Kashmir’s traditional position on the ancient silk route that connected Persia and Persian influence with China and Chinese influence strengthened its hold on Islam as much as with the Far East. What is now the state of Jammu and Kashmir including Ladakh, still holds together in a cluster as it were the socio-cultural and religious influences of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Islam. These influences are inevitably reflected in craft and in the craft context.
Yet the point before fine art, decorative arts and craft began to view themselves separately is itself accurately reflected in the Aitareya Brahmana (6:5:1). All creative work (silpani), it is said, is as it were an imitation of the divine. Whether it be a clay figure, a bronze cup, a garment, worked gold or mule chariot, all are works of art. He who understands this, it goes on to say, understand that all creative work is intended for self-culture (atma-sanskriti). By the act of making, the “sacrificer” integrates himself through the rhythm that perpetuates itself through nature.
“Silpani” are perceived as “supporting” the heavens themselves.
The fact that creative activity of the widest kind was seen to express a “holy” experience of life, that all disciplines converged to expand a single worldview, and that craft was itself viewed as related to nature on one hand and to the integration of the maker’s self on the other, I consider particularly significant. It is for this reason that I speak of arts and crafts lest the bond between these be forgotten.
The Indian artisan was originally both a structural designer and a craftsman. By the time of the Mughals the function of designer and artist had clearly separated from that of executor. This remains true of most of the Kashmiri crafts.
Nevertheless, the designer (naqqash) and the craftsman (karigar) collaborate closely. This has led at its finest to the interaction of craft communities in the work of production. At its less fine, carelessness can and has shown through.
While the specific direction of certain crafts has been governed by the taste and distinction of certain courts besides great centers of religious culture, the crafts of the people have survived. Yet, village crafts in Kashmir will remain robust only so long as their actual use and social function is alive.
If craft is man’s first technology, a craft at its finest represents the finest that can be commanded with simple tools. Let us, then, not forget those essentially refined and intricate techniques intended too for the discriminating, those to whom a rarity is something worth waiting for. Many fine Kashmir crafts fall into this category.
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