An artisan preparing the reed by peeling off its skin in a traditional method in Umerhair village of Ganderbal.
Photo: © Nasir Yousufi

Kashmir – the revival of a dying craft

A group of artisans from a central Kashmir village are joining hands with a non-profit and local government to successfully infuse a new life into dying willow-work craft, restoring livelihoods for thousands of the families linked to the age-old craft in the region.

Willow-wicker work is a hand-skilled craft primarily involving the weaving of baskets from willow reeds. Remote villages like Umerhair, Kachan or Shallbugh in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal are the traditional hub of willow wicker-work in the region.

Known as Kaene Kaem or Shaksazi in local parlance, this ancient cottage industry has been a source of livelihood for thousands of families associated with basketry in the valley. But a few years ago, in the absence of any takers, the traditional basket-makers were left in the lurch.

Baskets, flower vases, chairs, trays and Kangri are the significant willow-work products made in the valley. People here have traditionally been using these items for ages. However, the availability of cheap fancy and polished Chinese products replaced the traditional wicker products over the years.

“As the markets were flooded with the trendy products, usually machine-made and from China, people’s taste changed, too. Most of them discarded the use of the traditional basketry items,” recalls Zahoor Ahmad Wani, a basketry shop owner from Srinagar. “There was a time when Kangri, a traditional fire-pot used in the valley during winters, was an only item in demand,” adds Wani, alluring to the slump the traditional craft in Kashmir saw until recently.

However, thanks to the sharp wit of a group of artisans from Ganderbal villages, not only has the art been sustained, but it is successfully being passed on to newer generations.

A fresh beginning

Leaving the willow décor aside, a few years ago, apart from making Kangris and a few baskets, there was almost no work for the Kashmir’s willow-work craftsmen. It was at this point in time when Kadam, a non-government organisation from Kolkata brought into Kashmir by local government through a programme funded by the World Bank, came to the rescue of Kashmir’s traditional willow-work craft.

It all started with a small group of willow-wicker artisans from Peermohalla and Kachan villages in Ganderbal. For several years, during last decade, the group made a number of representations both with government and non-profit organisations highlighting the plight of co-workers in the community. Led by a 54-year-old local master craftsman, Bashir Ahmad Dar, the efforts of a small group finally bore fruit when the World Bank sanctioned a programme aimed at the revival of traditional craft through Ravi Tawi Flood Project.

“We were only a group of three people interested in carrying on with the legacy of willow-work craft,” recalls Dar, who is also a president of Peermohalla Shaksaz Association, Ganderbal. “Most of the families associated with the ancestral craft had either shifted to other occupations or switched to construction labour for better returns. Motivating them to re-practice the craft was a tough challenge. During the initial days of the programme’s implementation, I personally went door-to-door invoking ancestral legacy, modernisation of the craft and active government support.”

The programme was implemented via Jammu and Kashmir Handicraft and Handloom Department in 2019 through Kadam, a Kolkata-based non-profit. Regarded as an expert organisation in introducing modern techniques and modernisation in cottage-based industry in parts of the country, Kadam commenced the programme with the training of artisans.

“Initially we started with a group of ten artisans from the area. Except for two or three, all of them had shifted to other work,” says Imtiyaz Ahmad Shah, Project Coordinator, Kadam. “In order to lure them back to the craft, we had to ensure that their daily livelihood was not affected. So along with training in modern basketry, we paid them daily stipend. Our non-profit purchased all the items whatever these artisans produced during the training programme, as well.” This also helped in fostering much needed trust in the community.

“We are continuously upgrading and reaching out to artisans through several training modules,” Imtiyaz adds. “So far, a large number of artisans, particularly the willow-wicker craftsmen from Ganderbal, have participated and benefitted from this programme.”

Not only did Kadam mentor the craft, it helped the artisans to craft market-driven designs from wicker through in-person trainings.

The design of the products is now market-driven

“The local artisans were good at weaving traditional baskets,” says Nahida, an instructor from Kadam. “What they lacked was the exposure to modern basketry, fashionable designs and fabrication of products. While working with me during the training, they did an excellent job in learning new concepts. All of them are now able to craft a variety of stylish and modern products.”

For three months, the artisans went through rigorous training in modern-day basketry and fabrication of willow products along modern lines. 

“All we could make was the traditional designs and products,” says Ghulam Ahmad, an award-winning willow-wicker worker from Kachan village of Ganderbal. “However, after getting training from Kadam, our way of work has changed. Our designs have changed completely. Our products are now market-driven”.

Ghulam emphasises that the trainings have been very beneficial in grooming skills. “Our products now match the international standard, and of late, there are many orders from international buyers, too,” he says. “For a time, our younger generation was reluctant to learn this traditional craft, but over the last few years, a lot of youngsters have shown their interest in it and have in fact learned the craft,” adds Ahmad while giving a final shape to willow drawer for a sofa.

The technical intervention from the Kolkata-based NGO facilitated by government has helped in bringing the artisans together to revive the age-old rural craft in the valley.

Livelihoods restored

The artisans from the village are now producing more than a hundred variety of products which include basketry, kitchenware, home décor, plantery, lampshades, trays, wall plates, cradles, home utility – and even sofas.

“Initially, we could only make traditional baskets which could not find a good market in modern times,” says Reyaz Ahmad Magray. “But with the introduction of new designs and techniques, the new products are in good demand in the market. I had previously switched to labourer work, but seeing rise of the craft again, I have shifted back to my ancestral willow-wicker work.”

The modern basketry skills have also resulted in a substantial increase in the income of artisans.

“Four years ago, it took us a day to weave a large-sized traditional basket which could not fetch more than Rs 200 from the market,” Magray adds. “But with modern skills, a single sling bag of smaller size which can be crafted in five or six hours fetches us at least Rs 1200.”

During the last three years, there has been an exponential increase in number of registered willow-wicker workers with the government. From a small group of active artisans before 2019, the number of artisans registered in Ganderbal villages increased to 1,429 in 2023.

“Apart from the Shaksazi community, about 4,000 artisans are now associated with the craft and we are in process of registering them all with the department,” explains Mehmood Ahmad Shah, Director J&K Handicrafts and Handloom Department.

“In order to ensure that the skill is transferred to younger generation, under our Karakhanadar scheme, the master craftsmen who have been trained by Kadam are training local artisans. And our department pays stipend to both. There are presently 15 such centres actively training hundreds of artisans,” Mehmood says.

A large number of people particularly young boys and girls are coming forward to learn the craft. Thanks to the good demand for home décor basketry these days, the traditional willow-wicker work has not only got a facelift but is a source of a handsome livelihood for thousands of families now in the region, Mehmood adds.

He says that the government is working in close coordination with the artisans and non-profit to uplift the craft and to have an impact. “Our approach is twofold - one, to upgrade the skill of local artisan community related with the trade and two, to facilitate the market access,” Mehmood explains. 

Global aspirations

With new push for the craft and the production of cheeky designs, the Kashmir willow-wicker products now have easy access to global market platforms. Be it e-commerce giants like Myantra, Amazon, Flipkart and the web portals or social media handles created by local willow-wicker work artisans, Kashmir’s basketry products are available everywhere.

“The online orders have started to pour in, and the community is reaping the direct benefits. During the last year, I received about 38 orders online for customised bags, lampshades and flower vases, and the frequency of orders is picking up gradually,” says Bashir Ahmad. “Apart from within the country, we are hopeful to export our basketry to different parts of the world. With the support of the Handicraft department, many Shaksazi unit holders like me have already been issued with the export licence for the purpose,” he adds.


Nasir Yousufi is a freelance journalist based in India. Contact:


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