The practice of creating intricate designs on a handloom using a complex twill-tapestry method, kani weaving is used to make delicately patterned shawls in fine pashmina yarn. The name of the craft practice is derived from the local term for the needle-like, eyeless wooden bobbin, kani, used for winding the weft threads, around which the coloured weft threads are wound. It is also a reference to the village of Kanihama, where its earliest form is believed to have originated from.
Kani shawls are distinguished by their weft-facing design. The designs, typically featuring geometric, floral, bel and badaam motifs, are made on a pale twill-woven base, usually made from undyed, almond-coloured yarn to heighten the contrast. Kani weaves, long considered a luxury commodity, have enjoyed a tradition of patronage in royal courts, especially of the Mughals, Rajputs, Sikhs and Marathas.
Some of the earliest evidence of the kani shawl, from samples and fragments dated to the late-seventeenth century, shows a deep visual affinity to the Iranian termeh tapestry. The complex tapestry technique used today, however, emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Kani weaving is a laborious and time-intensive process that involves several stages and several artisans specifically engaged in each of them. The design of the shawl is first prepared by the pattern-drawer (nakkash), who passes it onto the tarah-guru who decides the colour combination and calculates the yarns required for each shade. These details are provided to the warp-maker (nakatu) and warp-dresser (pennakamgur), who are responsible for preparing the warp on the four-shaft treadle loom. The talim-guru prepares the notation for the pattern in a shorthand format known as talim — prepared on graph paper — based on which the master-weaver (ustad) instructs his weavers. Following this, the weft threads are handwoven using kanis, with sometimes as many as fifty kanis (and corresponding coloured yarn) being used for a single design. More recently, and especially when making elaborate designs, the weaving is divided over two or more looms in order to hasten the process. In these instances, once the separate designs are woven, the cloth is handed to the needle-worker, who joins the designs seamlessly into a single shawl. Kani shawls were traditionally one-sided, with the double-sided (dorukha) variety emerging as the last of its innovations in the late nineteenth century. Depending on the complexity of the designs, one shawl can take two weavers between six months and two years to complete.
The kani weaving industry faced a number of challenges and setbacks from the beginning of the eighteenth century: state and imperial taxes on goods that led to crippling debts; two famines in 1832 and 1877; and earthquakes in 1827 and 1885. The famine prompted large-scale emigration from Kashmir to Punjab and the subsequent establishment of looms in Amritsar, Ludhiana, Sialkot and Jalalpur and Nurpur, with Amritsar emerging as an important centre. However, with the decline of courtly culture and royal patronage in Lucknow, Poona (now Pune), Gwalior, Indore and Tanjore (now Thanjavur), the domestic demand for kani shawls saw a considerable dip. This decline was compounded, towards the end of the 1880s, by a drastic decrease in the European export of shawls, due to the introduction of mechanised equipment, such as the jacquard loom, and the transfer of design knowledge to local textile hubs such as Paisley, Scotland. In these dire circumstances, and in the absence of proper management and economic relief, kani weaving died out almost completely in the state.
The practice saw its first significant revival at a training centre in Kanihama, set up by weaver and parliamentarian Ghulam Mohammed Kanihama. At the centre, weaver families from Srinagar and surrounding areas were taught the technique from masters such as Ghulam Nabi Mir, who were among the last generation of weavers in the 1800s, and trained to read and decipher the talim as well. The revival efforts also led to an increase in the demand for kani shawls, with the market showing interest from the early 2000s. In 2008, the Government of India conferred kani weaving the Geographical Indication (GI) status, which also gave it a significant boost.
Kani shawls are part of the textile collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Musée des Artes Décoratifs, Paris.
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