Rashme SehgalRashme Sehgal

 

 

The shops along Residency road in the heart of Srinagar are overflowing with merchandise. Rare cashmere shawls, woollen salwar kameez embroidered with fine chain stitch, huge jars full of almonds and walnut, carved walnut furniture, papier mache boxes, copper trays and silver jewellery are all being sold cheek-to-jowl along this bustling street. Crowds of tourists throng these shops haggling vociferously. When both sides arrive at an agreeable price, the tourists hurry out carrying large plastic bags.
A less elitist but equally thriving street side bazaar is to be found along the Bund road at a sharp elevation from Residency road. Here, under the shades of the fiery chinar trees with their yellow and red leaves, impromptu shopkeepers are selling woollen sweaters and winter coats. The row of concrete shops and hotels that have sprung up along the Boulevard on the Dal lake are overflowing with chain-stitched rugs and carpets, wooden screens and painted lamps.
Businessman and chairman of Srinagar’s Delhi Public School is relaxing in his spacious three-storied house built on Gupkar road, an exclusive enclave for chief ministers and senior bureaucrats. Vijay Dhar, belonging to one of the oldest Kashmiri Pandit families in the valley, has his own take on the noise and bustle that has transformed the streets of Srinagar.
`Through a strange twist of irony, terrorism has forced the Kashmiri to become an entrepreneur. Earlier, merchants would come up from the plains and carry back truck loads of Kashmiri goods. When they stopped coming, the Kashmiri had no choice but to fend for himself,’ explains Dhar.
The balding Dhar is seated under a stunning photograph of a young looking Indira Gandhi sitting with her legs stretched out straight in front of her. Even then her face has her hallmark enigmatic look. MF Hussain’s charcoal sketch of Vijay’s father dominates the room. His beautiful wife, Kiran plies us with cakes, pastries, different types of baked bread including the slightly sweet bakirkhani and the sesame-sprinkled tsachvaru and cream buns.
Continuing in the same vein, Dhar ruminates, `Today, every Kashmiri owns an outlet in Delhi and Mumbai. The more prosperous ones have outlets in London and New York. At one time, Kashmir goods were considered unfashionable and would be found selling in junk shops across Europe. Today, our pashmina shawls and silken carpets have acquired iconic status and adorn the homes of the Laxmi Mittals and Posh.’

Dhar’s family, like that of thousands of Kashmiri Pandit families, moved out of the valley in the early 90s when terrorism reared its ugly head. But there were many Hindu families which refused to leave. Jagdish and Anita Mehta, owners of the famous Mahatta studio built painstakingly by his famous photographer father RC Mehta dug their heels in and were witness to the eight difficult years that brought the valley to the brink .
Each of these families has had to grapple with their own difficult situations. Anita remembers the bright autumn morning when her gardener informed her that an armed militant had climbed up the apple tree in her backyard. Jagdish had gone to Delhi on work. The Mehtas live in a large, sprawling house in Raj Bagh with its creaking wooden floors and carved walnut wood ceilings. Anita marched up to him and insisted he come down.
`He refused to do so. I kept insisting but he would not budge. He seemed quiet young and tired looking. I returned to the kitchen to make some tea for him. When I went back, tea in hand, the mali informed me he had left saying he could not deal with a family where the women folk were sent to face the bullets,’ Anita recalled.
`Those were difficult years but now that tourism has picked up, we seem to be returning to our old days,’ she adds. Keeping the tourist influx in mind, she has converted her home into a guest house.
Omar Abdullah lives right at the start of Gupkar Street while his father, Farooq Abdullah the former chief minister of J&K, lives in the adjacent house. Shiekh Abdullah’s grandfather converted to Islam in the 19th century but Omar believes their family has played a key role in keeping Kashmir’s pluralistic traditions alive. `I helped re-open a Hindu temple in my constituency Ganderbal and my father was doing the same across the state. It would be foolhardy to suggest that Kashmiriyat has not been under a lot of threat in the last two decades. We have had to pay a heavy price but I believe the average Kashmiri is committed to this concept.’
Omar works out of an annexe located right in front of his house. A large painting of Shiekh Abdullah adorns the mantel piece. His office is besieged by plaintants demanding his intervention to help him get a job, a house and free medical treatment….An old woman insists he help her grandson be given a computer education. Managing to get a word in Omar explains how `We have no purdah system in our villages. In our cities, our young girls have refused to wear the burkah (veil). Some of them were shot in the legs (by militants) for wearing jeans but they refused to give in.’
A general air of prosperity stretches across a vast swathe of families dealing with tourism and the crafts. Afzal Abdullah, the scion of the Dhanjiboy family, who made their way from Iran in the 16th century bringing with them weavers, artists and artisans, feels that Kashmir has always been at the cross roads of civilization, Kashmiris have followed four religions at different historical periods. Initially they were first Hindus who during the reign of Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism. The decline of Buddhism saw them revert to Hinduism. During the 14th and 15th centuries, when large numbers of preachers came from Iran, they converted to Islam.
Abdullah says, ` Religious tolerance forms an integral part of our nature because we converted to a Sufi Islam. Conversion in the valley did not take place through force. This syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture forms the basis of Kasmiriyat because we have combined mystical Hindu Vedantism with Islamic Sufism.’
Abdullah is amongst the thousands of Muslim families who also migrated from the valley in the early 90s. ` I returned here in 1966 because I wanted my children to think and grow up speaking Kashmiri,’ he explains.
He works out of a three-storey shop on the Bund. The work on display is largely carved wooden items and papier mache goods. Old be-spectacled family retainers move quietly around the shop cleaning all the goods. Abdullah is not happy about the new trend of
mass productions of Kashmiri goods.
`The genuine craftsman with his traditional skills is being sidelined by this factory production of goods. In 1916, no more than 150 people were involved in making papier mache, today, 1500 families are involved in this trade,’ says Abdullah
He is determined to carve an exclusive niche for himself by producing a limited edition of the products that he sells. My goods cost more but they are of superior quality,’ he says.
His own home in the Boulevard is beautifully decorated with rare nineteenth century paintings and papier mache bowls. Antique Afghani and Persian rugs decorate the floors.
His wife, Saira offers cakes, fruit and several varieties of leavened bread. Wherever one goes, there is the aroma of freshly baked bread and cakes. Kashmiris adore good food and today, more than 115 types of bread are being sold in the valley.
One of their favourite stories l relates to Mughal Emperor Akbar’s arrival in the valley in 1589 . The local populace decided that the best way to make him forget his arduous dust-laden journey from Agra was to offer him some local delicacies. Their best bakers got together and placed 41 different types of bread before his majesty.
The Emperor was as much enchanted by the variety of the cuisine as he was by the natural beauty of the valley surrounded by verdant hills, lakes and waterways. The valley at a height of 5000 feet is surrounded by the Pir Pinjal mountains on one side and the lofty Himalayan mountains on another. One of Akbar’s first acts was to grow six chinar trees which have now come to be synonymous with the valley.
The aging Agha Ashaf Ali is one of Kashmir’s most secular faces. A teacher by profession, Ali was responsible for the spread of education through J&K. ‘Four thousand years of pluralistic tolerance have gone down the drain with all this senseless violence in the last fifteen years. I recall with a great sense of pride about how we were the only state which did not communal violence in 1947. Not a single Hindu woman was touched here,’ he says.
Ali lives in Raj Bagh. He spends his time reading and tending to his garden comprising rare trees and flowers collected from around the globe. ` Though I am a Sunni, we worship saints, visit shrines and even our recitation of the Quran has been influenced by the way out Kashmiri Pandit brothers recite their hymns. The intonations are very similar,’ he says.
It is difficult to give up these cultural roots. Those who moved away were sppm filled with a burning desire to return home. Dhar recalls how during the bleak days of 93, when militancy was at its peak, he was leading his mother into the operation theatre in Delhi. Suddenly she turned to me and asked “Are we never going back home?’
‘I promised her we would make the trip home as soon as she got better. It was the most sensible decision of my life. Kashmir has always been one big family and during the two weeks we spent here, we did not have a single meal in our own house. Even under those difficult circumstances, the spirit of Kashmiryat remained alive,’ he concludes.

A trip to the old part of Srinagar takes us past the Jama Masjid and the old house of Syed Iftikhar Hussain Jalali. Jalali’s 200 year old house built by his ancestors resembles a museum. The Kashmiri Shia’s penchant for gilded over-plush window decorations and pinjar work is very much in evidence here. The small windows built to the north east of the house open onto an ancient temple built along the Jhelum river. The sloping tin roofs and spires of the ziarats and the brick and mud riverfront houses remain warm in winter and cool in summer.
Jalali, a former managing director of J&K Tourism Development Corporation, is delighted to show us around his house. ‘ Is the spirit of Kashmiriyat alive in the old city?’ I ask.
`When did it go away,’ is his understated reply.
He takes us for a walk through the overflowing markets facing the Jama Masjid. All kinds of copper goods and carpets are on display. How does Kashmiri copper manage to remain pinkish in colour? `It is boiled in apricot juice and salt water.’
We walk into a small karkhana where some artists are painting flowers on papier mache boxes. It is painstaking work but once it is complete, the boxes come ‘alive as it were.
`This whole consignment once it is ready will be shipped to London. Our craft exports are running into thousands of crores each year,’ Jalali explains.
Kashmiris believe that a beautiful region like theirs will always be smitten by the evil eye. Every Paradise must face its curse is one of their favourite expressions. They seem to be emerging from that difficult spell and the thousands of tourists who now throng the valley in summer and winter are helping them emerge from that turbulent phase.

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