Jamawar – Weaves of Kashmir

    [seyv thuh weev]

    The crown jewel of Kashmir’s textile realm, jamawar is birthed from an enriching mix of fabrics. ‘Jamawar’ is believed to have been derived from the word ‘jam’, which means a shawl or robe and ‘war’, which implies the chest, in either Persian or Kashmiri.

    The fabric is believed to have found its way to Kashmir from Persia, and reached its peak during the heyday of the Mughal dynasty in India.

    Men and women of royal Mughal families as well as court officials held the regal jamawar shawl in high regard, and donned it with much pride and pomp. During this time, jamawar enjoyed a high stature, and was endorsed greatly by not just Mughal emperors (emperor Akbar is believed to have brought skilled jamawar weavers from myriad Arab nations to Kashmir) but also by historic heavyweights across the globe, such as Sikh kings, French monarchs, British aristocrats and members of Iranian nobility, among many others.

    Owing to the elaborateness that goes into the making of the weave, it takes months on end to craft a finished jamawar piece, and sometimes, even years, depending on the level of intricacy involved. This process, however, picked up pace in the 1800s when power-based jacquard looms entered the scene. This move may have helped the weave to tap into a larger consumer base, but it also led to the original, handmade jamawar losing its appeal.

    Jamawar is traditionally woven with a rich blend of Pashmina wool, cotton and silk (the base was most often wool, with silk and cotton embellishments woven into it). Given the generous use of colours and motifs, the finished weave is highly iridescent. One of the many distinguishing factors of jamawar is that it is so intricately woven that its front and back, both look identical, with no stray thread sticking out of its surface. A dominating design element of the weave is paisley, which derives inspiration from Persia; other motifs of flora and fauna, too, are seen adorning the fabric. Jamawars also feature a wide use of hand embroidery, which is carried out with unfettered attention to detail. Traditionally, a single jamawar piece was woven with up to 50 varying hues, the most common among them having been sufed (white), mushki (black), ferozi (turquoise), gulnar (crimson), uda (violet) and many more.

    However, as the Mughal empire in India toppled, so did jamawar’s primary patronage. Adding to this, the onset of industrialisation meant the inundation of cheaper fibres that were relatively easily accessible—all these factors collectively lead to jamawar losing a solid consumer base, and with the introduction of its machine-made counterparts, it almost started edging towards disappearance.

    In order to aid this situation, the Government has been launching several initiatives such as introducing jamawar-weaving centres across Kashmir, Punjab and Delhi. Today, to reach a diverse audience base, jamawar is woven to craft a multitude of products—from shawls, kameez and lehengas to curtains, saris and blouses.

    Over time, jamawars shawls have undergone osmosis, and are now woven by artisans settled in parts of Uttar Pradesh. Today, approximately 500 weavers of jamawar shawls, along with some 1,000 jamawar rafoogars or darners, remain, Atique Ahmed, Israt Ahmed and Wasim Ahmed being a few of them.

    As winter descends upon the nation, shawl merchants, colloquially known as ‘pheriwallas’, who are not originally from Delhi or Kashmir, migrate to these regions to sell handmade, painstakingly crafted jamawars. Considering its time-consuming, back-breaking process, finding a worthy buyer for these weaves is highly imperative, but one that rarely ends up happening, despite the efforts taken by the Government. As a result of which, today, it remains a mere remnant of a once-thriving past.

    The weave is said to have originated in Kanihama village of Jammu and Kashmir, and its exquisiteness earned it the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008. With the word ‘kani’ literally translating to ‘bobbins’ in Kashmiri, the weave involves an extensive use of wooden bobbins on which varicoloured threads are wound.

    Legend has it that the art of weaving Kani shawls was first brought to Kashmir in the 15th century by Persian and Turkish weavers, who introduced this enigmatic art to Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin, the eighth sultan of Kashmir. Since then, the art form flourished multifold, capturing the hearts of many across the world.

    One of the most defining characteristics of the Kani weave—which is colloquially known as ‘kaniwar’—is its impeccably patterned motifs. These motifs, which usually draw on the natural world—illustrating flowers, gardens, creepers, paisleys, etc.—are brought to life through a technique called twill tapestry featuring double interlocking, wherein both the warp and weft yarns are mounted diagonally on to each other on the loom. Traditionally, Kanis are crafted from the pashmina wool of the local changthangi goat. At the time of weaving, the loom is packed with bobbins (kanis), through which the craftsmen carry out the fashioning of the weave; a total of nearly a thousand bobbins or more can be used for a single weave.

    Each colour is woven in individually, with the help of bobbins wound with threads of that particular colour. The designs are first drafted in the form of sketches, in a grid-like format called ‘naksh’, after which each step from the draft is dictated to the weaver. An elaborately woven Kani shawl can take anywhere from 9 months to a year to be made, with two artisans working on it. A relatively more elaborate shawl, on the other hand, 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 turbans, waistbands and coats. It is marvellous how something so arithmetical in its making is transformed into a canvas of incessant artistry—something that is seemingly so far from math.

    While in earlier times, most weavers of Kani shawls were men, today, there has been a paradigm shift in its socio-cultural (and demographical) dynamics—not only have more and more women weavers started entering the fold but the art form also sees itself interspersed in regions other than Kanihama. For instance, Narayan Bagh, in Kashmir’s Ganderwal district, is home to a weaving centre that trains women to weave breathtakingly fine Kani products.

    The splendour of the Kani weave earns it a place in the world’s top-class institutions such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Department of Islamic art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, among others.

    A heritage weave and a heirloom treasure, passed on through generations, Kanis have marked themselves as one of India’s most invaluable cultural entities. 

    When human hands and heart work in tandem, that is grace in the making. Handwoven cloth has beauty and grace that is significant.
    – Sadhguru

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