Studies from an eastern home
The Kashmir shawl
THE glory has departed from Srinagar, for it is now some eighteen centuries since the city, under a Buddhist sovereign, was capital of the greater part of India. But if the ancient glory has vanished, a new and greater has come in its stead. The quaint old town is to-day the centre of some of the chief art industries of the world, and among other things, it is the home of the Kashmir Shawl. The Tartars brought the art of shawl-weaving into the country about four or five centuries ago; then it came under the stimulating influence of Indian taste, and developed rapidly from a domestic handicraft into a fine art. To this day the goats' wool which it requires is brought from Yarkand to Srinagar, and only the young fleece of the first year is considered fine enough for use.
Three brains combine to produce this work of art. First comes the designer, who receives a couple of shillings for his trouble; next the copier, who prepares the pattern for use in the workshop, and last of all the weaver. Of these, the second is regarded as most skilled and receives five times
the remuneration bestowed on the original artist. To us this seems a pity. That a genius should be regarded as a mere workman, lost in the crowd of mediocrity, is shocking to us. Besides, we lose thereby all that charm of personality that clings to a toy-book by Hokusai, for instance, or a bit of modelling by the Della Robbias. But there is much to be said on behalf of a certain custom that withdraws all the degrading if stimulating influence of Fame, and leaves to the worker only that highest compelling power of the artistic conscience. Such conditions pass all too quickly. They belong to the great age of Faith all over the earth, and with their decay comes loss of purity and tension to all save the noblest souls. Besides, as a matter of skill the gradation is not so absurd after all, for the taste is not mere transference of line and tint, but the translation of those into musical score.
The weaver actually possesses no copy of the design except in this notation. The manuscript of a melody lies in front of him, and from this he weaves the pattern that we see. A Kashmiri loom is really a little orchestra, and each shawl a symphony of colours, the men as they work chanting the stitches in monotonous plain-song. The connection between colour and sound is fundamental in Indian art-fabrics--though the point has never been investigated so far as we know--
and furnishes the key to that power of combining and harmonising in which they are supreme.
It is to these copyists that experts must look for the restoration of the old patterns which cannot at present be repeated. It is by them, too, that the material will be produced which must eventually be brought together to form a national museum. At present there are no records kept of these marvellous decorative schemes, and no collections save those made by dealers in the interest of their trade. Even then, however, there is abundant opportunity for studying the progress of the art, and no chance of escaping its spell.
Comparing the shawls of two hundred years ago with those of to-day, we find in the modern specimens a greater boldness and freedom of outline, with a growing power of colour-combination. From purely geometrical means there is distinct movement towards conventionalising vegetal forms--the monotonous curves (a local variation of the Indian pine-pattern) and circles giving place in great measure to trailing tendrils and spiral ornaments. The Moslem faith forbids any imitation of animal forms: hence we find none of the beautiful birds of Kashmir, the hoopoe, the bulbul, or the blue kingfisher, amongst these flowers. With regard to colour, the development of power has been extraordinary. A few of the old shawls are incomparably fine, but on the whole the
number of shades used in masterpieces was far smaller than those commonly manipulated now. The achievements of William Morris in this line give some idea to the English mind of the kind of text employed. But the cretonnes and tapestries of Merton are coarse and almost clumsy compared with these exquisite stuffs.
Indian taste demands three things of the decorator: fineness of detail, brilliance of effect, and profuseness. This is natural in a climate which produces the beautiful in splendid masses without relief or pause. It is the flower-jewelled villages of Kashmir that are reflected in the national industries, just as it was the luxuriance of the jungle that trained hands and eyes to build the Taj and perforate the marble at Ahmedabad.
It is worth while to remember that the selfsame cause which gives its dazzling beauty to Oriental ornament makes Western art a fine vehicle for the impression of ideas. Our walls are ugly, yet we have fine sculptures, a Raphael, and a Rossetti. We have no gorgeous palaces maybe, but what of our grey cathedrals? The world would be as much poorer for the loss of an old English village church as by the further destruction of the rose-red walls of Delhi; but on the other hand we must not forget that the porcelains of China and the mosaics of Agra are just as essential to the whole as the ruined cloisters of Europe or the regal
architecture of Westminster and Versailles. The great rhythm of Time and Space in which the Indian mind so delights finds once more an illustration here. Not in the Good alone, but also in the Evil, in Death as well as Life, in the West and in the East, in diversity of all kinds, is to be read the revelation of Unity. From all points do the paths converge by which the One comes to the vision of man.
Shawl-making, then, is to-day a living industry in this Central Asian valley of its birth, but we cannot deny that the modern craftsman works under corrupting influences unknown to his forefathers. The last twenty years have opened up the beautiful vale to European intercourse, and the disastrous effects of fashion and semi-education are as apparent here as in the ancient arts of woodcarving and papier-maché. If the Kashmir weaver is to be saved at all from denationalised vulgarity, it can only be by a close and sympathetic study of the old masterpieces, and by the careful enlightenment of Western taste.
The fall of the last French Empire dealt a deathblow to the use of the shawl, from which it will probably never recover; but the recognition of these exquisite garments as tapestries and furniture draperies is inevitable with the advance of knowledge and discrimination amongst us. This is bound to supersede the square outline by the
panel and other forms, and may, it is much to be feared, have many less salutary consequences. Hence it is important that such losses should be balanced by still greater gains of freedom, originality, and bewildering loveliness--and, as all will agree, these must be in the spirit of the old work, to the exclusion of incongruous elements, if they are to signify development and not deterioration.
This fine industry has a primitive air all through. The pedlar is the great agent of dissemination, and in dealing with him the process of bartering needs to be treated as a science. In his own fastnesses, down in the bazaar, the unwary buyer is at a grave disadvantage, for tea is served in dainty old china, and all the honeyed resources of Oriental courtesy are exhausted to make the obligation more complete. So in Cairo, sitting in the shop-sill drinking coffee out of egg cups, it costs the whole afternoon to spend ten shillings.
But if the ramifications of the trade strike us as quaint in their simplicity, what shall we think of those little factories in which the manufacture is carried on?
In a tiny mud-built cottage, baked silver-grey by the sun's heat--one of a number surrounding the irregular farmyard-square that to the Indian mind represents the slum--in an upper room which also contains a bed, we may find three looms, set at right angles to the windows, and
giving space altogether to nine workers. Their monotonous weavers' chant ceases as we enter and fingers fall idle, that we may be free to examine the machines at our pleasure. These long low frames are comparatively small, and stretched across from back to front lie the close tight strands of the warp. Such a work as it is! Long delicate threads of creamy white or glistening grey, or some wonderful shade of green or rose or blue. It is the hair of young goats, in its first downy softness, spun almost to the thinness of spider silk.
Equally fine are more coloured wools--wound on little spindles instead of reels--which the men take up and with incredible swiftness (reading the manuscript before them with their voices and listening to the pattern with their fingers, as it were) pass in and out, over and under, through the background, counting as they work. And so without gleam of shuttles or noise of machinery, line upon line, stitch after stitch, by the patient labour of human fingers grows the web of the Kashmir shawl. Overhead hangs a row of brilliantly-dyed skeins of yarn. It is the gamut of colours in which the design is pitched and deepens the analogy to the symphony in music. Now, as the men yield once more to that abstracting power which all needlework, and specially all darning, possesses, breaking out into a louder strain, we realise afresh that this relationship of sound which
the ear appreciates so easily is identical with that which appeals only to the eye. We are reading our pattern through two senses at once.
Truly this is a craft of olden times. Witness the fact that every one of the processes may be carried on under the same roof. Down yonder in the courtyard, in the shadow of the thick wall, sit three women who, in their statuesque Kashmiri beauty, might be the Greek Fates--in the middle the grandmother, with her spinning-wheel, and beside her two daughters-in-law, pulling and twisting the yet untinted fleece. The quiet dignity of age surrounds the old Moslem woman. The face under the veil and coronet is as of one who has loved and suffered and triumphed like a queen. Ask her her faith, and note the ring in her voice as she answers proudly: "Praise be to God! Thanks to the mercy of the Lord, I am a Mussulman!" "The mercy of the Lord" and the banner that we associate with sword and slaughter!
But the children play on unheeding in the sunshine, the wheel turns merrily, and through the open window above us floats the song of the men at their weaving. It is indeed a note from a far past age, and as we stand, looking and listening, we think we hear those words from an Eastern book, "Man's days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle."
But yesterday, the Tartars entered Srinagar,
to-day the English are here, and to-morrow they will be gone, leaving an old old race to dream once more the sweet dreams of labour and poetry and beauty, till--as they themselves would phrase their hope--the net of Maya shall be broken and they be lost in the ocean of the Beatific Vision.
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.