Kashmiri Walnut Wood Carving: Production, Circulation and the State

in Overview
Published on: 15 May 2020

Nikita Kaul

Nikita is currently pursuing PhD from Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. Her ethnographic research studies the networks and social milieu of walnut wood carving. Prior to this, she did her MPhil from Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay.

In the landscape of Kashmir, handicrafts play a very important role for its people, both socially and economically. They are an essential attraction for the tourists visiting Kashmir. Locally, too, these crafts are in great demand. The Kashmiris drape pashmina shawls, spread carpets on the floor and prefer walnut wood-carved furniture for home and office spaces. A popular narrative about the introduction of handicrafts in the state goes like this: Once Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadan from Iran was visiting Kashmir. He was awestruck by its beauty but, at the same time, was disturbed by the abject poverty of its people. To pull them out of poverty and also give them a robust religious grounding, Shah Hamadan is said to have brought 700 artisans from Iran. They scattered across the valley and started spreading their knowledge of crafts, of which walnut wood carving was a part. This article gives a general introduction of the walnut wood carving industry in the state and explains how various groups associated with it come together to facilitate its production and circulation. It also flags issues and dilemmas that the artisans face in the contemporary scenario of market interventions.

Walnut wood carving is traditionally practised in karkhanas (workshop) in Downtown Srinagar. Within the labyrinth of the downtown bylanes are sporadically situated karkhanas. Their presence can be known from a distance. From the periodic hits on the timber erupts the sound tak-tak. As one gets closer, the smell of shaven wood along with the pungent smell of the polish fills the air. A karkhana is headed by an ustad (master) who acquires this position by his knowledge of the craft that he has attained through a rigorous and long process of apprenticeship under his master. He also acquires this position because he owns the means of production. Those who work in a karkhana alongside the ustad are karigars (skilled labourers), who earn wages for their work. A karkhana is either a part of an ustad’s house or is at a walkable distance from it, a property rented/bought by the ustad. The ustad’s authority in a karkhana is manifested in the seating arrangement. The ustad is seated in the centre and the karigars sit on either side to ensure that everybody is in the immediate gaze of the ustad. The craftsmanship of walnut wood carving includes three sub-categories of craftwork: joinery or carpentry, carving and polishing. Hence, a karkhana requires these three skills, and each karigar holds expertise in either of them. Each one of them has undergone a process of apprenticeship to acquire his respective skills.

On any normal day, the work in a karkhana begins at eight in the morning. By 8:15, the karigars come, ceremoniously greet each other and take their designated space. They begin work from where they ended on the previous day. Work in a karkhana is entwined with aspects of leisure, conversations and singing that runs simultaneously with the craftwork. To keep boredom that seeps in due to the repetitive nature of this work at bay, music is always played through a radio or a cassette player. Or else, the karigars themselves sing old Kashmiri compositions like sufiana kalams, romantic Kashmiri songs or even wedding songs, depending on what one initiates and others in the karkhana sing along. Some examples are:

Walai Kasturiye, pooer myi trav niriye. Choun pakhnui, praznov mai duriye

(Oh my beloved! l have recognized your footfalls from afar. Come, my love, do not stroll around idly.)

Che loguth sourmah cheshman, mei kaertham dil vobaeli. Tch chi gainsu pareshan, main gai shah maar naeli. Tch layith teer nech gaan, main doruyi seen kanan. Main gayi saad paar jigraan, che ma gayi vaar khali.

(Your kohled eyes have drawn me towards you, my beloved. Your long hair flow with the wind makes me feel like I have been engulfed by them. I stand in front of you, with my chest facing all the arrows you are aiming at me. These arrows have shredded my heart yet, I shall ensure that not a single arrow goes waste.)

The following song is often sung in the male voice, for the revered friend, God, and depicts one’s pining for the company of a confidante.

Ya tuli khanjar marrey, nati saani shabha rozey. Yamzaar wanhas babarzar, kar sanah sui yaar bozey.

(Either he kills me in one go or he spends an evening with me. I want to tell him all my secrets but where is he to listen?)

The songs sung in a karkhana are an important aspect of the routine of work imbricating leisure. As the karigars sit together and sing while they work, they evoke a sense of solidarity, coherence and a sense of community. As the day goes by, songs become the locus of several conversations about devotion, love, relationships, life, politics, violence, or humour—as they are not only sung but are deconstructed, analysed and extrapolated into one’s life. Apart from this, work-related discussions such as deliberating on design, ideas on joinery, other karigars’ work and about customers also take place. While they work, the quintessential jhazeer (hookah) keeps doing the rounds, as it is passed on from one person to another. At 1:00 pm, the work at the karkhana halts for lunch, and by 2:00 pm everybody gets back to work. Throughout the day, a karkhana is visited by customers, prospective customers, friends and relatives. In the evening, between 6:00–6:30 pm, the karigars wrap up their work and leave.

Becoming an Artisan and the Associated Dilemmas
To become an artisan of wood carving, a novice has to acquire the skills required of a carver, carpenter or roshangaar (polisher). Like any other craft, knowledge of walnut wood carving is transferred through apprenticeship, where the novice closely observes and learns to imitate his master (ustad). This form of learning based on observation, replication and practice is described by Michael Polanyi as ‘tacit knowledge’. [1] The knowledge of walnut carving is formulated, based on the traditional ‘body of knowledge’ which is constituted by a myriad set of skills and dispositions. It entails knowledge of raw-material, tools, bodily postures, networks and practising motifs. Within the traditional body of knowledge, some skills can be defined and measured while others get subtly sedimented over some time. In his initial days in a karkhana, a novice is expected to do the peripheral works like cleaning the karkhana, getting tea and bread for the senior artisans, preparing kangri [2] during winters and preparing the jhazeer for fellow artisans. Only when the ustad feels that the novice has adjusted well to the routine of the karkhana does he begin to introduce him to the practice of carving. The transference of knowledge goes hand in hand with the practice of carving. The ustad methodically transfers the knowledge of carving to the novice—the steps, though not written, are followed by every karkhana similarly.

The knowledge of carving traditionally begins with tools, specifically those that have a decorative purpose. A thorough understanding of the tools encompasses their role in carving, the grip they require, and the pressure of hands required to give a desired aesthetic outcome. A karigar must know each tool by name and must understand the role of each tool in completing the process of carving. An important aspect of apprenticeship in carving is related to a deep understanding of the raw material. The quality of raw material plays a critical role in the quality of the finished product. A karigar must have a good judgement of raw material, a strong intuitive judgement that allows him to judge the intrinsic quality of the raw material by studying its outer surface. There is no established scientific mechanism that an artisan can use to judge the quality of raw material. It is solely through their intuition that they develop a deep understanding of timber and its fibres. Once the log gets cut, it must be seasoned for at least two years before it is ready for use. A karigar must know how long the wood exactly requires to be seasoned. While working on the wood, he must be able to know if the wood needs more seasoning. If that is the case, he must exactly know at what point to stop working on it. One should be able to tell the quality of wood by touching it. The fibres on walnut make it aesthetically appealing. The direction of fibres on walnut must inform the karigar about the direction in which it should be cut and which portion of wood must be used for a specific portion of a product so that the fibres are effectively visible. It is after he develops these skills within the karkhana that he starts negotiations with a customer. The primary role of a karigar is to translate an abstract idea that the customer gives him into a tangible item. The first step before he begins to carve is to draw the design on wood. This guides him to carve. His efficiency at drawing manifests into carving effectively. Drawing also helps a karigar in avoiding any irreversible damage to the wood.

A karigar who follows this system of knowledge thoroughly learns to perform each of the above-mentioned processes efficiently. The duration of the apprenticeship is much longer for novices aspiring to be carvers than those who are learning the craft of joinery and polishing. The work of a carpenter, on the other hand, has more articulate overtures for a novice. He is introduced to scientific signifiers like the measuring tape that he wraps around his neck for ready availability, a pen/pencil to mark the contours, tools both manual and electric and machines. As a carpenter observes his master, he learns about certain scientific applications that instrument his use of manual tools and machines. What gets attuned as a result of this knowledge are other more tacit skills that sediment over time like the posture that one must take to cut with a sharp blade, shaping the longer blocks of walnut into usable sizes or as per the design requirement. Using these signifiers, a carpenter is always able to articulate the nuances about his work and does not necessarily resort to a demonstration. A roshangaar’s nature of work requires him to repeatedly and rigorously rub the surface of the finished product with sandpaper. The purpose of such incessant rubbing is to achieve smoothness of the surface and gain symmetry and also highlight the shade. So, during his apprenticeship, a roshangaar develops an understanding of shades, symmetry and highlights. He also polishes the products and must know how the raw material and the design on it reacts to different kinds of polishes available. The apprenticeship in a karkhana is interlaced with its production as an apprentice not only learns to practice the craft but also contributes to the production. Therefore, what is learnt is dependent on what is produced which is further shaped by taste and consumption practices of buyers and fashion cycles. My research with walnut wood carving artisans and traders has revealed a shift in tastes of buyers from traditional craft [3] to mass-produced objects of craft. This has also shortened the apprenticeship process by rendering some of its components redundant.  E.g., the apprentices are now introduced to only those tools that are commonly used in the carving and intuitive judgement, drawings are not paid as much attention to.

It is believed that walnut wood carving is an inherently male-oriented craft and at no stage of production are women involved. The role of women in the production of this craft is limited to making tea for the karigars at home. The tea, sent to the karkhana in a kettle, is served along with bread twice a day. Though no norm bars women from entering the karkhana, they hesitate to avoid an encounter with a stranger. The essence of this sense of masculinity of the craft lies in the idea of the body and its use in this crafting. Wood carving requires strength in arms that a karigar must exert to create an imprint on wood—something that women are believed to lack. It also lies in the fact that a karigar must sit in a particular posture, considered inappropriate for women to sit in. Keeping the aspects of strength and posture in view, karigars believe that it is nature of a wood-carving karkhana that nurtures a certain kind of socialisation (men singing songs, discussing politics, hosting acquaintances and male customers) that women are not seen to fit into.

As the production completes in a karkhana, the product enters the market for circulation through various avenues.

The Networks of Circulation
After the roshangaar gives the finishing sheen to the products, they are ready for sale. Every karkhana is a part of a network of buyers. Since the karkhanas are clustered in downtown Srinagar, it is difficult for buyers (mostly tourists and non-local traders) to navigate the streets to access the karkhanas. Hence, local middle-men play a crucial role in bridging the gap between buyers and artisans. The term buyer denotes, therefore, a vast category that may include different kinds of consumers. It could mean a trader who buys the products from a karkhana for selling the same in their shops which are situated at important market places most accessible to tourists visiting Kashmir. It could also mean the State, as it an important buyer of the craft products from the artisans to be exhibited in the State Crafts Emporium. It could mean a trader operating in Kashmir who purchases products from a karkhana to further sell it to another trader either in Kashmir or outside Kashmir. A buyer could also be an end-user of the product, buying the product for his consumption and not for trading purposes. Walnut wood-carved products, especially items of furniture such as bed, dressing, table, etc., are an important part of a bride’s trousseau. Hence, the direct consumers of walnut wood-carved products are also local Kashmiris who buy them for gifting. Over the years, with the deployment of army and paramilitary forces in the city, a large share of consumers of walnut wood-carved products come from this domain. They either purchase directly from the karkhanas, through their access to the streets downtown or traders spread across the city.

With the diminishing number of apprentices in walnut carving and lesser number of active karigars, it is difficult for the existing karigars to meet the demand for the wood-carved products. Hence, what has been included in the network of circulation are the wood-carved products from Saharanpur, a town in western Uttar Pradesh, also well known for the craft. To meet the growing demand, traders in Kashmir liaison with those in Saharanpur and fill the gap between demand and supply. The products from Saharanpur have contributed to the emerging demand for Kashmiri souvenirs available at a very reasonable cost to the visiting tourists. While the demand for souvenirs continues to grow, demand for the traditional works continues to diminish—creating a schism between the real traditional work and rough work of carving. The traders, as a response to the growing schism, have started singularizing the traditional work of wood carving because the current skill set of artisans cannot be replicated. The process of singularisation has been described by Igor Kopytoff [4], who explains that things have a social life and commodities produced in a society do not have a fixed and unitary status but follow a process of social transformation involving various phases and changes in status. Kopytoff differentiates between the phase of commodification and the stage of exchangeability and singularisation of commodities which means prohibition of a thing from being commoditised. Any commodity, in its social life, switches between the two phases. In walnut wood carving circulation networks, singularisation or de-commodification works as some traders convert a part of their store into a museum—the products which are solely for a display to evoke memories of practice, skill and knowledge.

The State: Schemes and Imagination
The State Handicraft Department is an overarching institution, the primary aim of which is to formulate plans and policies for the welfare of artisans. To avail the benefits of welfare schemes, artisans have to get themselves registered with the department. Their registration, therefore, makes them eligible for getting credit facilities, participating in exhibitions (both national and international) and winning recognition through state awards. Artisans are also offered design support through the School of Design, which promotes the rich and varied artistic traditions of Kashmiri handicrafts through design innovations that blend tradition with the contemporary market demands. The Craft Museum, a part of the School of Design, is a public space that exhibits a sample collection of the products as well as an antique collection of traditional Kashmiri crafts. The artisans can visit the museum and take design inspirations from the products on display. To facilitate sale, the handicraft department organises exhibitions at prime tourist locations. Through a lottery system, registered artisans are invited to exhibit their products in the exhibition. The handicraft department has also set up craft training centres throughout Jammu and Kashmir.  These centres have emerged as contemporary institutions where apprenticeship is facilitated. The centres have a master artisan, an expert in the practice of craft. The master, over two years, through a methodical application of the wood carving syllabus, transfers his knowledge of the craft to the enrolled novices. The syllabus does not cover the expanse of knowledge as a master does in a karkhana but entails concise portions of functions of tools and practice of motifs. The apprentices, for the period of training, earn a stipend of Rs 500 for the preliminary level and Rs. 700 for the advanced level. When the training centre scheme [5] was implemented in the mid-1970s—it was meant to take the knowledge of crafts beyond the precincts of a karkhana, to ensure the continuance of practice and inclusion into the craft labour force. Training centres are seen as a medium to make the youth employable by using craft skills as a livelihood activity. For the trainees, two trajectories are a possibility—they could either start their karkhana or join a master’s karkhana to continue the practice. Some walnut wood carving training centres saw a reverse of this. With the male youth in the valley losing interest in learning the craft, the young women have started enrolling at the centres. This could be seen as the beginning of feminisation of the labour process, challenging the belief that only men must practise this craft.

One of the important roles of the State Handicraft Department is to recognise the skills of outstanding artisans by conferring them with a state award. The selection for the award is done by a panel of judges which includes artisans, traders and bureaucrats. The winner of the state award gets to be recognised as a master artisan and gets access to privileges such as participation in international exhibitions, employment in the State Handicraft Department and receive information about beneficial schemes. However, as far as the engagement of artisans with the handicraft department is concerned, artisans avoid any possible contacts despite the benefits that they can avail. The reason for the avoidance is the lack of faith in the bureaucratic operations and vision and the layers of complex procedures.

The Challenges
This section discusses the challenges that artisans face in continuing the craft practice. The current generation of craftsmen is enveloped in a feeling of doom for the craft in the near future. This image of an impending evanescence is a common narrative used by every artisan in Srinagar. Where is this coming from and what does it encompass? It is a question that hints towards complexities that artisans of walnut wood carving are mired in. The sense of evanescence is based on a lament that the youth is not learning the skill. But why is the Kashmiri youth not interested in the woodwork? 

The answer is a complex one that goes beyond the argument of craftwork not generating enough funds. It is an intersection of several issues that includes their social acceptability, marriageability, economic non-viability of crafts and a shift in the notions of work. The young men give varied reasons for not furthering their father’s legacy of the craft practice. It is the monotony of this work, its repetitive nature and sedentariness that repels them. It is contrary to their imagination of a dynamic and competitive work-space where they go every morning to work and earn a decent remuneration. In Kashmir, the idea of work and its acceptability has tremendously changed, and a preferred work is considered to be the one that fetches a regular flow of income, orders a separation from the personal and fits into the modern and neo-liberal ideas of dressing up in a particular way for work. Hence, generally, the youth adhering to the above-mentioned ideas of work prefer to work anywhere but their father’s or uncle’s karkhana. They feel it deteriorates their social image among their peers, impedes their marriage prospects immensely and makes it difficult for them to find a suitable girl. Also, they find the work of wood carving dirty as one is always surrounded by filth, the remains of wood. The notions of work are embedded in them from a young age. The craft of walnut wood carving must ideally be learnt at a tender age of eight to ten years. But it is their parents who now prefer their sons to pursue formal education over knowledge of craft because of the challenges that this work poses. They instead encourage them to invest in professional degrees (an MBA most commonly), so that they learn the tactics of marketing and networking to expand their work in the karkhana. There are other concerns as well. Artisans feel that their sons do not have the rigour and passion for handwork. Their impatience does not allow them to sit in one place for long hours and endure the frustrations and health issues that are so inherent to this work. At the same time, there is an awareness about the changing consumer preferences towards mass-produced goods available at a much cheaper cost.

The sense of evanescence, therefore, is an intertwining of several factors that are shaping the practice of the craft, its past and present, and its survival amid all these challenges.


[1] Tacit knowledge has two meanings. It was first used by Michael Polanyi in his work Personal Knowledge in 1958. Polanyi described tacit knowledge as a form of knowledge that can only be acquired through observation of its performance. It is a knowledge that the actor knows he/she has but cannot describe in words. Sennett in The Craftsman explains tacit knowledge as bedding in of a practice that signifies that actions of the hand become natural and smooth.

[2] Kangri is a portable heating device that Kashmiris use during winters. It is a small earthen pot encased in wicker, filled with embers that they carry close to their body as a means for keeping warm.

[3] The traditional craft signifies an intricate and neat carving on objects that are produced amid the sociality of collective production. The mass-produced objects may evoke a similar sociality but a shortened, target-based production process.

[4] Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things’, 64-94.

[5] Online at https://www.jkhandicrafts.com/scheme-training-programme.htm


Kopytoff, I. ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.’ In The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Edited by Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1958.

Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. USA: Yale University Press, 2008