SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – Arifa Jan, 27, is trying to infuse life into the traditional craft of making namdas, rugs made from felted wool. In the process, she is also realizing her dreams of becoming an entrepreneur.
Jan eagerly takes out one namda after another from several neat piles to show the various designs and patterns she has worked so hard on. Beaming with joy, she displays with pride the colorful rugs.
She calls herself an entrepreneur but sounds more like an activist.
A namda is made of felted wool, or wool pressed into shapes, and usually embroidered with colorful threads. Although namdas are also made in other parts of India, Kashmiri namdas are known for their superior quality and beautiful embroidery.
But Jan ventured into the trade at a time when Kashmiri namdas have lost their traditional sheen.
She became interested in namdas during a research project on declining crafts while getting her master’s degree at the Craft Development Institute in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. A former classmate who worked at the institute had recommended she enroll in the craft management and entrepreneurship master’s program when she ran into her on an errand there one day.
The curriculum involved a project exploring the revival of declining crafts in Kashmir. Jan researched namdas.
“While researching namdas, I found out that only 10 years ago, 98 percent of the namdas that were produced in Kashmir were exported, while the recent figure has reduced to a mere 2 percent,” she says. “This was a huge decline.”
She fell in love with the craft and was moved by the agony of the craftsmen involved in the declining industry.
Since attaining her master’s degree in 2009, Jan has been applying her skills and knowledge to not only fix what has gone wrong over the years, but also to introduce innovations to increase the marketability of Kashmiri namdas. At the same time, she is also striving to increase craftsmen’s wages. Without these artisans, she says the craft will soon die.
Exports of Kashmiri namdas have plummeted because of a drop in quality resulting from the poor wages earned by artisans. A young female entrepreneur is working to reverse this decline by not only restoring quality, but also introducing various innovations. At the same time, she is doubling the wages of artisans. As female entrepreneurs are rare in Kashmir, various institutes and organizations in the valley are working to promote entrepreneurship among youth, with some focusing especially on women.
Conflict for two decades in Kashmir left the industry and commerce sector in tatters. People became wary of business initiatives and preferred taking government jobs. Women especially ventured into business less than men.
In a 2011 survey conducted by the Start-up Kashmir Youth Entrepreneur Development Project, which aims to reduce poverty and promote economic growth through youth entrepreneurship, one-third of young women reported that they preferred self-employment, while two-thirds preferred employment. On the other hand, 57 percent of young males preferred self-employment, while 43 percent preferred employment. Nearly 70 percent of female youth respondents said gender discrimination was a deterrent in engaging in entrepreneurship in Kashmir.
Jan says that a drop in quality is a main reason for the decline in exports of Kashmiri namdas.
Jan attributes this lack of quality to the abysmal wages of artisans. An artisan is paid according to the amount of wool used in the namda.
“An artisan was paid 60 rupees [$1.20] per kilo of wool, and an artisan would earn 50 to –100 rupees [$1 to $2] per day,” Jan says.
Jan says this income is insufficient for artisans to support themselves and their families. As a result, artisans began to use cheaper materials.
“The artisans were then mixing cotton with local wool,” she says. “The quality suffered, and this made the Namdas less durable. They also used local dyes, which made the color bleed when exposed to water.”
The drop in quality deterred customers.
For the project, Jan had to not only find the reasons for the decline of the craft, but also to innovate and design new products based on her findings in order to restore it.
First, Jan decided to restore the quality of Kashmiri namdas. She used 100-percent merino wool, a type of sheep wool known for its quality, instead of the local wool. She used dyes free of azo compounds so that they would not be harmful or bleed. She also opted for a superior thread for the embroidery and also employed a more refined form called crewel embroidery, which is usually reserved for curtains.
She also revived patterned namdas, a craft now forgotten in Kashmir. In patterned namdas, the designs are made in the felt itself. First, patterns are cut from felt of different colrs and then combined in a felt base. Jan not only experimented in patterns, but she also tried embroidery on the patterned namdas.
The hard work and innovation shows. The namdas stand out both in appearance and durability.
“You can hand wash our namdas,” she says. “They won’t lose their color. You can even vacuum them, things you can’t do with the ordinary namda you find in the market these days.”
She prepared 300 namdas as part of the project.
Then came the opportunity to test her work. Jan got an opportunity to participate in a handicraft exhibition in Delhi in 2010.
“It was a sellout,” she says. “I had taken 60 namdas with me, and I sold them all. And the response was so good.”
Since childhood, Jan had dreamed of venturing into business. Born to illiterate parents, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in commerce at the University of Kashmir with a goal of starting her own business one day.
“I studied commerce, thinking I will start a business of my own one day,” she says. “But at that time, I had no idea that I will work will namdas.”
Back home, Mohammad Saleem Sofi, a pashmina artisan and trader, was so impressed by her work that he decided to lend her ` 50,000 rupees ($970) to start production.
“I was so impressed with what she was doing that I wanted to leave my craft and work with her,” Sofi says.
Sofi was not the only one Jan left a lasting impression on. Jan also made an impact on Gulshan Nanda, chairwoman of the Crafts Council of India at the time, who saw her work at the exhibition. Nanda called her afterwards with an offer to lend her 145,000 rupees ($2,800) out of her own pocket to start production.
After getting the moral boost as well as funds, the first thing that Jan did was double the wages of the craftsmen. Jan insisted that her venture should consider everyone involved in the process.
“If we earn, why can’t we share our profits with the artisans?” she asks. “I have seen how hard they work and how little they are paid. They should get paid well. Only then will the crafts survive.”
She says that making namdas is hard labor that draws little respect.
“Actually, the namda making is looked down upon, as it involves a lot of hard manual labor,” she says. “Sometimes even my family asks me if I could only find namdas to work with – couldn’t I get a regular job instead.”
She starts to laugh.
But in the face of unemployment, entrepreneurship is becoming a more viable option. In addition to Jan’s efforts, various organizations are also working to promote entrepreneurship among women.
The Jammu and Kashmir State Women’s Development Corporation implements various governmental schemes to identify and promote female entrepreneurs.
“We have got tremendous response from women regarding entrepreneurship,” says Nahida Soz, the corporation’s managing director.
Since the organization focuses on disadvantaged groups, employment is always a challenge.
“It is challenging to make these women self-reliant as they belong to low socio-economic background,” she says. “The women are not qualified or skilled. But the women of Kashmir are well-versed in various handicrafts, and there is a lot of potential.”
The organization trains women and also gives them credit to start their projects. It also helps the women to market their products by organizing fairs to ensure income generation.
The Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute is another institution involved. It aims to serve the state through the research and training of entrepreneurs. M.I. Parray, the institute’s director, says the institute aims to help male and female entrepreneurs.
“We are not running any separate courses for women,” he says. “There are some general parameters for all. We do get applicants from both the gender.”
Jan says her training has given wings to her dreams. Even though her main focus is on namdas, she is already on the path of diversification.
Together with Sofi and another artisan, Farooq Ahmad Ganai, Jan has started Incredible Kashmir Crafts, a venture that makes namdas and other items, such as embroidered canvas bags, tops, pashmina stoles and shawls, cushion covers and wall hangings.
Their focus is on design and innovation, as well as the preservation of Kashmiri handicrafts.
“We have been experimenting with various weaves and designs in pashmina,” Sofi says. “The pashmina we are using is all handspun, and everything we deal in is handmade.”
He says this is rare, as machines have meant doom for local handicrafts.
And Jan’s not stopping at diversification of quality goods and fair wages for artisans. She also wants to start an organization for women working with handicrafts, especially women in difficult situations as a result of the conflict. (GPI)