The Fine Art of Khatamban

  • Aditya Sinha
  • Publish Date: Jan 19 2016 1:26PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Feb 12 2016 6:58PM
The Fine Art of Khatamban

The traditional art is again thriving but the artisans want government support and promotion of their craft

Muhammad Kamran Shamshad

In an old, three-storey building in Safa Kadal, 56-year-old Ali Muhammad is busy in marking the pieces of panels with pencil, carving it into various shapes with a handsaw. Sitting in the corner of the room on the top floor in front of a wooden plank, he is surrounded by a number of tools— handsaw, pencil, hand hammer, chisel and a screwdriver. Ali is a Khatamband artisan and belongs to the family of Geers who are believed to be associated with this art since its arrival in Kashmir.

The room is cluttered with innumerable small pieces of processed wood. On a shelf, a radio transistor is playing Kashmiri music on the loop. His three-storey workshop is stuffed with wood, panels, tools, baskets and sawdust that disappears into the air. On the second floor, another worker in his early 20s is smoothening rough edges of the panels and on the first floor Ali has kept all the stockings. The walls of each room are adorned with the samples of his small geometrical and floral design work called Khatamband.

History

Many theories are doing rounds regarding the arrival of Khatamband art in Kashmir. As per one theory, Khatamband was brought to Kashmir during 14th century by Mir Ali Hamdani, a revered saint who visited the Valley along with many followers that included Khatamband artists from Iran and taught the art to a local family in south Kashmir’s Tral town. The Geers became the sole masters of the craft in Kashmir before passing on this art to other people in the late 20th century.

Khatamband is an art of making ceiling by putting together small pieces of walnut or deodar wood in geometrical patterns. The process is mostly done with hands and scarcely nails are hammered to hold the wooden ceiling which helps the work to be separated and reassembled easily at another place. Lately, some motor machines are being used to cut the pieces into batons and panels.

The art has witnessed many ups and downs since its arrival in the Valley. During the turbulent nineties the art took a hit, but it is once again in great demand among the customers.

In the past, due to widespread poverty across the valley, Khatamband was limited to mosques, shrines, houseboats and guest houses. Old Secretariat and Arts Emporium are two fine examples of Khatamband work in government buildings. Of late, due to the surge in income, there is a great demand for the work from middle and upper middle class homes. It keeps the room temperature warm besides lending beautiful designs to the ceiling. “Economically Kashmir is much better than what it was earlier,” says Ali. “Plus, it suits the cold weather of Kashmir, it keeps the rooms warm.”

Panj Bakhsh, Pa’hel Gardan, Harsh Tabul, Harsh Pohal and Davazdah Gird are some of the famous Khatamband designs sought by customers. The increase in demand has also brought forth more artisans who are taking up this art as a profession. Earlier, the Khatamband artisans were limited to Safa Kadal area in the city only; now they are spreading across the capital city in places like Eid Gah, Soura etc. There are around 200 units in the Valley and around 1200 artisans are estimated to be associated with this art. The All Kashmir Khatamband Ceiling Union has around 350 artisans working with them, while the rest are working on their own.

Just like Ali, Ishtiaq Ahmad Bangroo, who graduated from Islamia College of Science & Commerce, has set up his own unit in Eid Gah. He says 70 percent of the projects come from locals and around 30 percent demand is from government sector. Ishtiaq says the art is also improving in many ways. “Earlier, no machine was used in this craft. But now some machines for cutting and carving wood have been introduced. It saves our time and makes our work much efficient.” Ali adds there is also demand from European countries for this art. “It is not as famous as other Kashmiri handicrafts, so government should take steps to promote it globally,” he says. Ishtiaq says a Khatamband artisan makes about Rs 500-600 per day.

There are more than 150 Khatamband designs, but it’s said not all designs can be reproduced as those designs require very high skill. Yasir Mir, faculty at Crafts Development Institute, Nowshera feels a high-tech training institute is required to teach this art to others. “We have agriculture scientists, soil scientists and scientists in other sectors, but unfortunately there are no professionals in this sector who could take it to the next level,” he says, adding that according to their latest survey conducted in 2012, the total turnover from the sector is Rs 36 crore.

A 100 sq feet ceiling of an ordinary design will require four artisans to work on it. While one cuts the wood into small panels, another person is used for marking the panels, third artisan carves it into various shapes, and the fourth one weaves them together in a geometrical pattern. Then there is the master carpenter who installs the work with equal painstaking effort.

The Khatamband art of Kashmir was awarded Geographical Indication (GI), symbolizing their exclusively in the international market. This was a shot in the arm for the artisans. However, the artisans say that the government should take more painstaking efforts to promote this traditional art.  The major worry for the Khatamband artisans is the non-availability of raw material.

The Union president says that government provides them firewood quota of around 3000 quintal for one year, which he says gets consumed in just three months.

While the Forest department provides them firewood for Rs 425 per feet, they get the same from the market for 800 rupees, says the Union president. He says that the government should provide them wood for the full year at a reasonable price. “If we procure wood at a cheaper rate, obviously it will ease our customers and will eventually result in more demand,” he says.

Apart from residential units, there is demand from government sector as well. Khatamband ceiling is preferred in government buildings such as Universities, secretariat and even in paramilitary camps.  The Union president says the government should approach the union directly and not through the middlemen. “These middlemen take commission from both the sides,” he says. “If they approach us directly, it will be beneficial for us as well as the government.”

Given the rising unemployment in Kashmir, the government should promote this beautiful art and provide all possible support to the artisans. This will help in creating employment opportunities for hundreds of unemployed youth and also boost the economy of Kashmir.