Willow wicker is used to weave a variety of baskets and trays, sizes and shapes varying depending on the various uses. The large baskets are called 'Kiltu'. It is also used to form an outer casing in the Kangri. This encases a clay bowl with smoldering coal pieces. The Kangri is worn under the long robes during winters for warmth. Picnic baskets and tiffin boxes are also made with woven willow. Contemporary developments have spread to making lampshades, small chairs and tables.
The willow wicker products have an attractive face value and intricate designs which make them a hit not only in local markets but they are also exported to India and foreign countries. In Kashmir, the willow crafts are mainly used in weddings and other occasions of festivity.
The advantage of willow as a material is that it is stronger and less susceptible to insects than bamboo or cane. The Forest and Irrigation departments are under requests for extensive growth of willow owing to the increasing demand. The craft is said to provide employment to over 5000 workers throughout the state.
Willow wicker is locally called Veer Kani. Wicker is the name commonly given to one-year sticks that result from the willow prune. It is generally grown in cool, fertile, irrigated lands, as it requires large quantities of water, though it can withstand cold winter frost.
Design schools and workshops in Srinagar have developed new designs and uses for woven willow wickerwork. They are also introducing the blending of willow with other easily available and commonly produced materials like metal and ceramic. This has helped the craftsmen to cater to the growing contemporary market. The basket industry is of importance, and most villages have their artisan who makes the necessary basket for the kangar, and basket for agricultural purposes, and the kiltus used for the transport of apples and for rough village work. The basket maker is called Shaksaz or Kainyal. In terms of adopting creative ingenuity to a need for physical comfort, the intelligent use of combination of materials and the inventiveness of the design, the kangri is unique.
Myths & Legends
Wickerwork is so much a part of the history of man that it is mentioned in the myths of many primitive societies. The Potawatami Indians believed there was an old lady who lived on the moon and wove baskets. It was said that when the basket would be finished the world would be destroyed. Well thank goodness that never happened. It was all due to a dog (the eclipse) that destroyed the basket before its completion, so that the old lady had to start again!
Story in India goes that 12Kg of seeds and Maharaja Hari Singh imported some fine artisans from European lands during his reign. Before that, willow work in Kashmir used to be rough made of wild willow varieties. Gandharbal district in Kashmir provided the best land and climate conditions for the plant to grow.
Basket weaving has been a part of so many cultures around the world, and is in fact it is the oldest and most widespread of human activities. Today the production of modern wicker furniture is little more than an extension of the basic basket weaving techniques.
The earliest known evidence of wicker production can be traced back to the 400 BC Sumerian civilization. The Sumerians used wicker for shelter, floors, transportation, clothing, furnishings and utensils. The ancient Romans were found to have a design of wicker furniture similar to their predecessors. Sophisticated examples of ancient Egyptian wickerwork are still intact today. The word wicker is believed to be of Scandinavian origin: wika, which means to bend in Swedish, and vikker meaning willow. Wicker is not a material in itself, but rather an overall classification of furniture woven from any one of a variety of materials- cane (rattan), willow, bamboo, reed etc. The oldest surviving pieces of wicker furniture date from the Egyptian Empire. These pieces include chests made of reed and rush, wig boxes of reed and papyrus, and wicker hassocks and chairs.
Basketry is one of the oldest and basic crafts, closely linked with the daily lives of the people. The usages of woven baskets were abundant for settled farmers who needed containers to hold and transport goods. Tribal communities with their intimate relationship with forests were believed to be the first to start making them. In areas of Jammu and Kashmir, which are rich in vegetation, using the local grasses for basketry and matting was the natural result of agriculture and horticulture based economy. The Kangri is considered to be an ingenious method, developed in Kashmir. It was first mentioned in Kalhan's Rajatarangini (Book V, Verse 106). The verse speaks of the rule of King Avanti Varman between A.D 855 and 883 when Suyya, the great engineer, skillfully regulated the course of the Jhelum River. Kashmir was thus saved from devastating floods for many years. Suyya kept the water out by means of circular dykes, which gave these villages the appearance of round bowls called Kundas. It is said that the word Kundal is from 'Sha Kundala' or rings, still used in Kashmir as the designation for round earthenware bowls.
The first technical institute in Srinagar was established in 1914-16. It's first principal, Mr. Andrews, an Englishman, first introduced the English willow in and around the marshes of Bage-Dilawar Khan and the English method of wicker weaving in the institute. The students took up extensive willow wicker basket weaving.
The willow-wicker craft is used to make a wide range of products, for both the local and foreign markets. There are basically two ways in which the weaving is done, depending on the characteristics that a product should possess.
1) In the first kind, the thin split willow wicker plant are woven by interlacing one in the other to make products which are small and don't have to bear much weight, like baskets.
2) In the second kind, the skeleton of the product (basic framework) is made using thicker willow logs after which, the split willow wicker splinters are woven on it. This is practiced for bigger products like furnitures which need more strength as well as bear more weight.
The most famous product of this craft has been the 'kangri'. The baskets and kangris are made out of woven willows, usually the local white ones. The wicker is often dyed in various colours, and various geometrical shapes are produced by the multi-directional weaves. In some designs, small portions are left open to insert coloured foil containing mirrors encircled in coloured metal. The unique properties of this material is that it is a very good food grade material since no fungus attack happens on this and it can with stand good heat and also works like an insulator. Because of these unique properties it is used for Kangri (a traditional product in which coal is burned in a earthen pot and willow wicker fiber is woven around the pot in such a way so that it can be worn inside clothing.) a famous product of Kashmir which protects people from extremely cold climatic conditions.
The willow is retted until the outer skin comes out. The exposed inner skin is used for basketry. The inner skin is cut into strips of about 5 mm width and woven into basket. The upper half of the kangri is designed in multiple coloured strips in varied directional weaves. The basket can be further embellished with shiny coloured foil, mirrors and metal pieces.
The other products of wickerwork include baskets, boxes, lampshades, curtain rings, trays and cycle baskets. Main production clusters of the region are Anantnag, Badgam and Srinagar district.
At a time when the handicrafts sector is witnessing a decline in the state, the craftsmen involved with willow wicker (Kani Wallas) are expressing satisfaction over the returns the trade is fetching them. Earning fairly enough to carry on with their livelihood many wicker workers said that the non-intervention of the machines has been the biggest factor that the craft has survived so far.
Willow wicker art has traditionally been considered low- art because of which it has not gained the popularity it should have like other crafts in the valley. However, its low popularity and non-interference of the machines has been main reasons that the authenticity of this craft has not been compromised till date.
The raw material however, is getting expensive nowadays which is creating a hindrance among the workers initially.