Hidden between the newly launched resto pubs, metro stations and shopping complexes of bustling Bangalore, one can find some of the oldest Kashmiri emporiums with more than 100 years of history combined, tucked away in the narrow alleyways.
Consisting of antiques and beautiful handicrafts, these emporiums are home to some of the oldest traditions of Indian fine art. More often than not, these emporiums are also home to many stories of loss, joy and pride.
NEW CRAFT HOUSE BANGALORE- BRIGADE ROAD
“For me, Bangalore is safe and good. Everyone listens and they care for us, I feel comfortable and happy”
In the Kashmir Art Gallery Emporium, located at the end of Brigade Road, you will find brothers Ali and Irfaan, ready to engage their customers in the rich history of their state and their handicrafts.
Established in 1969 by their uncle who came to Bangalore to start afresh, the Kashmir Art Gallery houses some of the finest pashmina shawls, Basholi paintings, papier mache and stone jewellery in Bangalore. The production and export of pashmina are considered an exclusive trade opportunity for the people of Kashmir.
“Pashmina shawls are what Kashmir is most famous for. You ask anyone about Kashmir handicraft and they will say pashmina. The wool is very warm and soft and back in the time of Ashoka, they were only worn by kings and queens, now whoever wears Pashmina looks like a king and queen,” said Irfaan.
Irfaan and his brother Ali left Srinagar halfway through middle school amidst the growing instability in the valleys and settled down in Bangalore eight years ago to help their uncle with his business.
“He doesn’t stay here anymore. He went back to Srinagar with my aunty because he missed Kashmir very much. For me and Irfaan, Kashmir was a dangerous place. All our cousins and family have left to study here and in North and they want to go back, but cannot”, said Ali.
The small emporium walls are decorated with a few original Basholi paintings and shelves lined with stone jewellery with the stones from various places like Agra, Tibet, and Belgium. Even with so much colour and rich heritage around, the mood was sombre when the conversation of business was brought up. With the growing tensions between India and the state of India occupied Kashmir, in the wake of the Pulwama attacks, business has been the worst in 30 years.
“Our business has definitely been affected because everyone thinks we are bad people. Before an artisan used to earn very well earning almost 3,000 in a month to support himself. Now, they earn only 500 which is not enough to support his art or himself. Before my uncle used to weave and then quit because of no business. All these articles give Kashmiris a bad name but you have to look and talk to a Kashmiri to know the reality,” claimed Irfaan.
In a city like Bangalore where students from all over the world come for higher education, many Kashmiris like Irfaan and his cousins come to look for jobs to escape the violence of a place called home.
“This is our family wealth. These Pashmina shawls are made by my aunties and uncles and they have been making them for 50 years but, there is no place in Kashmir for these shawls. The same business if set up in Srinagar and Bangalore is doing better in Bangalore, but past five years because of media, we have lost 5 years worth of business. However, for me, Bangalore is safe and good. Everyone listens and they care for us, I feel comfortable and happy” said Irfaan while laying out a myriad of Pashmina shawls for display.
HANDICRAFTS EMPORIUM- MG ROAD
For Imran Hussain, who left Srinagar right after he completed 11th grade, his hometown is still a paradise in his mind, despite him leaving it because of rising tension. His cousin jokes,
“…he hasn’t been there in a while, so it’s like this idea of Srinagar being a paradise is frozen in time in his mind”.
Indeed it is frozen in time for when Imran began talking, it was like a child talking about his favourite hiding spot, that only he knew about and, in a way, didn’t want the world to discover.
“…Bangalore is safe, agreed. But Kashmir is beautiful. You have the Himalayan range and the Pir Panjal mountain range where you can see white snow, and when you look at these mountains you can’t believe something so horrible is happening in places like downtown Kashmir. It seems impossible”, said Imran.
Having to leave Srinagar in 2011 because of the threat he was under, being a young boy in Kashmir, Imran has been helping out his uncle, Aqib, who has been running the Handicrafts Showroom for almost 30 years now.
“Many young boys run, they leave Kashmir out of fear and come and ask me for jobs. I cannot say no, because they’re all my sons and brothers and so I give them jobs. They’re good with charming tourists who come to the shop. To be honest, none of them want to work here, they all want to go home and be with friends and family but in Kashmir, there is always a strike and everything gets closed and young, hardworking and capable men are forced to sit at home and do nothing” said Aqib.
While the handicrafts business has been dwindling for a while now, it is noted by several traders that foreign tourists have stopped visiting their shops because they are under the assumption that the tension in the state translates to war, and this affects their main business target.
While business is an issue, the dying family art is also another. Aqib and his family are all weavers. All the Pashmina shawls in the showroom are made by his family and fellow artisans, and they have made it a point to pass this art down to their next of kin as well. However, with business being as it is, they’re unable to earn enough to sustain their passion and hence have to look for other means of livelihood.
“My sons and nephews all know that weaving and sculpting stone statues aren’t going to take them anywhere now. My sisters and brothers have tried so hard to teach them and keep them interested in this family art, but they are only interested in making money to support their parents, and they have stopped caring about handicrafts”, claimed Aqib.
“I wanted to be either a doctor or teacher when I grow up. I studied very hard in school, but then it started getting worse and worse every day. The protests and stone pelting. I saw my elder brothers study hard, but after that, they didn’t know what to do. With no colleges, no big universities, no hospitals or at least hotel chains, there was lack of employment and they were all forced to sit at home”, said Imran.
Young Kashmir men like Imran want to go back home, but in a way can’t because they’re scared of what they may see. Unlike Irfaan and Ali, Imran has never set foot in Kashmir since he left, claiming that he and all his brothers will go back home once Kashmir is peaceful again.
“You will not know what the situation is like unless you are there. I’m sure it’s not as scary as the newspapers and news channels are showing it to be. I don’t want to go back right now because I don’t want my image of Kashmir to be spoilt. Even today, it is a Sunday and it is a strike, I know we’re losing business. However, one day Kashmir will be peaceful again, and my brothers and I will go back then”, said Imran.
RISING ARTS GALLERY- BRIGADE ROAD
Nestled in an alleyway in Commercial Street, which you might almost miss if not for the warming fragrance of Kahwah Tea, Yaqub sits with his tablet reading news about the current situation in his state.
“I have been in Bangalore for 20 years now, relatively more new compared to other traders who have been here for more than 40 years. Unlike the others, I left Kashmir because I wanted my business to grow and to share my family art with the rest of the country. All the shawls, craftwork and decor, especially the ones made out of walnut and maple wood, are unique and that’s the thing about handicraft items in my shop and other shops, there is great attention given to detail”, said Yaqub.
Yaqub has two shops set up in Commercial Street and MG Road, where he has employed his cousins in the MG Road branch. He has another branch in the Art of Living ashram, and that branch, in particular, earns well, so he is able to sustain his business as well as pay his artisans. Still, Yaqub is worried about the art.
“My uncle used to weave and so did my family, it was everyone’s passion. On weekends we would all sit down with tea after eating Kashmiri Pulao and Rista curry (a meatball curry), and my aunt would sit and teach my younger sisters and brothers about embroidery and my uncle and his brothers used to teach us how to weave. It was like family bonding. These items are not mass-produced in big industries, and it’s like we are giving you a souvenir from our own home. Now, people aren’t interested in handmade things. One thing I’ve noticed, which is a little sad is that before we used to have a lot of Indian customers, and now we are totally dependent on foreign tourists. Government officials themselves are urging people to not buy from Kashmir anymore”, said Yaqub.
Yaqub was referring to a tweet sent out by Meghalaya governor, Tathagata Roy, wherein he tweeted: “Don’t visit Kashmir, don’t go to Amarnath (Hindu temple in Jammu and Kashmir) for the next 2 years. Don’t buy articles from Kashmir emporia or Kashmiri tradesman who come every winter. Boycott everything Kashmiri. I am inclined to agree.” This tweet came following the attack at Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir that claimed the lives of 49 CRPF troopers, on the 14th of February 2019.
“Even we Kashmiris feel sorry for what happened in Pulwama and our prayers are with the families of the victims. The thing is, regardless of how sorry we feel, they’re still going to blame the local people of Kashmir for what happened. You should visit Kashmir to know the real story. Most of the people here, in the South, won’t speak if you’re holding a camera because they’re scared of who might misinterpret what they’re saying and that they might harm them”, said Yakub.
With emotions running high in the aftermath of the attacks, Kashmiris, especially students feared for their lives and went into hiding for several days together, stating their lives were more important than their degrees.
“The people of Kashmir are confused about their relationship with India, most of the time. My family itself believe that it is very violent and our people are being killed for no reason. Whenever I counter argue, they tell me that I have become Indian and that I don’t understand their culture anymore. My friends and family are not willing and to listen and it’s sad because we are all a part of India, yet they don’t feel like they are a part of this country. There is this assumption that the government wants our land, but not our people. The media also hasn’t been playing a very responsible role in being unbiased, but they should be aware of the fact that they can control sentiments, as well as aggravate it. That is why up north in Delhi, we find it unsafe to be with them because there the media is so strong and they can make the public change their view at any time. South Indians are softer and more protective of us and I will happily call myself a Kashmiri Bangalorean any day because they have welcomed me into their state with open arms. But at the back of my mind, I will always want to go back home and eat Kashmiri pulao with Rista curry and be with my family again.”