“Machine can’t match handicraft”: Tilla embroidery continues to denote prestige in Kashmir

With time machines have entered the domain of this craft and many people started preferring machine’s tilla work other than handmade work but Mr. Shafi believes that it hasn’t and will never affect their business.

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With a needle, Mohammad Shafi Mir’s wrinkled hands wove intricate designs on a mustard-colored pheran, the loose woolen overcoats worn by Kashmiris. Sitting in the corner of his shop in downtown Srinagar’s Fatehkadal, it is adorned with a variety of traditional costumes embroidered with the art of tilla.

The man in his 70s with a white beard and small eyes doesn’t stop smiling and recounting his blessings as he slowly runs the needle down into the pheran, adjusting his brown, square-shaped spectacles. Carefully, his steady hands weave the almond-shaped motifs on the pheran with a white thread. 

He weaves strings of white, red, and yellow threads in elegant patterns on different costumes such as pheran, suits, shawls, even sarees. The embroidery is commonly known as Tilla Dozi., woven with a metallic thread on a needlepoint. 

Tilla is a traditional craft of Kashmir which is used to adorn pherans and shawls but over the years, the embroidery is done on sarees, shalwar kameez, and other garments as well. It’s is a type of embroidery work, involving the requirement of gold and silver metallic thread. Tilla artisans patiently decorate the cloth with different patterns made by the threads. A bride’s trousseau in Kashmir is considered incomplete without tilla embroidered garments especially pherans.

Nearly seven decades ago, Mohammad Shafi Mir — a five-year-old child back then — was brought to a master of tilla embroidery work in the same area where his shop is located today.

With the little hands of a child, Shafi learned to make beautiful tilla embroidery designs for six years. Unlike the eight others in the class, Shafi learned the skill fast and started earning 7 rupees a month — a decent amount back then.

Shafi has grown up in Fatehkadal but currently lives in Bachpora. As a fifteen-year-old, he opened his own Tilla Dozi shop and started working on his own. He has taught tilla embroidery work to many across Kashmir; some of them, he said, have passed away, left the business, or rarely do any work anymore. “Inflation in the market has made many artisans leave this work as there is hardly any profit in this business,” said Shafi.

Tilla, Kashmir Tilla, Handicraft tilla work
Mohammad Shafi Mir’s weaving intricate designs on a mustard-colored pheran at his shop in Srinagar’s Fatehkadal. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Shafi remembers how art and skills were given preference over everything in Kashmir when he was in his childhood. “Art used to be considered even better than education in Kashmir. Nobody would prefer doing jobs, working for other people back then,” he said, sitting across the desk with a pheran in his hand, trying to push a needle into the cloth.

With time, Shafi’s work became famous among the people and he started receiving customers from all the districts of the valley.

Shafi proudly talks about the rapport he has maintained with people over the years. “Customers pass by and greet me, ask me about the well being of my entire family. Ikhlaaq chu sorui. Manners are everything,” he said with a faint smile.

The unique design of the tilla on different costumes, especially pherans and shawls, look elegant and many find it attractive. It is an essential part of the trousseau of the Kashmiri bride. “Tilla has its own importance at weddings. When people think about marrying their daughter off, they first start looking for tilla suits, pherans, shawls etcetera,” said Shafi.

As his son deals with customers, Shafi talks about the time he spent in the city of Punjab, Amritsar. Initially, he had gone to Amritsar to work with his friend where he would darn the clothes of people when there was a decline in his work in Kashmir. 

After two months in Amritsar, Shafi started embroidering a tilla design on a patch of cloth just to keep himself busy. “When people saw me doing tilla embroidery, I started receiving orders for the same and I didn’t stop doing it for nine years,” said Shafi, who claims to have made the embroidery famous in the Punjabi city.

As demands grew in Amritsar, more tilla artisans arrived in the city. Shafi decided to return to Kashmir and restart his business. “I even thought about closing the shop but my customers used to come to my house and request me to work on their costumes,” he recalls how his customers posed faith in his work. “I couldn’t stay away from this work for a long time.”

With time machines have entered the domain of this craft and many people started preferring machine’s tilla work other than handmade work but Shafi believes that it hasn’t and will never affect their business. Tilla embroidered are still in demand, he said. “Athe’ kami kati watan. Machine work can’t match handicraft,” he laughed.  

As he grows old, Shafi — who has even worked for 24 hours to complete his work — has started complaining about the backache, pain in his knees and weakness of his eyes. “Koe’then chum azaab, mokley. Bijar! My knees are in pain. Old age!” he smiles, as he stands up to show a shawl that he has been working on lately.

Shafi said that he has dedicated his life to tilla embroidery work and wishes to continue doing so for life, as he thinks God has chosen him for this work, for being a source of income to many artisans he works with. “I want my customers to be as content as I am with my work. They should leave my shop with a smile,” he said as he continues smiling.

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