They are as elegant looking as their name promises. The Pashmina, a term that evokes images of people clad in light wool dyed in tasteful colours, is a sight for the sore eyes. The meticulous embroidery that goes into ornamenting these shawls is absolutely breathtaking.
Traditional weavers keep this art alive but, left to themselves, they cannot sell their ware at sustainable prices from their homes in Jaipur and Kashmir. They need the support of able and committed middlemen, who can take their work even to international markets. One such agent is Babar Afzal, a former McKinsey analyst.
Afzal left his high paying job in Silicon Valley and moved to Kashmir only to save the dying industry, and became a shepherd. He says, “It’s been almost six years now, and I have never once regretted my decision. I have been travelling and living with the nomads, shepherds, weavers, craftsmen and their families, and became one of them without realising that I have spent these many years with them.”
He trades in the best and most exclusive. A good quality Pashmina starts at Rs 150,000 but the work that is the rarest and the one that is sold by this shepherd starts at Rs 1 million and goes up to Rs15 million. These are pieces, which take years to make with days set aside for intricate needlework and the hard work of many thousands of men, is known as sozni. Some pieces are so rare that they get treated as works of art, with no other like it. Some, classified as antiques, are passed on from one generation to another over centuries.
The best place for Afzal to sell the shawls is the Global Luxury Pashmina Dialogue. It is here that he sold a shawl for Rs 15 million a year before. “The raw material used for making sozni is called taar, in the local language. This is basically the hair of the goat and is exquisitely soft,” adds Afzal.
Another person who excels in this business is Farah Khan, an Army wife who specialises in Kashmiri hand-embroidered shawls and Kantha hand-embroidered products of West Bengal. Khan can be spotted at exhibitions held in Jaipur, where she often sells her shawls for a good price, though they are not as high as Afzal’s. Her range starts at Rs 400,000. Khan opened her first retail boutique in Fort William, Kolkata, in April, 2008.
All her products are made by women artisans from rural villages in India. Khan says, “My work helps me keep this beautiful, traditional art alive and thriving. It also brings work for these artisans, directly to their doorstep.” About 600 women are working for her in rural Bengal.
Well, this is not it. She also has franchisee stores in Tokyo, Japan, and Warsaw, Poland. What makes the work of these weavers stand out in the global market? “The needlework,” she says. “It is done painfully slowly and intricately. There are three kinds: sozni, jamawar and kani. It can take a weaver up to seven years to make one kani shawl.”
That many years of dedication definitely deserves the best price. To keep a piece of such heritage in your closet, all you need to do is head to the nearest luxury exhibition.