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Khatamband: The Art of Intricately Carved Ceilings in Kashmir

Once in decline, this ancient art form, adapted centuries ago from Persia is seeing a revival in the valley.

In a small workshop in Safa Kadal, in the old centre of Srinagar, Ishfaq Ahmad Bangroo and his colleagues work the ancient art of khatamband. Khatamband is an ancient craft of creating patterned designs that fit together to create false ceilings. This art form came to Kashmir from Iran, with the Sufi saint Shah-e-Hamadan or Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani in the fourteenth century. “In Kashmir, a ceiling decorated with khatamband wood work is considered the hallmark of luxury,” says Ishfaq.

Thanks to government incentives and demand for export, the once languishing khatamband has received a boost in recent times after dwindling in the nineties. “Long back people trained in this work were earning very little. Then they realised this is a luxury item,” adds Ishfaq. Indeed, some of the richest exemplars of the khatambandi ceiling are to be found inside the houseboats on Dal and Nigeen lake as well as shrines and royal houses. Besides the decorative function, khatamband also adds a layer of insulation to the ceiling, an important function during the cold winters in the valley.

Khatamband is unique because it does not use nails or glue. Instead, it uses small, intricately carved pieces of soft wood which fit into each other like a puzzle creating the most ornate geometric patterns. Traditionally, there were 160 khatambandi patterns in Kashmir. Today, only 100 or so designs remain extant. But the gap of these lost designs are being filled daily with new innovations using colour, mirrors and other artifacts.

Ishfaq, who has been practising this craft for over a decade, says “I don’t use just the old designs. I have innovated many new designs, which had never been used before.” Traditionally painstakingly crafted by hand, Ishfaq and other khatamband artists today prefer using machines to reduce the time taken to make these designs. Ishfaq tells Community Correspondent Nadiya that in the five minutes that she had been filming his work, he used his machine to make seven or eight pieces. “In old days everything was made by hand and in one day you could make, perhaps about, 100 to 150 such pieces. With uninterrupted electricity, we can make 2000 to 2500 such pieces in a day using the machines,” he adds.

A khatambandi ceiling costs between 210 and 250 rupees per square feet. Ishfaq has a proposal for further reducing costs and mass producing these intricate ceilings. “It’s like assembling parts of a car--it’s not difficult and a mechanised robot could do this job. Humans can operate the software and the robots can execute the task of fitting the pieces together. This kind of technology can be used to further boost this craft,” feels Ishfaq. With only the richest being able to afford these luxurious ceilings, maybe technological intervention will make khatambandi ceilings more accessible to consumers and also bring more profits for the designers of this beautiful art form, preventing it from going into a decline.

Article by Madhura Chakraborty

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