Srinagar/New Delhi: At Jamal Carpet Industries in Srinagar, busloads of tourists enter a palatial showroom filled with rolled bundles waiting to be unfurled.
On the way in, they witness how such intricate patterns are made: weavers sit before looms, read scribbles on brown paper, decode the secret Talim script and tie knots of wool and silk. Some work on one piece for years.
Many showrooms in the city have created such live studios and link with travel agents to generate more business as tourists, mostly domestic budget travellers, return to the state. But now, those in the carpet industry say it is time to promote Kashmiri rugs more aggressively in the American and European markets, and look outward for growth. They are also trying to curb the spread of fake carpets masquerading as Kashmiri and being sold at much cheaper rates.
“We sometimes get 10 buses, but end up selling nothing,” says Mushtaq Najar, sales manager at Jamal Carpet. “Carpets are expensive items. It’s a luxury item.”
The carpet industry sustained the state economy during the 15 long years of militancy in Kashmir. Most of the state’s 2.5 lakh weavers continued to work within the safety of their village homes even during the worst periods of violence.
Still, the market took a hit as its main client base of tourists heeded their embassies’ advice to stay out of Kashmir.
With the US ban on the import of Iranian carpets, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce & Industry president Mubeen Shah said he sees an opportunity to provide an equally luxurious alternative.
“Our carpets are high-end products and they are geared for the export market,” says Shah. “This is the right time to tap this opportunity.”
At least two trade shows are planned this year, one in Trafalgar Square in London and another in New York. A third in Dallas is tentatively scheduled for early March next year. The US consumes 28% of the world’s imports of floor coverings, according to the Carpet Export Promotion Council, an agency under the ministry of textiles.
Last year, India’s carpet export sales hit Rs650 crore, but the potential, many say, could be a much higher portion of the billion-dollar global carpet trade.
Years of turmoil saw scores of carpet traders leave the valley in search of business elsewhere, making it less possible for them to closely monitor quality. Lately, they have been returning.
Trans Asian Industries Exposition, a showroom in Nishat boulevard on the north-east end of Dal Lake, closed business in the early 1990s and started an export enterprise in Delhi.
As conditions improved, it reopened shop in 2005 after 12 years, reviving its old carpet cooperative by providing some 375 looms to weavers in rural areas.
“A lot, however, still needs to be done. During all these years, cheaper carpets made in Jaipur and Mirzapur began copying our designs,” said Ajaz Khan, the carpet design assistant at Trans Asian. He said a cheap, chemically treated cotton yarn is being used in place of silk, which “brings a bad name to Kashmir”.
To support weavers now, the government has created a raw material bank under the state’s small-scale development corporation. To bring innovations in design and weaving techniques, the Indian Institute of Carpet Technology was set up with government support of Rs5.45 crore two years ago.
The institute teaches students to use a software known as Naquash, designed by a Chandigarh-based company. Naquash can translate a carpet design written in the Talim script into colour schemes within minutes.
Recently, the institute designed a new loom, to overcome the disadvantages of the traditional loom by allowing a weaver to sit and weave and make alignments in designs more swiftly.
A proposal is being sent to the textiles ministry to subsidize the new loom, called Novwan and sold for Rs20,000 each, said Zubair Ahmad Mir, the institute’s director.
Carpet quality also fell when the government decided to remove carpets from the certification process in exports, given by the Central Silk Board until 1998. Now, the institute hopes to begin a new certification process.