Arifa Jan: A Kashmiri Namda Story

Every craftperson’s story is unique. Arifa Jan is a young Kashmiri woman whose craft journey took an unusual route as she is not from a craft family practicing the traditional Kashmiri craft she is now helping to revive. Arifa developed a passion for namda felt rug making through an educational program. Her story illustrates one of the approaches, entrepreneurship, that can ensure the survival of ancient craft techniques and skills through innovation, true empathy for the craftsperson and sound ethical business practices.

Unlike other girls her age, Arifa knew early on that she would not follow the conventional path of immediate marriage following the end of her studies. She says “I always wanted to do business. When I was in high school I had made up my mind and so I graduated in commerce.” She dreamed of being a successful entrepreneur. So when the Crafts Development Institute (CDI) opened in Srinagar she saw an opportunity and was one of the few girls to take up the challenge and join, successfully graduating in Craft Management & Entrepreneurship. The diploma project she chose was on the declining tradition of felted namda, as she wanted to work in languishing crafts. “It was my heartiest wish to help the artisans to improve their standard of living” she says.

Namda is a traditional carpet made out of wool and Arifa wanted to explore ways of innovating in this traditional craft and aligning it to the contemporary market. She explored different production techniques and traditional namda designs. Making these felted rugs is a long and laborious process, involving carding the wool, spreading it on a grass mat and compressing it manually. The work is back-breaking. Embroidering on the felt is also no easy task.

During her research Arifa discovered that exports of namdas had dropped an incredible 98% in just a decade due to a decline in quality directly resulting from the poor wages earned by artisans. “The artisans were then mixing cotton with local wool,” she says. “This made the namdas less durable. They also used local dyes, leading to colour bleed.”

Arifa decided to apply her skills and knowledge to try to rectify the situation, restore quality, but also to introduce innovations to increase namda marketability. She used 100-percent merino wool, chose less harmful azo-free dyes that do not bleed and opted for quality thread for the embroidery.
She also revived patterned namdas, a craft almost forgotten in Kashmir, where the designs are cut out of the felt and contrasted felt elements are incorporated into the base layer.

Then it was time to test the market and she was chosen to participate in the Dastkar Nature Bazaar of 2010, in Delhi. “It was a sellout,” she says. “I had taken 60 namdas with me, and I sold them all. The response was so good!”
Exposure at the Dastkar Bazaar also brought Arifa to the attention of influential actors within the craft sector, who recognized her talent and drive and invested further in her, both personally and through another Dastkar affiliated project – the Commitment to Kashmir fund for which Arifa went on to qualify as a grantee.

Essential to her approach was a concern to increase craftsmen’s wages. Without these artisans, she knew the craft would soon die. The first thing she did following her success at Dastkar Nature Bazaar was to double the wages of her artisans. “If we earn, why can’t we share our profits with the artisans?” she asks. “I have seen how hard they work and how little they are paid. They should get paid well. Only then will the craft survive.”

Arifa’s goal now is to set up a women-only cooperative with artisans as shareholders so that everyone benefits from the revival of this dying craft and where the profits will go back to the group. For now she employs 18 workers, including 7 women, and pays them three times the amount they usually get. Her company, Incredible Kashmiri Crafts, has helped craftspersons of a dying art earn a sustainable livelihood.

Arifa’s parents were illiterate and her father fearful of the reaction of their conservative community to a woman running her own business. But Arifa had a dream, one that included the upliftment of others; and her drive, determination, compassion and entrepreneurial spirit today make her an inspiration to other young craftspeople. And she credits her father for having always supported her despite his early misgivings.

Arifa has been selected by the Indian Government for an International Craft Exhibition in Italy, and her work has been much appreciated by customers at the various handicraft events she has attended as well as the Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. She has attended workshops, collaborated with established designers like Priya Ravish Mehra and even visited Kyrgyzstan to learn about Central Asian felt making traditions under the auspices of the Delhi Craft Council.

Today, Arifa feels that mindsets have changed and says “There is still time before I get married. Even the thinking of boys has changed. Now, I can think of becoming someone, before becoming someone’s wife.”