Copperware craft of Kashmir

Pic: Shakeel/Excelsior

Suhail Bhat
The copperware craft is deep-rooted in Kashmiri culture since ages. Historians believe that this elegant art was introduced by artisans and traders from Iran and Iraq over seven hundred years ago. An Islamic scholar from Persia, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamdani, was instrumental in making copperware popular among the natives and he brought craftsmen from central Asia to train locals.
However, the copperware craft flourished during the reign of King Budshah Zain-ul- Abideen. In the Mughal era, metalwork in Kashmir became focused on making gun barrels and swords. Techniques of casting and forging Iron along with enameling or Meenakari as it is commonly known were used for decorating the handles of swords. By the end of the 19th century with the decline of the Mughal era, the skills of Kashmiri metalworkers got oriented again towards making vessels, now ornamented with Meenakari. This was applied on silver jewelry, brass, and copperware like serving pots, jugs, trays.
The elegantly designed copper utensils are not only used for cooking and serving food at homes but also at largely attended weddings and other functions. The commonly used products are Taesh Naer (a potable handwash), Tream (a round copper plate used during feats), and Samovar ( a wide cylindrical urn with a chimney, in which charcoal is burnt, to prepare tea in the cylinder around it).
The markets in Downtown Srinagar are flooded with beautiful household utility and décor. Since the 19th century, Shehr-e-Khaas has been a centre for copperware, with the old markets of Zaina Kadal still carrying this wonderful craftsmanship. Even today, large, gorgeous copper samovars, cups, glasses, tasht naaris, traamis, jugs, bowls, trays, and degh (round bottomed cooling pot) decorate the shops of downtown. The copper pottery is left in its natural coppery tone for ornamental purposes. Utensils for everyday use, on the other hand, are polished with a thin layer of gleaming Tin (Kalai Karyen).
The most popular copperware in Kashmir and around the world, the Kashmiri Samovar, is based on the Russian Tea Kettle, which was brought to Kashmir via Iran. The Kashmiri artists used intricate floral motifs, calligraphy, geometric patterns, and gorgeous Chinar leaves to give it a grand look. The hammer and chisel engraved work is known as Naqashi, and it is one of the two pricing determinants of the copper piece, the other being its weight.
Shahi Copper Samovars, which serve hot cups of kehwa and nun chai, are still the major attraction at special gatherings and wedding feasts.
The Izband soz, another copper artifact found in every home, is said to ward off bad eyes and spirits. The izband seeds (harmala, wild rue) are burned on hot coals and the smoky fragrance is disseminated throughout the entire place. When a Kashmiri bride leaves her parents’ home for her new one, she is accompanied by the Izband soz to fend off any bad glances. Izband soz is only used for one thing, Izband Zalun.
Tash-t-Naris (tashh naer) and traamis are wedding feast staples that no Kashmiri wedding is complete without. Tast-t-Naari is a pair of water serving and holding vessels that are moved around the wedding banquet hall to allow guests to wash their hands before and after meals. Traami, on the other hand, is a large round eating dish that four people can sit around and eat from during a feast. The conical dish that is set on the trami before eating begins is known as sarposh. All of the guests in the wedding banquet tent or hall eat at the same time in Kashmir wedding feasts, which is a wonderful tradition.
This copperware has stood the test of time and several new products including elegant cooking pots, trays and other articles, as well as decorative pieces such as vase, vessel or lamp shade has been added from time to time. Artisans and other craftsmen have multiplied as a result; particularly the ‘naqashgars’ (engravers) and workers from Bihar, UP, and other states are now employed to meet the demand.
The process of making copper or brassware is painstaking and goes through many artisans which are specialized in a particular technique. For example, an artisan called Barak Saaz makes circular hard items like handles, stands, top borders for Samavors, and Tash naers out of melted copper in the first stage. The next artisan, Chargar, gives the raw material final touches to make it smooth. Then, the finished product is sent to Naqashqar, who engraves the traditional design on the finished metal. In the final stage Kalaisaaz, a polisher polishes the engraved utensil.
The experts said that this craft is unique given its history, and every effort should be taken to protect this age-old tradition of Kashmir. They explained that this craftsmanship is embedded in Kashmiri culture and almost every household has copperware items that show how important this craft is and how people are fond of these items. They urged for a makeover of this craft for the interests of people associated with this trade.
A copperware craftsman from Downtown Srinagar, Tariq Ahmad Kawa, aged 38, told Excelsior that his ancestors learned this craft during the Mughal era and kept this tradition alive. “We have been running this business for centuries. The learning of this craft requires patience and natural skills. It is very intricate work and needs hard labor and time,” he said.
He added that machines have also overtaken this business that is desisting the new generation from learning this craft. “An act was passed in erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir back in 2006 that forbids making copper items by machines. This act was meant to save the age-old tradition of copperware craft in Kashmir. But this act was never implemented,” he added.
Another copperware craftsman from Srinagar said that when it comes to Kashmiri traditional weddings, copperware is a must-have. “But, like all other Kashmiri arts and crafts, it is succumbing to modern buffets and chinaware. We hope that it will continue to attract admirers at all times and in all eras,” he said.
Jammu and Kashmir prohibition on the manufacture of specific copper utensils (by Machines) Act 2006 was passed for safeguarding the interests of craftsmen associated with the copper trade. In the initial year, machine-made goods were also confiscated from time to time. In addition, local entrepreneurs were encouraged to set up their industrial units at HMT Naribal on the outskirts of the city.
These initiates, however, had little effect on the copper workers as they were poorly implemented on the ground. This has threatened the livelihood of around 28,000 copper workers who are engaged in around 6000 registered units in the valley.