train young men from the village, Kanihama.
Kanihama is a small village on the Srinagar-Gulmarg highway with a few hundred houses. Kanihamawas the only region to make Kani shawls, later artisans from other villages also learned this art form. The word Kani is derived from the name of the village itself that means wooden sticks in the Kashmiri language. The craft of Kani weaving uses small needles of wood called ‘Kanis’. Around Kanis, the colorful weft thread is wound to create magical patterns over a shawl. Kanis is made of a forest wood called ‘poos tul’. Group of artisans spends months weaving delicate pashmina yarn with hundreds of spools or Kani that come together to form delightful patterns of flowers, leaves, and birds on the finest of shawls. Kashmir is the only place in the world where these shawls are made, woven through spools where the design is embedded in the weaving process. It has great potential in the international market. The hard work of the weavers of Kanihama village caught the attention of the Centre government which has granted this place status of the Handloom village with an aim to preserve the weaving art among the future generations. The government of Jammu and Kashmir has granted a geographical indication to the Kani shawls by making it illegal to sell shawls made outside of the Kanihama area as Kani shawls.
Technique of weaving
The weaving of Kani shawls is very much like carpet weaving. The design for Kani weaving instead of imprinted or stamped over the shawl itself is written in a coded language, called ‘Talim’, on a graph paper. The coded pattern is prepared by the Talimguru, a master weaver. He expertly converts the design into codes that are easily understood by other weavers. The shawl is woven with special wooden oblong pools or bobbins called Kanis on a traditional handloom and involves extensive use of wooden bobbins on which various colorful threads are wound. Around seventy-five to a hundred Kanis are used at a time to weave a shawl with an overall design. The process of weaving line by line is repeated time and again until the final masterpiece is ready. It is woven with pure pashmina yarn in a natural, almond-colored base or in cream with multicolored floral patterns, creating a contrasting balance. Nowadays Coloured Kanis are woven too, in hues such as red, blue, green, and ochre. In recent times, the Talim patterns are used in machine-woven shawls which are Kani-shawls look-alikes and are sold commercially across Kashmir and beyond. But, machine-woven Kani products cannot replace the hand-woven Kani products which have their own grace and luxury.
There are many types of Kani shawls according to their set design patterns. KaniJamawar shawls are the most desirable shawls. It has Kani patterns spanning all over the base with eclectic patterns and motifs and it takes around two years to complete a shawl. This is why they are usually costlier than any other pashmina shawl in the market.PalladaarKani pashmina hasKani patterns only on its borders or Pallas, a Palladaar shawl takes a few months to be completed. Chand-Daar shawls feature a central full decoration design with floral patterns and small four decorations on four corners.
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The artisans of Kani weaving have tremendous skill and patience, they work for five to seven hours a day but due to the intricacy and complexity of the design being woven, they can weave only a few centimeters per day. It takes weeks to a year for an artisan to complete a Kani shawl depending on its design and weaving. A relatively more elaborate shawl can even take a few years to be crafted. Although Kanis are mostly spoken about in the context of shawls the weave is also used to craft stoles, turbans, waistbands, suits, and coats. It is amazing how something so arithmetical in its making is transformed into beautiful artwork.
Kani Shawls are housed in the world’s finest museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and the department of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.