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Meet the couple trying to revive handmade Basohli pashmina

Besides supporting the traditional craft, their foundation provides women in this small Jammu town an additional source of income

A goatherd combs pashmina wool in Kharnak, Ladakh. (Getty Images)

"Making handmade, pure pashmina isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come cheap. Handmade pashmina is a luxury because so much effort goes into it. It’s not a five-minute job that will be done by a machine. There are 10-13 steps involved in making a shawl,” says Rajni Sharma, who, along with her husband Venkatakrishna Kunduru, runs the foundation Discovering Roots, which makes handmade Basohli pashmina.

The couple first visited Basohli, a small town on the banks of the Ravi in Jammu’s Kathua region, in 2013 at the invitation of the NGO Vishwasthali, which works to revive and promote Basohli miniature painting and pashmina. Sharma, who runs a photography and theatrical backdrops and accessories business, says they visited some homes where people showed them shawls made by their dadis and nanis (grandmothers), some 50-60 years old.

“Handmade pashmina ages beautifully, it develops a lustre. We wanted to revive this traditional craft,” says Kunduru. A Supreme Court advocate, he says that till the 1970s-80s, most homes used to have a spinning wheel. The women would clean the pashmina, make the yarn and get it woven for their daughters and family. Traditionally, Basohli handmade pashmina was thicker than the Kashmir one.

But the market, says Sharma, has been flooded with machine-made and fake pashmina. Their aim, she says, was to support the craft, offering original pashmina to people who would understand its value and cherish it, and giving women an additional source of income. “You don’t find real pashmina in the market—very few players sell real pashmina,” she adds.

The couple call their product Khadi pashmina—handspun, woven on a handloom. Kunduru says today even machine yarn woven on a powerloom is called Khadi. They claim they are the only ones in Basohli making authentic pashmina employing the traditional method, where everything from cleaning, carding, starching (the fabric) to spinning and weaving is done manually. Raw pashmina is sourced from a cooperative in Ladakh and no chemicals are used.

A Discovering Roots handmade pashmina shawl with ‘sainchi’ motifs and satin ‘dorukha’ stitch.
A Discovering Roots handmade pashmina shawl with ‘sainchi’ motifs and satin ‘dorukha’ stitch. (Courtesy Discovering Roots)

Their foundation in Basohli, set up in 2013, employs 12 women and two weavers. In addition, they have 100-110 women from the surrounding villages on their roster. Known as “contributors”, they are paid per gram of pashmina worked on. Except for weaving, all the jobs are done by women.

Kunduru says there’s no industry or economy in Basohli, not even a hotel, just two dhabas. Most women who work for them do so to supplement their household income; depending on the work, the permanent women employees earn 4,000-12,000 a month. “Our khaddi (loom) is supported by the women. It has given them economic empowerment, even if it is a small amount. I have seen them changing, in their personality, behaviour, attitude. They feel that they can do so much,” says Sharma.

Take, for instance, Jyoti Devi, who has been working at Discovering Roots for five years. Her husband is a daily wager and they have four children, aged 16-23. Earlier, she says, she used to be afraid to even step out of the house, but now she has faith that she can handle anything: “Hum bhi kuch kar saktay hai.” She says the attitude of people has also changed. “Pehlay tu boltay thay, ab aap kehtay hai (they are more respectful).”

COGS IN THE WHEEL

When they started, procuring carding brushes proved difficult. After much research, they sourced combing rolls from a yarn machine in Pune, converting these into brushes in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. Marketing hasn’t been easy, says Kunduru. “People can’t think beyond Kashmir when it comes to pashmina.” Given the time-consuming process involved, they make only 18-20 pieces a month.

Discovering Roots handmade pashmina shawls and stoles come in the natural colours of grey, camel and white. They have now introduced some organic colours.
Discovering Roots handmade pashmina shawls and stoles come in the natural colours of grey, camel and white. They have now introduced some organic colours. (Courtesy Discovering Roots)

Discovering Roots does not sell online—the couple says the product has to be seen and felt. They retail from stores like Neel Sutra (Gurugram, Haryana), Artisans’ (Mumbai) and Paper Boat Collective (Goa). A plain shawl costs 25,000-40,000.

Kunduru says they have tried to experiment with design within the traditional ambit. They were clear about one thing though. “We wanted to keep it away from the Kashmir trend—in the feel, in the look,” says Sharma. To hero the pashmina, finer than what Basohli used to produce, they have introduced dainty embroidery, like the Chamba stitch and motifs and sainchi stitch. Vintage sari borders are upcycled to accentuate the shawls. Their shawls, stoles and mufflers come in the natural colours of grey, camel and white, or an interplay of the three. A couple of years ago they introduced organic colours derived from tesu flower, madder, walnut and turmeric.

PANDEMIC AND THE FUTURE

The couple says they want the foundation to be self-sustaining. Business virtually came to a halt during the pandemic but they haven’t stopped work. “We have to pay the women and weavers. They are our social responsibility. If we stop making, the show will stop,” says Sharma.

The next generation, they say, does not see a future in the craft. “The world is moving towards commercialisation so fast, even the ethics and sensitivities of people. How can you expect them not to be commercial? Everybody wants to work on computers, on TV, make fast money. The weavers are not putting their kids into this profession. We have been telling them to get their children so that we can teach them. But then there is no recognition (in this work),” says Sharma.

She says what the craft needs is connoisseurs, and people who can invest time and money to revive it.

What makes a handmade pashmina so special? Sharma says: “It has a soul. When it passes through so many hands, naturally every hand is different. Every hand is giving it some kind of energy. It speaks for itself.”

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