Ehtisham Qalander is a young master wood craftsman who is working to resurrect and revitalise Kashmir's old tradition of beautiful wood carving. He spoke to Akasha Usmani.
One of Ehtisham Qalander's masterworks.
Akasha Usmani (AU): You have a B.Tech degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, what motivated you to get into woodwork designing?
Ehtisham Qalander (EQ): Primarily, I have always been a lover of heritage and art, in all shapes and forms. IITs have a knack of pushing you into understanding the depths of every aspect of life. Be it reading about the history of Westeros just after watching Game of Thrones or understanding quantum physics, you get bitten by curiosity for life. This curiosity took me to delve deeper into processes involved in producing heritage works of Kashmir. Interacting with craftsmen, devising ways to improve the look of products and more importantly, making the effort commercially viable without exploiting the workforce and their dignity were the major ingredients of what I have been doing. Thankfully, we have created some sites in the last few years that shall become tourist attractions for lovers of art.
AU: What are the challenges that a wood carving craftsman faces in Kashmir?
EQ: Of all the challenges that exist, I strongly believe that the biggest challenge a craftsman faces is condescension from people who think that artisans are impoverished and need alms for support. Buying a handicraft product is treated as charity rather than acknowledging that each product is an asset.
Second, due to lack of centralisation of workforce, it becomes incredibly difficult for individual craftsmen to accept bulk orders due to paucity of capital and inability to accomplish orders on scale in a definite time frame. Apart from that, an uncertainty of flow of work creates a hurdle in sustainable income for them to run their households at times. The idea behind working in this sector was therefore to provide an unending support to these workers by ensuring that they get a continuous flow of work and income to feel secure. A secure workforce is a dignified workforce, and the moment you give these craftsmen dignity, you succeed in creating projects that can overwhelm an art lover with joy.
AU: What is the present situation of the woodwork industry?
EQ: The woodwork industry in Kashmir has faced the brunt of ‘quality vs cost’ paralysis. Constant comparisons of good quality products with the cheaper ones imported or manufactured locally creates a slippery slope for industry to run for scale by emulating bad products. This will eventually end up with the industry losing grip on the art we have inherited and it will jeopardize not just the capable craftsmen but also our inheritance.
The handicrafts of most forms in kashmir were imparted in the society by age old Sufis who came from Central Asia and addressed the issue of unemployment here coupled with constant floods by skilling the hands of people. The same would then be exported through silk roads to Europe and other parts of the world. Even today, the relationship between a senior and a junior craftsman is one of tremendous sanctity.
AU: What has been your marketing strategy? Is your customer base just confined to Kashmir?
EQ: We were initially involved in taking up government projects of turnkey nature but eventually opened up to the local market to test the demand. Then we took up large scale projects of shrines and mosques to recreate the contemporary heritage and give back to those who gave it to us. Some of the projects were undertaken in collaboration with INTACH J&K Chapter as well to rebuild the shrines of Char-i-Shareef and Dastageer Shrine after they got gutted. Apart from that, we have been involved in multiple turnkey projects of residences and hotels in the local sector.
For the market outside Kashmir and India, we focused on social media which has been really a game changer of sorts. It is encouraging to find people and businesses who love our work and remain patient with us. All our furniture and interior line is contemporary European with Kashmir work in walnut wood, the wood being sourced locally.
AU: Can you walk us through the process of developing woodwork designing?
EQ: The process varies depending on the nature of order and the vertical. Broadly speaking, the procedure is:
- Research and development is done on traditional Kashmiri woodwork and handwork techniques to gain inspiration and ideas for implementation into design. This involves visiting museums or galleries that feature Kashmiri work, understanding the functionality and thematic nature of space, discussing with the craftsmen and of course, understanding the vision of the client.
- The next step is sketching out the design on paper/software, considering the proportions, composition, and overall aesthetic of the piece. The type of carving to be incorporated depends on the look, taste and budgeting of the product or site.
- Once the design is finalized, the next stage is to create a job order for the item. The requisite material is sorted and the team is put in loop about the need and urgency of order. Material, mostly being the walnut wood, is sorted and separated for use. Only the seasoned wood is used to ensure that the product does not crack or warp.
- After completion of the piece, the topcoat is applied. The product is then packaged and dispatched.
AU: What Kind of support do you get from the government?
EQ: While some projects are done for the government departments itself, mostly the government has been a bit too busy to focus on the walnut handicraft industry, apparently. Goods and Services Tax slab rate of 18 percent and 12 percent for a product where the Input Tax is almost nil makes it difficult to sell at scale at times. More than 80 percent of the product cost is labor and as such, we lose a lot on competitiveness of price in that regard. The Handicrafts department has done some exhibitions but I feel a focused approach towards walnut woodwork, particularly handmade work, could go a long way. The central government schemes for organized and unorganized workers have bore some fruit for the workers as can be seen on ground but yes, the more the better.
AU: What is your vision for the future of the woodwork industry?
EQ: Honestly speaking, the woodwork industry shall have to pivot in a direction where we are able to use our resources on processed wood as well. Timber in this world is limited and with depleted forests, we shall have to import wood eventually which shall multiply the cost of the product. Additionally, and speaking for Kashmir woodwork industry in particular, we need to explore and hone luxury markets where we are able to sell finer and better products at premium rates. That shall engage our craftsmen for a longer period of time on lesser wood and therefore, optimize our human and forest resources.
Development of clusters can go a long way to create a supply chain where we are able to generate high productivity and store relevant inventory. Cottage workers and splinter workforce shall have to be centralized in such a way that they are able to become vital parts of larger supply chains. The day we crack the possibility of reducing timeframe in handmade products, we will be unstoppable. With a permanent and splintered workforce of around 100 people, it feels overwhelmingly great to see that our business is providing dignity and employment to so many people, and at the same time, serving the art that we inherited. That said, we can always do more and we need to.
Workshops shall have to be created and people who are unemployed need to be imparted with this amazing knowledge, and encouraged to learn the trade. That will only happen if they realize what they are settling into has tremendous potential and future. We need to hold their hand towards a future like that.