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Beautifying the bunkers

Loosing to tanneries

Honey in Peril

The art of Khatamband

Waiting in despair

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Behind the names of houseboats

The abode of pain

Housing the dead

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The art of Khatamband

Unlike other handicrafts of Kashmir that are famous world over, Khatamband, a crafty ceiling art is little known outside Kashmir. A geometrical genius, Khatamband is slowly traversing boundaries to reach newer domains. Haroon Mirani reports.

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Srinagar, Kashmir
Mar 31, 2006:

The Geer family of Srinagar were once the sole masters of Khatamband art. Highly possessive about the craft Geers had been secretly guarding the arts till late 20th century. The craft passed on from generations to generations inside the clan.

"But now a lot has changed" says Mukhtar Ahmad Geer. "In today's world of transparency nothing remains hidden. Forced by market fluctuation and uninterested family members we had to take the veil off from this art".

The release of 'traditional patent' to other artists has in turn benefited the art greatly, which now flourishes with an ever increasing demand.

Brought to Kashmir in 1541 by Mirza Hyder Douglat, Khatamband is an art of making ceiling, by fitting small pieces of wood (preferably walnut or deodar wood) into each other in geometrical patterns. All this is done entirely with hands without use of nails. The wood is processed, cut into buttons and panels and fixed in the ceiling in various floral and geometrical designs.

Indeed a painstaking work, which once used to take months to finish a 10 feet by 10 feet ceiling. The uniqueness of this art is that when the ceiling is complete, it acquires a unique geometrical pattern. With fewer or no nails used at all, the Khatamband ceiling can easily be dissembled and re-assembled at another place.

There is another theory about the origin of Khatamband in Kashmir. It is believed that Khatamband was brought to Kashmir during the 14th century by famous saint Shah-i-Hamdaan who visited the Himalayan valley along with many followers that also included Khatamband artists from Iran. These artisans passed on this art to local Kashmiris

According to an architect Bilal Sheikh, Khatamband got popular in Kashmir because of its beauty and quality of insulation. "The Khatamband is entirely made of wood and it preserves warm internal temperatures during the bitter winters of Kashmir" says Sheikh.

The art had simply died down during the mid nineties as most of its consumers couldn't afford the luxury of Khatamband. Its traditional customers had been the houseboat manufacturers, but that was long time back, as no new houseboat has been constructed for the last more than one decade.

When the going got tougher the traditional Khatamband family opened the art gradually to their students, which proved a boon for its survival. "It came at the right time" says Sheikh. "First rates came down drastically due to abundance of labour and secondly the living standard had reached a new height, so every other person used this art in his house".

As Jalal Din 62, a Khatamband artist says "we don't have time for even a holiday, everyday new orders are pouring on from middle class as well as elites".

Now-a-days Khatamband has become a sort of status symbol in Kashmiri society, plus its insulation from cold adds to its value. Whatever the reason the renewed demand has saved an old tradition from extinction.

Earlier Khatamband used to be domain of shrines, palaces, houseboats and royal houses, but now every other person wants it for their house. There are more than 160 designs for the Khatamband in Kashmir, but today's artists can only reproduce about 100. Artists have however greatly compensated the lost designs with newer ones, where they experiment with mirror, colour combination and other things and there is no limit to their creativeness.

The use of electric motors and electric saw has also reduced the time consumption, besides providing a compact flawless geometrical shapes.

The names of designs are derived from various cities of Iran and central Asia. The Khatamband ceilings cost about 120 INR per square foot. The art is also being exported. There are many Kashmiri artisans, who work for about three months outside in different states of India, fitting various houses, hotels and other malls with their creative genius.

For most of the tourists visiting Kashmir it has been love at first sight. According to Sheikh "Lacs of tourists visit Kashmir annually and most of them fall in love with these ceilings. whoever sees the ceiling wants it for his house what ever may be the price".

"Kashmiri expatriates too want the Khatamband in their residences, as an emotional attachment to them". Sheikh adds

The Khatamband saga doesn't end here. Now this geometrical ceiling is even traveling to far off places like Australia, USA and other European countries. "We usually get orders from foreigners" says Majid Tramboo.

"They visit our workshops select the design and we later send them the shipment of this ceiling as boards, along with the manuals of assembling". Majid adds

With each passing day the demand is increasing, as word of mouth advertisement is spreading both inside India and outside. Although the share of Khatamband is much less in the 1000 crore wood industry of valley, but it is fast catching up with other sectors.

One thing however haunts the people associated with Khatamband art; what happens if someone from outside the state patents it and mass produces the same.

"That situation will simply destroy the life of ten thousand odd craftsman associated with the work" opines Shakeel Qalander, one of the leading industrialist of Kashmir who heads the Ess Que group of industries, which also deals with the Khatamband.

"There is an urgent need to patent the art of Khatamband as if anyone else patents it in this era of globalisation and free economy, we will be simply ruined". Qalander says.

Qalander had been lobbying with the government to take the urgent step, so that the state will be able to reap its huge potential for next generations to come.

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