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SEARCH FOR THE FIRAN

Sathya Saran  (click here to know more about this blogger)

It started innocently enough. We were admiring the profusion of flowers at Shalimar Gardens, Srinagar. Vibrantly purple and scarlet dahlias, pretty pastel zenias, and the shy, secretive magnolia hiding high in the lush leaves... they proclaimed to me that despite the unusual heat of the day, global warming had not yet reached into the gardens to plunder and lay waste Nature's offerings. Then I caught sight of the clothes: just as bright and alluring.  I could not stop gravitating towards them. They hung on three hangers: bright, jewel coloured ensembles in silk, wool and velvet, bedecked by needlework patterns. Pretty picture I thought, wondering if they were for sale. When my friend, better versed in the matters of the State told me they belonged to the photographers we had seen lurking about, and were for instant Kashmir-ki-kali-style photographs-for-a-fee, the shopoholic in me was dissappointed.

But by the end of our visit, I had shopped, in a manner of speaking, at least. Which meant, I had been persuaded to slip on one of the firans ( surprisingly clean and well washed) and get a picture shot. That is when it started. By the time we started for our home in the outskirts of the city, I desperately wanted to own a firan. My hostess friend, despite her dislike of shopping, gave in. We recruited one of her younger relatives who knew the shops well and would deflect the salesmen from charging the tourist price for whatever took my fancy and we set off on my hunt. The young woman, dressed in a hand worked white and red ensemble that added to her already statusque looks escorted me to the best shops, standing all in a line on both sides of the road in Lal Chowk. The variety on offer was mind boggling. The shelves were heavy with embroidered fabric in colours that almost put the flowers at Shalimar Gardens to shame. Embroidery of many colours bedecked each piece, but when I asked for a velvet firan, the shop keepers shook their heads. Velvet, I was informed, was passe. 

So was the firan, I gathered. Kashmiri women wore salwar suits and beautiful dupattas wound around their neck and covering their heads in a most. The younger ones ventured to wear the styles seen on television and in films... flowing Anarkalis and straight a-line kurtas but again with the very feminine drape of the dupatta. The firan, was, I was informed, anyway a winter over-garment. And so, I could find a woollen one if I combed through the shops. As for velvet,  it was mostly wedding wear, made to order. Or for garden style photographs, I thought wryly. To cut to the end of the hunt, the evening ended with me carrying back a simple black cotton firan with turquoise embroidery at the neck and pockets. What made the find even more delightful was the salesman's emphatic assertion that the hand work was just that, hand work. Not machine made as with the goods in most of the other shops. "We only sell hand embroidered stuff" the chorus went as I admired the variety on display which included gold thread worked velvet firans that would indeed add to any bride's blushing beauty.

Piqued by the differentiation between hand and machine embrodiery I decided to visit the workshops. Many, I was told, were far out in the countryside, but a few were 'downtown.' So it was that one afternoon when the sky was full of fleecy clouds and the sun played a game of hide and seek between them, adding a radiant filtered light to my surroundings, I drove through astoundingly narrow lanes to seek out embroiderers who could tell me more about a craft that by now had drawn me into its web of intricate designs and colours.  My student-turned-driver Firoz had to ask around many times before we could park the car and finally the 'workshop' revealed itself to be two small rooms on the second and third floors of a plain looking brick building. As I entered the tiny room where two men sat chewing bread and drinking tea.. I realized this was hallowed ground where a centuries-old craft still held its own.

Bashir Ahmed Sofi and Ghulam Nabi Sofi are two of the five craftemen who work in the room. Their place of work has changed many times, since they first learned the craft of Kahsmiri embroidery, with its specific colours and designs, but the work remains much the same. Labourious and taxing. The learning of the craft takes many years. "We started as five-year-olds, and learnt the simple patterns first, before moving on to more complicated ones'" Bashir who is more communicative, says. Their guru, Ustaad Khazar Khan, was proficient in both cloth and leather work, and taught his students as much as their skill could garner. Working to earn a stipend, the boys would spend up to 14 hours at creating embroidery patterns on cotton, silk and georgette. by the time they were 10, they had mastered the craft.

The men, now both in their fifties or more, are eager to share their creations. Bashir's fabric background is a rich green, on which he is growing a bouquet of petalled flowers. Ghulam spreads out a white kurta he has been working on, detailing to me the different colours. The work is a mix of flowers (oshkar) and trellis like vines and paisleys (puzkar). These permutation combinations express themselves in endless variety in everything from kurta pieces to firans, shawls and saris. The rarer crewel stitch is used to decorate curtain cloth and hand work for this is rare: the machine is quicker and brings down the price considerably too. The chain stitch, worked by hand, is also a dying art. Little wonder though. As I talk to these two men, soft spoken, almost representatives of a forgotten era of courtesy, I realise that only penury or love of their craft brings them back every day to climb the steps to this tiny workplace.

The system is set, and has been followed for years. Workmen take an advance of 40 or 50,000 as capital for their personal needs and work off the loan. The amount of payment is decided by the weight of the work they create. The virgin cloth is weighed and then the embroidered piece and the craftsmen earn between 100 to 150 per tola. The kurta Ghulam is working on could take all of  four eight-hour days and fetch him 600. Much lesser than the market price the finished piece will fetch the owner of the workshop. By any stretch, it is too, too little for work that is the result of such severe training and detail. However, the embroiderers get their skeins of coloured thread free. They come in from Ludhiana and cost about 60 for four or five skiens. Working on silk gets paid better, but takes longer, so the earning is balanced. "We also get tea twice a day" Bashir adds "but carry our food from home." They think they are better off than the machine workers as rates are lower for that and so despite the volume of product being higher.. the earning is almost the same.

"Unless forced to do this because we can do nothing else.. why would any Kashmiri take up this craft?," Bashir asks. It is a question many Indian crafts persons from across the states so rich in a plethora of hand crafts are asking themselves. Unless Indians, individuals as well as organsational, work towards making the lot of the weaver, embroiderer and other crafts people a better one, their genius will be buried in the future generation's search for new pastures. And thus, I believe is particularly true of Kashmir where no self employment movement has taken root, as it has done with SEWA in Gujarat and Lucknow. Unless some change comes to improve the lot of the embroiderers.. the flowers of Kashmir may not smile in their embroidered avatars much longer. I find my heart weighed down with these thoughts as I start taking my leave. "Please let us call for some tea and biscuits" the men say with paternal concern.. pressing me to stay and be their guest. As if I needed any proof of the soft courtesies of this swift passing era!

SATHYA SARAN
Pic Credit: Sathya Saran
 
SATHYA SARAN
Pic Credit: Sathya Saran
 
SATHYA SARAN
Pic Credit: Sathya Saran
 
SATHYA SARAN
 
07-SEPTEMBER-2014
 
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2 Comments
 
11-SEPTEMBER-2014 Meher Castelino
Have always loved Pherans and the creators need to be publicized for their great work. This was an interesting read with lots of information.
 
 
08-SEPTEMBER-2014 Sheila Kumar
I have built up a nice collection of pherans over the years. Thank you for giving me the back story, Sathya.
 
 
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