Machine-Made Embroidery Ruining Kashmiri Tilla Handicraft?

Can traditional hand made Tilla embroidery sustain the domination of machine work in Kashmir? Find out how artisans from rural Kashmir are trying hard to cope with the brutal market.

Such is the popularity of Tilla embroidery in Kashmir that every bride should have at least one Pheran decorated with hand-made Tilla Dozi. No matter if she is rich or poor the bride cannot skip Tilla Pheran and Tilla shawls from her wardrobe.

Whether it is a simple wedding or royal, Tilla Pheran has to be put-up by the bride immediately after her wedding. The culture of Tilla Dozi is still alive in Kashmir valley, but the art is dying.

Tilla is one of the most prevalent forms of embroidery in Kashmir. Historians believe Tilla originated from the remote village of Zari in Iran, the craft entered into Kashmir when the revered Muslim saint Ameer Kabeer Mir Sayeed Ali Hamadani, popularly known as Shah-e-Hamdan (R.A), migrated into the valley along with his 700 associates, most among them were craftsmen. The craft was later uplifted by Mughal rulers who were impressed with its exquisiteness and they too used Tilla embroidery in their royal courts.

Tilla is actually an embroidery work extensively used to decorate ethnic wear. Gold or silver imitation threads are delicately tied by needlepoint over the fabric to create lovely designs. The whole process needs skill, patience and accuracy.

In mid-October, when most people in rural areas of Kashmir are busy in apple orchards, vegetable gardens and paddy fields, Mohammad Shafi Malik without having all these engagements could be seen performing craftwork. Shafi hails from Kuchmullah village of south Kashmir’s Tral township of Pulwama district is the only older artisan doing hand-made embroidery in the area.

The 55-year-old long-bearded Shafi is the choice of hundreds of customers, including brides who love his hand-made embroidery mostly of Pherans. A golden thread with a needle on one of its ends dangles around his neck while he threads intricate embroidery on a pink Pheran.

Wearing eyeglasses and focusing keenly on the needlepoint, Shafi says he is performing hand-made embroidery for the past 30 years.

“I have been doing this for three decades now and it is my only source of income. I am happy with my achievements, but not with my wages. The good thing is that despite having eye problems I have still got passion and love for this work,” says Shafi in a murmuring voice.

This is one of the reasons behind the decline of Kashmiri art. The artisans are not given appropriate wages for their work, which is why they either switch to machines or change the field.

Burning the midnight oil

Shafi says it takes him weeks to finish Tilla embroidery on a Pheran but then he earns only a few hundred rupees which are difficult for him to survive on such low wages. Due to which he says artisans have been switching over to the machines to make their ends meet. “The machine-made embroidery workers are making ten times more business than us.”

The misery of artisans does not stop with low wages. They withstand turbulent times like conflict, inflation, scarce raw material, invent of machines and gloomy markets. Another major worrying factor for the artisans remains the middlemen, who enjoy the major chunk of money the work fetches.

Braving all these odds there are thousands of artisans in the valley much like Mohammad Shafi Malik, who remain committed to hand-made embroidery. However, many turned and switched to machines.

Shafi’s childhood friend Amma Bhat, during the mid-1990s, realised the pain behind the hand-made Tilla embroidery. He quickly took a loan from the bank and purchased a machine for his shop. Bhat is able to generate more revenue than his friend because a machine can finish Tilla work on multiple Pherans and Shawls during a day while hand-made embroidery can take weeks together to finish Tilla work on a single garment.

The only difference between the two is class, accuracy, and exquisiteness.

“The choice of handmade Tilla or machine-made Tilla depends on the item on which you are going to decorate it with. If we purchase a costly Pashmina Shawl we go for hand-made embroidery because we cannot ruin the precious shawl. Similarly, if we have got a low-priced woolen shawl we decorate it by dint of machines,” says a young woman Tabassum.

The decline in demand for hand embroidery

Where both local and foreign customers would once swarm, the embroidery shops in Kashmir these days are rarely visited by them. According to embroidery shopkeepers located on the sidelines of the famous Dal Lake here in Srinagar, compared to machines, it takes more time to prepare an item with hands.

Today, customers don’t have time and they want the Tilla work to be finished in a day or two which is impossible. Therefore, people prefer machine-made Tilla work instead of hand-made art. This has ultimately troubled artisans.

Ali Mohammad Bhat, who runs an embroidery showroom in southern Kashmir narrates the same story. “The handicraft labour has gone expensive and the customers can’t afford it. Hence, they prefer readymade Tilla items, which are cheap and made faster,” says Bhat.

Tilla, sozni and chain stitch on the famous Pashmina shawls that were once done by hand only are now also being done by machines.

“Prior to 1995, I was selling frocks, Pherans, coats, and Shawals decorated with Tilla, sozni and chain stitch but I left it for not being profitable. Once the machines emerged the art died and government watched everything like a mute spectator,” says Nazir Ahmad Parray of uptown Bemina Srinagar who was once doing Kashmiri art business.

Adding that the government did not make efforts to preserve and promote Kashmiri art.

The shopkeepers and dealers say they earlier would make great business when Lal Chowk Bund in city centre, which was a famous market for hand-made embroidery items.

“We are running a showroom here for the past four decades. In the beginning, our business would run greatly and the foreign customers were pretty responsive. They would value and appreciate the Kashmiri art, but now they hardly see any difference between handmade and machine-made embroidery items,” laments a shopkeeper Bashir Ahmad.

Can handmade embroidery make a comeback?

Bashir insists that the craft has still got potential to emerge as an economic force to reckon with, provided some vital steps are taken by the department of handicrafts, Jammu and Kashmir.

Another shopkeeper in the locality who sells both handmade as well as machine-made Tilla decorated items is optimistic that the real craft can still be uplifted in the valley if people are literally informed about the disadvantages of machine-made Tilla decorated items.

“No one would sell or prefer to buy machine-made items if every seller attempts to counsel his customers properly. I always motivate my customers by saying my pet word (Mahanga roye ek bar sasta roye baar baar). I make them understand that machines make short-lived items and that they will soon realise the blemishes of the machine,” he says.

The machine embroidery he says has two biggest flaws, one is durability and another is the damage caused to the cloth embroidered upon.

Despite machines managing to attract customers on the go, but their experience with these readymade items in terms of quality, accuracy, and durability eventually succumbs to the advantage of handmade embroidery labourers.

Photos: Irfan Amin Malik

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About the author

Irfan Amin Malik

Irfan Amin Malik is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir. He tweets @irfanaminmalik