Hailing from the heartland of Kashmir’s fading cottage industry, Sonawari’s women carpet-weavers are fighting odds to hold the fort.
In her struggle-wracked life, Masrat has always faced trials and tribulations with smile and spine.
As a young girl supposed to attend her school, she decided to become her dispossessed father’s support. Later as a newly-wed bride, she had to step in her incarcerated husband’s shoes.
In all these roles, tied by a common thread, she emerged as an inspiring headperson.
The 42-year-old homemaker comes from Sonawari’s hard up neighbourhood filled with impoverished lives and tales.
As someone holding Kashmir’s crumbling cultural fort, the mother of two is striving hard to restore the lost pride in the waning cottage industry, whose peak and downfall she has closely witnessed.
Her hometown Sonawari was once known for housing some remarkable carpet weavers, whose art pieces would grace shelves of the top outlets in the world. Much of that, however, has changed today.
“I earned and supported my kids with the help of carpet weaving when my husband was in jail on charges of having links with militants and Hurriyat,” Masrat says. “I would weave carpets day and night, as it was, and is, my only source of income.”
While weaving carpets, she keeps a stove nearby to cook meals for her family. It’s her idea to strike a perfect balance between home chores and workshop. She’s equally resilient for her children’s education and a better life.
But there were times when her kitchen had nothing to feed her kids, while their father was away languishing in different jails.
“So I had to work even harder for my family survival,” she says. “Even though the carpet market value has fallen today, but as an art, it continues to sustain my family.”
Before compensating her husband’s regular home absence, young Masrat had to earlier quit her studies to start learning carpet weaving from her siblings.
“Weaving carpets wasn’t just an act to support my family,” Masrat says, “it was my passion, as I was always fascinated with the words and letters written on the brown pages. I fell in love with the way my siblings were working and earning a decent income.”
Back then, Kashmir’s carpet-weaving industry was thriving as a sunshine enterprise. The traders associated with it were known to lead a ‘good life’. But over the period of time, the situational onslaught has forced many to shun the skill.
In fact, from the last decade, weavers say, the carpet weaving labour charges have nosedived to Rs 12,000 from Rs 30,000.
“Market went down, God knows why?” Masrat wonders. “But it didn’t take away my love for this art. I had earned my livelihood from this skill and I won’t betray it till my last breath.”
Apart from a model mother, Masrat is also a treasured mentor for her neighbourhood girls who learn the art of carpet weaving from her to become self-sufficient in life.
Inspired by her dedication, Nadia, a 27-year-old girl from her locality, learned the craft and has now earned enough to bear her marriage expenses.
But before becoming self-sufficient, the daughter of a labourer was facing family distress due to low income.
“Nadia was just 18 when she started learning the craft,” Masrat says. “Today, she has come a long way in her life where she can shoulder her own wedding expenses.”
As someone who understands the community behaviour towards an individual, especially a woman, Masrat fears that Nadia might be forced to abandon the craft after her marriage due to society, family or any other reason “but I won’t,” she says, “because it runs in my blood.”
At a stone’s throw from Masrat’s workshop, two sisters, Fatima, 35, and Shahida, 29, are busy weaving a carpet inside their living room turned workshop.
The siblings were 16 and 10 respectively when they lost their father, who had left behind five kids in a shed-like structure. Nobody was there to take care of the family.
“Fatima, blind by one eye, had no option but to earn after our father died,” Shahida says. “Our relative trained her. The craft fed and sustained us, and soon I also joined my sister.”
Years of slog and sweat with carpet-weaving has made it possible for siblings to own their house now. Fatima is married, while Shahida is a prospective bride.
“Carpet weaving is not an easy job,” Shahida says. “Only a dedicated person can learn and weave the carpets.”
But most of the women in Sonawari have left carpet weaving because of the falling price and crumbling support system. Still, few are slogging for the sake of their families, like Dilshada.
In her two-room home, she’s supporting her family of six—who live, study, work, rest and sleep in one room, while in another Dilshada earns and cooks for them.
“My kids are not interested in carpet weaving because it is an art and not everyone can be attracted to it,” she says. “Carpet weaving is considered as the most classical form of art. One should be artistically inclined towards it.”
On her part, however, Masrat has already revived the art by growing her tribe. She credits her family for inculcating the sense of skill welfare and self-reliance in her.
“Growing up in a traditional family influences a person,” Masrat says. “While I do see the world differently, it makes me happy when I realize how I inspired others towards this dying art and in the process helped them to become self-sufficient in their lives.”