Think of Kashmir and the mind, from its deepest recesses, instantly draws up pictures of rumbling valleys nourished by agile streams, traversed by rosy-cheeked dwellers garbed in vibrant Pashmina shawls. Kashmir’s textiles are, indeed, an inseparable part of the lives of its inhabitants.
One such weave is Kani, whose level of finesse and intricacy is unmatched, to say the least.
The weave is said to have originated in Kanihama village of Jammu and Kashmir, and its exquisiteness earned it the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2008. With the word ‘kani’ literally translating to ‘bobbins’ in Kashmiri, the weave involves an extensive use of wooden bobbins on which varicoloured threads are wound.
Legend has it that the art of weaving Kani shawls was first brought to Kashmir in the 15th century by Persian and Turkish weavers, who introduced this enigmatic art to Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin, the eighth sultan of Kashmir. Since then, the art form flourished multifold, capturing the hearts of many across the world.
One of the most defining characteristics of the Kani weave—which is colloquially known as ‘kaniwar’—is its impeccably patterned motifs. These motifs, which usually draw on the natural world—illustrating flowers, gardens, creepers, paisleys, etc.—are brought to life through a technique called twill tapestry featuring double interlocking, wherein both the warp and weft yarns are mounted diagonally on to each other on the loom. Traditionally, Kanis are crafted from the pashmina wool of the local changthangi goat. At the time of weaving, the loom is packed with bobbins (kanis), through which the craftsmen carry out the fashioning of the weave; a total of nearly a thousand bobbins or more can be used for a single weave.
Each colour is woven in individually, with the help of bobbins wound with threads of that particular colour. The designs are first drafted in the form of sketches, in a grid-like format called ‘naksh’, after which each step from the draft is dictated to the weaver. An elaborately woven Kani shawl can take anywhere from 9 months to a year to be made, with two artisans working on it. A relatively more elaborate shawl, on the other hand, can even take a few years to be crafted. Although Kanis are mostly spoken about in the context of shawls, the weave is also used to craft turbans, waistbands and coats. It is marvellous how something so arithmetical in its making is transformed into a canvas of incessant artistry—something that is seemingly so far from math.
While in earlier times, most weavers of Kani shawls were men, today, there has been a paradigm shift in its socio-cultural (and demographical) dynamics—not only have more and more women weavers started entering the fold but the art form also sees itself interspersed in regions other than Kanihama. For instance, Narayan Bagh, in Kashmir’s Ganderwal district, is home to a weaving centre that trains women to weave breathtakingly fine Kani products.
The splendour of the Kani weave earns it a place in the world’s top-class institutions such as London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Department of Islamic art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, among others.
A heritage weave and a heirloom treasure, passed on through generations, Kanis have marked themselves as one of India’s most invaluable cultural entities.