Srinagar, the UNESCO city

M Saleem Beg
Cities have been intrinsic to the growth of human society that has given rise to civilizations. Besides the stages of human social and cultural development, cities have engaged in trade, administration, art, philosophy, scientific speculation and experiment. Thus the march to modernity has been determined by the ingenuity of the cities and their creative genius. The modern world is by and large shaped by the creativity exhibited by the medieval cities. Indian subcontinent has had its fair share of such cities where the large populations gave an audience to poets, dramatists, and musicians, artisans, artists and architects. The emergence of urban societies thus opened up new horizons for humankind. In an ever-changing world all human institutions have undergone stresses and strains and cities have been no different in this regard. This has also resulted in loss of intellectual and creative cohesion that were once their hall mark.
The creative genius of the cities has thus become an area of attention and a long term focus for the global institutions that deal with larger issues of sustainability and growth. While examining the role of the cities as enunciated above, UNESCO, launched a mission in 2004, the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN) that has recognized creativity as a strategic factor of sustainable development in economic, social, cultural and environmental aspects. By joining the Network, cities acknowledge their commitment to sharing best practices, developing partnerships that promote creativity and the cultural industries, strengthening participation in cultural life and integrating culture in urban development plans. The Network further commits to supporting the United Nations frameworks, particularly the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. .
The UNESCO Creative Cities Network covers seven creative fields: Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts, and Music. The UNESCO Creative Cities Network aims to strengthen international cooperation between cities that have recognized creativity as a strategic factor of their sustainable development; develop hubs of creativity and innovation and broaden opportunities for creators and professionals in the cultural sector; fully integrate culture and creativity into local development strategies. The nominations are made every two years after a grueling process of selection at the country level and then by UNESCO. Nomination of Srinagar on the network on their 2021 list is thus recognition of the inherent strength of the city to meet the parameters laid down in the UNESCO network and Agenda 3030.
Srinagar and its history
Historic Srinagar traces its origin to the reign of the Gupta king, Ashoka in around 250 BC at Panderethan, on the outskirts of the city. Thereafter the city developed in and around the river Jhelum and the Hari parbat hillock during the Hindu period. Rajtarangni, the 12th century chronicle written by Kalhana testifies to the grandeur and majesty of the city. However its largest expansion took place during the Muslim period under the Shahmiri and Chak Rulers, a period that marks the high point of Kashmiri culture. A great contribution was made to the cultural and artistic landscape of Kashmir by Budshah, Sultan Zain-ul Abidin(1420-1470 AD). Most historical references maintain that Sultan Zain-ul Abidin invited craftsmen from all parts of the Islamic world especially from Iran and Central Asia. Amongst the various crafts that were introduced in this period is the art of making lacquered pen cases known as kar-i-kalamdan (papier-mache), khatamband, pinjrakari (lattice work), tilla-qari, carpet weaving and paper making. Today these crafts define the intangible heritage of not only Srinagar city, but Kashmir itself. While the crafts were introduced from outside, soon local artisans drawing on the rich natural beauty of the region developed these craft forms beyond their traditional formats, creating new processes, motifs and products. The GI registration of six uniquely Kashmiri crafts including pashmina, kani shawl,papier mache, walnut wood carving, khatamband and hand knotted carpets is a testament to rich creativity of artisans of Srinagar. Various surveys carried out indicate the presence of large number of crafts persons in Srinagar continuing with an inherited tradition that still defines Kashmiri identity.
The Crafts of Kashmir, Historical Context in the recent past:
‘The Kashmiris have won a great reputation as artisans, and were celebrated in the old days for their skill in art manufactures’. In these words Sir Walter Lawrence, a 19th century colonial administer working in Kashmir, introduces us to the amazing ingenuity and creativity of native Kashmiri artisans. And then he goes on to elaborate upon the numerous crafts linked to Kashmir that he witnessed himself- crafts that capture both the creative spirit of Kashmiri craftsmen and the essence of the land. Lawrence nevertheless was not the first European to be attracted by the wide range of Kashmiri craftsmanship. The land and its craftsmanship had already been romanticized as ‘Cashmere’ in the court of French Empress Josephine. Due to the patronage of the Empress, the pashmina shawls of Kashmir with their unique embroidery had emerged as favorite in the couture culture of 19th century Europe Royal Courts.
The process of nomination on the UNESCO creative cities network.
The successful nomination is a recognition that Kashmir crafts are not only economic assets, but more widely contribute to a process of building and rebuilding community identities.
The application for the nomination was prepared by the INTACH Kashmir Chapter with active support of the stake holders including; Srinagar Municipal council, Department of handicrafts, JTFR,PIU, JKI, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, Dronah, and AICA. INTACH Kashmir is a member of All India crafts and Artisans Association(AICA), an organization engaged in promoting fair business practices for crafts. The process entailed preparation of dossier for which a transparent selection process was put in place under the aegis of Jehlum Tawi Flood Recovery Project, a World bank aided project under implementation after the 2014 devastating floods in Srinagar, besides other parts of the State. A consortium of DRONAH and INTACH Kashmir was selected for preparation of dossier that would form the basis of the application.
As part of the preparation process detailed deliberations, extensive survey, workshops etc. were held with craftsmen, merchants, designers, industry associations and other stake holders. A huge literature in the history annals, travelogues, industry folios going back to centuries came in handy that established the credentials for the nomination. The dossier and application was made in 2018 as laid down in the letter of engagement. The application was duly recommended by the Government of India but due to many other factors it did not succeed in making it to the final stage, the UNESCO nomination.
When the applications for next nomination were invited by UNESCO in 2021, INTACH Kashmir decided to again file the claim. The wealth of data and research material generated in 2018 came in handy and Srinagar Municipal Council along with the Department of handicrafts lend its support in taking the process further. The dossier and the application were based on the fact that “Srinagar represents a unique urban setting and natural landscape with their creative representation in the city’s associated crafts. This rich tradition survives today in the form of ten different flourishing crafts, seven of which have received the unique Geographical Indication (GI) recognition by the Government of India. Craft is viewed as an important driver of the city’s economy whereby it is estimated to contribute 6%-8% to the GDP of the Kashmir region,”
The dossier also referred to the troubled years and mentioned that “In the recent past, Srinagar’s rich craft practices were adversely affected by a lack of cross-cultural connections with other areas of the world. The political uncertainty in the region during the 1990s was a major deterrent to the development and transformation of Srinagar’s cultural legacy. These difficulties can be overcome by valorizing the traditional arts and crafts sector to its full potential by developing city infrastructure for handmade products to counter challenges of machine-made products, enhancing city spaces to nurture crafts and arts and providing opportunities to local craftspeople for global exposure,”
The nomination received wide appreciation within and the country. During the current year Srinagar is the only city of India and among 49 cities of the world that has been successful in getting the nomination. The Lt. Governor J&K appreciated the efforts made by INTACH and for its professionalism. The Prime Minister tweeted on the nomination and credited the crafts of Kashmir for this recognition. The nomination places tremendous responsibilities on all stake holders to rise to the occasion and resolutely pursue the commitments taken by virtue of being a part of the onerous global agenda. The National level support from the highest authority of the country shall act as a great assurance given the continuous motivation and commitment shown in pursuing the nomination by all the stake holders.
(The writer is convener INTACH, J&K, formerly Director General Tourism and Member National Monuments Authority, Government of India)