Willow Wicker Craft , locally referred to as Keani Keam, is a hand skilled craft from kashmir involving weaving using willow reeds.
Basket-weaving is one of the world’s oldest crafts, and is also widely practiced here. Willow wood is most commonly used, and one of the most distinctive products of this craft is kangri, a wicker basket used to carry clay pots filled with smouldering coal that local people hold under their flowing pherans to keep warm during the freezing winter.
Willow weaving is an indigenous business industry of the valley. While products from other crafts are mostly used for decorative purposes, the peculiarity of this craft lies in the fact that a willow product serves both as a decor and a household utility item to store and carry edible things during special occasions such as Eid or a wedding ceremony.
By virtue of geographical advantages, Ganderbal District in Kashmir province provides the best soil and climatic conditions for the cultivation and production of willow wicker crop.
The willow plant is cultivated from saplings. Once a sapling sprouts, it is severed and sown into the land to harvest its shoots every year. The sapling continues to produce an annual harvest until it is uprooted. Usually the saplings are sown during the month of February and March. A normal willow plant grows up 2-3 metres in its height and the crop is harvested in the month of October.
Once the crop is harvested, the withy is grouped into bundles according to length and girth. The industrial processing starts from here and the crop is sold to a contractor who in turn assigns it to various artisans with the description of products that artisan has to make out of it.
As soon as artisan is allotted raw material, the primary work is to soften the withy. This is done by boiling of raw crop of willow. Large water boilers powered by hearth of combustible wood are used for boiling. The bundles are stacked into a boiler and kept under weight by huge boulders. This process of boiling is an overnight affair.
After efficient boiling, the bundles are removed from boilers and are sent down for next stage. The boiling is followed by peeling off the bark. The removal of the bark is a delicate process and is completed by using a special arrangement of sticks locally known as zealan.
The bark serves as an excellent fuel. As soon as the bark is removed, the withy is put under direct sunlight for the purpose of drying. The process lasts for several days so as the withy is completely devoid of moisture. The dried withy is again grouped into bundles according to length and girth.
The withy is now ready for craft artisans. The artisans use them according to requirement and size of the product. Some are used in their original form while others are cut and made smooth. All products are set and mounted over a base. The base determines the size and shape of product. Some products are woven with coloured reeds . The crafts made by artisans change many hands during the process of production.
The willow may be dyed blue, red or green and various geometric patterns are created by multi-directional weaves in the upper half of the kangri. These are further embellished with shiny coloured foil, mirrors and metal pieces. Shaksaz is the local term for the basket-maker. The kangri of Shaksaz Mohalla in Charar-e-Sharif are used on ritual occasions observed by the Kashmiri pundit community, especially during the Shushur Sankrant. Shushur means frost and on this day the new bride of each family is gifted an ornamental kangri containing some money. There is also a practice among Hindu families to give their priests a kangri to pay homage to their ancestors.
The craft of willow wicker is not native to Kashmir but can be traced back to certain parts of central Europe. The art was introduced to the natives of the Kashmir valley during the early 19th century. Folk tales narrate that 12 kg of seeds and some fine artisans were imported to the valley of Kashmir from European countries by Maharaja Hari Singh during his reign. Since then, the art has become a part of one of the booming handicraft industry. Before that, willow work in Kashmir used to be rough made of wild willow varieties.
In order to gain market at a large scale, artisans of willow wicker in Jammu and Kashmir have brought some new and innovative changes to the old designs.