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Circular Cultures Series: Rafoogari of Kashmir

Updated: May 3, 2021

The act of darning clothes in the times of fast fashion and over-consumption seems revolutionary. However, it has been a tradition in different parts of India. Despite one of the largest global exporter of handloom, Medieval India devised mending techniques (vary in different parts) as part of the system. Unlike today’s business tycoon and corporations with built-in obsolescence market models.

One such example is the magical darning craft, Rafoogari of Kashmir. Rafoogari is a specialized technique traditionally used to mend holes and damaged areas in fabrics, primarily using needles and thread. The technique involves matching the colour and weave of the fabric so that a repaired patch merges with the rest of the fabric. It is the skill of a rafoogar to make his work invisible and undetectable, transforming the personality of the cloth. It does not just extend the life of the textile but the precision and the patience involved in the craft make it unique and truly remarkable. Traditionally, Rafoogars carry old pashmina pieces and the yarn is pulled out for repairing Kani shawls. Once the thickness of the thread is matched, it is dyed to match the colour of the piece to be restored.

As documented in Mughal texts, these Rafoogars from Kashmir were hired by the court to keep royal shatoosh and pashmina shawls intact. The intricate and exquisite work of these craftspeople impressed the Mughal emperors. Some descendants of these highly skilled rafoogars settled in Najibabad that falls on the way to the medieval trade route connecting Kashmir and Bengal.

In those times, the craft was much celebrated and catered to the social-cultural need of the communities. However Over the course of the twentieth century, with the inception of consumer markets in India, leading to the availability of cheap, mass-produced fashion and the idea of production being associated with economic growth; this engraved the appeal for ‘the new’ as the middle-class obsession. The consumer behaviour typical to modern lifestyle and aspirations pushed the skilled darners of India into darkness.

In the 1980s a large chunk of Kashmir’s cottage industry was centred on the manufacturing of woollen chadar and rafoogars, especially women who were expert in repairing the torn or burnt chadars which were further converted into patu for making coats and pherans. The craft has been facing the threat of oblivion as the younger generation does not find it monetarily rewarding enough that their families can depend on it. In absence of Rafoogars in Srinagar, business owners now have to outsource most of this work including conservation of priceless textile from other states, which is a time-consuming, costly affair, and most importantly, a missed opportunity for the Kashmiri communities.

Jhini jhini bini chadariya,

Kaahe ka tana, kaahe ki bharani,

Kaun taar se bini chadariya?

“Fine, fine cloth, delicately woven

Of what is made the warp, of what the weave?

What threads went into its weaving?”

These couplets by the iconic 15th-century poet, Kabir (weaver by profession) explains the universe as he saw it and puts the emphasis of his enquiry on the act of creation. The synergy between the richness of the craft and the philosophical intellect is no coincidence.

It is interesting to note that the power of mending has a significant impact on the way we think, act and imagine our futures. Francisco Martínez, an ethnographer at the University of Helsinki, in his research suggests that repair helps people overcome the negative logic that accompanies the abandonment of things and people. The practice not just brings balance to one’s needs but also establishes continuity, endurance, and material sensitivity.

The idea takes its own shape for the Indian Context, where traditional wears (sari and shawls, passed on to successor generations and worm with pride) has a deep cultural and emotional value attached to it. The act of throwing away if damaged can be perceived as a threat to cultural identity, heritage, and memory of the lost ones.INTACH organized a workshop in the summer of 2018, which strived to revive the interest of the young and women to take up the skills as an occupation. Also, prominent designers like Late Mrs Priya Ravish Mehra and Mr Wajahat Rather have significantly contributed to bringing this invisible craft to the light. Certainly, each effort counts, and much more efforts are required for the inclusion of these skilled craft communities in the mainstream value chain. Market recognition and access to business opportunities are the only motivations for the younger generation to take up these traditional occupations. Given the circular nature of the craft, encompassing and promoting these practices to achieve SDGs will be highly beneficial for the community.

About the Authors

Vikas Dargan (LinkedIn) is an Architect and a cultural professional with three years of experience working towards craft revival and rural livelihood generation.

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