KULLU VALLEY, HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA.
Trace the journey of a heritage product.
Possibly, 1400: Kinnaur (an ancient region in Himachal Pradesh, India recorded to be inhabited since before the 3rd millennium) shares borders with her immediate neighbor, Buddhist Tibet. The close proximity allows the Tibetans and Kinnauris to intermingle on a regular basis resulting in a trade of commodities, beliefs and ideas. Highly impressed by Buddhist spiritual symbolism, the Kinnauris incorporate the same into their pallet and begin to embed them into garments in the form of artistically rendered motifs – they have already mastered the art of weaving motifs long before.
1800: Kinnaur is in uproar. Unable to cope with the tyranny of a local king its dwellers flee the land with families and belongings. Some migrate to the Kullu valley, bringing with them their art and motifs. New beginnings have to be made and roots need to be planted. A logical first step is to break the ice and make friends with the native inhabitants. This the settlers achieve by schooling their neighbors in their ancestral art – resulting in the evolution of the Kullvi Pattu (similar in appearance to a short blanket). The local woman’s dress hitherto plain, now begins to sport the vibrant motifs one sees today.
1920s: The immigrants are well settled in the valley and as Kullvi as the original inhabitants. Few have returned while others have chosen to remain. Intermarriages may well have taken place during this period allowing the art of weaving motifs to further inseminate the Kullvi way of life. Descendants of the two also begin to evolve their repertoire and enlarge their stock, producing several new ornamental designs purely Kullvi in nature. Among the developments, the most significant is the bright border (or band) that now runs across the shawl. Both Kinnauri and Kullvi garments flourish side by side.
1940s: The Pattu is a cumbersome and a complex garment to wear. Some wonder if it can be simplified and shortened. As to who first undertakes the task is debatable for lack of certifiable evidence. In her study (see Weaving traditions along the wool road) Suzette. R. Copely. Patterson comes across the name of master weaver Tenjaram Bhagat who is said to have produced the first shawl as per the specifications of one Mrs. S Bhagwandass.
Another is said to be Sheru Ram of Banontar village (see Divya Himachal article: Brand Himachal Kullu News) who produced the shawl for the first lady of Indian cinema, Devika Rani. In any case, the innovation is still, at its best, a prototype much in need of refinement.
1950s: What is not debatable is a decade later the product has garnered significant attention and carved a place for itself in the weaving community. Weavers across the valley are engaged in improving the prototype for the market with the government extending support for its development as a major hand loom product that will bring in revenues and help the impoverished cope with everyday living.
Households and co-operatives societies are keen to introduce the improved versions in their production lines upon the realization customers of the day are more inclined towards the innovation than their more traditional apparels.
The income generated allow the societies to expand, drawing into their fold entire weaver families and provide them with better livelihood opportunities – thus gradually turning weaving from a part time household occupation to a full time profession.
1970s: Tourism picks up momentum in the valley and with it the popularity of the shawl rises. The next two decades sees a rise in exports and patrons in other parts of the world transforming the shawl from a mere exotic souvenir into a recognizable mark of the land and her people. In 1990s the shawl receives its GI patent prohibiting its production outside the valley of its birth. It has become the identity of the people and the primary bread earner of its weaver, and it is not about to be taken off the shelves.
Present day: The valley produces both the Kullu shawl with pure Kullvi motifs, the Kinnauri shawl with traditional motifs and a hybrid version of the later showcasing either the traditional or a slight mixture of both Kulvi and Kinnaur motifs.
All hand woven, produced on looms and authentic heritage products. Yet the design and form of the shawl does not appear to have reached the end of line. Like their ancestors, new generation of weavers some of Kinnauri lineage work from homes and within large co-operative societies experimenting with designs, colors and patterns to refine and develop their bread winning heritage innovation. Additional refinements include quality yarn, treatment in wool and dyes. Art, after all, can never be confined to within boundaries.