Coming Undone

  • Yasir Ashraf
  • Publish Date: Jan 30 2017 8:28PM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 30 2017 8:31PM
Coming Undone

                                                                  Photo: Kashmir Ink

The art and craft of Wagoo weaving is dying out. Kashmir is all the poorer for it

In the not long ago autumns of more mundane needs and simpler pleasures, a familiar cry would ring out through streets across Kashmir: Wagoo Ma Kenh! Wagoo Ma Kenh!

“Wagoo, anyone?” the cry went. It wasn’t a question as much as an invitation. For there usually was someone who needed a Wagoo, the locally woven reed mat, to furnish a floor or two. Reed has good insulation properties, making Wagoo suitable for both summer and winter in Kashmir. Wagoo is made by weaving together reed, strips of bulrush and straw.

Those days, of course, are long gone, and Wagoo with them. Few artisans weave these exquisite mats now, and fewer still use them. And that is a big loss to Kashmir’s artisanal and cultural heritage. Indeed, few weavers are left even in Sultan Mohalla of Srinagar, once home to the most accomplished of Wagoo makers.

Sultan Mohalla, a neighbourhood of Saida Kadal, is located on the edge of the Dal, giving its Wagoo makers access to the best reed. Naturally, Wagoo weaving was a cottage industry here, providing livelihoods to hundreds of families.

Now, though, the craft is dying. The few families in Sultan Mohalla that are still engaged in Wagoo making are having it difficult, such as Mala Begum’s. “We don’t get customers now as people prefer foam sheets nowadays,” rues the 70-year-old, who brought up eight children with income from the trade. “Sultan Mohalla was a happy place. Every household used to make wagoo here. But almost everyone has left the craft now because the returns are so low.”

Mala Begum says she was too young to remember weaving her first wagoo, but she can’t forget making her last. “It was soon after the 2014 floods. One of our old customers requested me to weave half a dozen wagoos for her. I was not keeping well but I weaved out of respect to her wish. That was the last time,” she says, her eyes welling up from emotion. Before that, she says, she had seldom touched the reed for over a year since her husband’s death in 2013.

It was mostly women and girls who did the weaving, while the selling was left to their men folk. Many would go town to town, village to village to sell their wares.

Then, about two decades ago, a Wagoo weaver could make up to a thousand rupees a day. Now, she gets Rs 300 on an average if she’s lucky. Adjust for inflation, and it is barely sustainable income. “We sell a wagoo for Rs 200. The price would be Rs 500-600 for one mat if we account for the increased labour costs,” Mala Begum says. Other input costs have risen sharply, too. A bundle of bulrush now costs Rs 40 and reed is less abundant than it used to in the Dal; much of it now comes from the Anchar Lake. “Nobody here can earn a livelihood from this craft anymore. My son does manual labour now to feed us.”

Jana Begum, a Wagoo weaver from Mir Behri, a neighbourhood in the interiors of the Dal, has as hopeless a story to tell. “I am certain wagoo making will die once we, the older generation of weavers, are gone. The next generation doesn’t want to be anywhere near it,” Jana says. “And you cannot blame them. There’s no future in this craft. Nobody can starve himself for the sake of saving a particular craft. Wagoo weaving will soon become history.”

So negligible is the demand, in fact, that weavers make mats only on request. “There is no point weaving mats in bulk now as we did in the past. There just isn’t enough demand,” says Muhammad Abdullah, once a wagoo weaver. He points towards a man idling by a shop front nearby. That is Ghulam Hassan Sultan from Saida Kadal, Abdullah says, once the most sought after Wagoo seller in the area. “He used to sell a wagoo for Rs 300-400, and that was so many years ago,” Abdullah says.

Sultan says, “I stopped selling wagoos only about five years ago. Hardly anyone buys it now. I used to have a loyal clientele. I knew almost every client personally.”

“It pains to see the craft that sustained me my entire life dying out like this,” Sultan, now 80, continues. “I wish I could sell one last wagoo before I close my eyes.”