Kashmir’s Rug Man Courting Danger To Bring Dying Carpet To Life

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|| NAZIR GANAIE

               Still in college, and barely 23, Riyaz Bhat, was already thinking dangerous thoughts in 1987. Those were days when Kashmir had no inkling of the storm about to break. Perhaps a succession of booming business seasons and unprecedented tourist arrivals had fired his entrepreneurial spirit, but why, of all places, did he want to deploy it in war-torn Afghanistan? With family history embedded deeply in carpet-weaving, Bhat had developed a fascination for the fabled rugs of the mysterious, rugged land and the tribal life producing them. He was too obsessed with the desire to lay his hands on rare and exquisite specimens to think of anything else. So, one evening, he broke the news to his parents. “Are you crazy?” Bhat remembers his father exclaiming. “First kill me and then leave.” Recalls Bhat: “One evening in June 1987 while I was having dinner with my parents, I tried to overcome their apprehension.

         I knew what I was going to ask them would immediately be refused as it was impossible for them to allow me to travel to Afghanistan, where a fierce war was on.” Bhat was determined to have his way. He reasoned with his parents that he was not joining the Mujahideen in their war but was keen to visit tribal areas and study their varied designs of craft and rug-making. “I wanted to come in contact with the tribes who, though not formally educated, made the most incredible rugs. I wanted to learn their craft,” he says. “Though my security was a matter of grave concern, I was too obsessed to think about it.” It seems luck was in Bhat’s favor as he had an uncle living in Pakistan and dealing in rugs. He joyfully reminisces: “My uncle convinced my parents that I be allowed to travel to Pakistan, and with his help to Afghanistan.”

        “It was a dream come true for me. I ultimately moved to Afghanistan to actually live with the tribal people of the area and learn their art of rug making.” Hailing from a carpet weaving family of old Srinagar, Riyaz has visited Kashmir 25 times since then in search of practical knowledge of rugs. He said he would never forget the day when he went to his father for getting permission to visit Afghanistan. “Carpet weaving has been our family business for 500 years, so I obviously was attracted to it. My father is an excellent weaver and he has created some of world’s most exquisite carpets. I started reading about rug making and its various designs.

        The moment rugs would come to my mind it would connect me to Central Asia,” Bhat says. He said he learnt the basics of rugs and carpet-weaving from his family and relatives, a few of whom were born geniuses. He read a vast amount of literature on how a workshop rugis different from a family or tribal rug. “A family rug, or tribal rug, is one made by one person for his or her own use. So when they make this rug, they also use it, and any genuine tribal rug therefore will never be a new one. They make it and use it in their tent, after which they make a new one and sell the old one,” he says.

All my rugs, carpets narrate their stories. I have Kashmiri carpets and tribal rugs in my showroom and I always treat them as my children. When I sell any rug, I tell my customers to treat them delicately. I call them their guardians,” he says. “Most importantly they belong to the places which are trouble hit and you can easily find in their designs.”

           “We still have nomadic life in Afghanistan. I wanted to see these nomads and live with them; they influenced my life and shaped my zeal for this business,” Bhat says. After spending some time in Afghanistan Riyaz moved back to Pakistan and worked with his maternal uncle, who is a Pakistani national. Having established his business in Qatar, Bhat claims that he has had an opportunity of displaying the rugs before the US Pentagon team in 2003, who were accompanied by then US president, George W. Bush.

         “I was invited to the US Embassy to display the tribal rugs and almost all the pentagon people saw my rugs and I made a good sale. Colin Powel and some other officials appreciated my work too,” he says. “All my rugs, carpets narrate their stories. I have Kashmiri carpets and tribal rugs in my showroom and I always treat them as my children. When I sell any rug, I tell my customers to treat them delicately. I call them their guardians,” he says. “Most importantly they belong to the places which are trouble hit and you can easily find in their designs.” Notably, rug making is the ancient art of making rugs and carpets by hand. Rug making is a traditional art around the world, particularly in Middle Eastern nations such as Iran and Afghanistan.

         Artists in these countries still practice carpet and rug making for both domestic and international markets. Rug making has been practiced in the Middle East for more than 2,500 years. Woven floor coverings were essential for controlling dust and conserving warmth in harsh climates. The nomadic tribes of central Asia also appreciatedrugs because they could be easily rolled up and transported when it was time to move the camp. Over the centuries, rug making became an essential part of the artistic heritage of these regions. In the 21st century, traditional rug makers still use these same techniques to make rugs and carpets.

Rug Man’s Shop: A Treasure Trove of Carpets

         “Located half-way down Al Mergab Street sits an unassuming shop bearing the name ‘Kashmir Handicrafts Emporium’. Yet opening the door is akin to opening a Pandora’s Box of delights; Riyaz Bhat, alias the ‘Rug Man’ takes you happily on a virtual journey to the tribal heart of Afghanistan” That is how a foreign tourist described Bhat’s shop on his blog. When Bhat opened his shop in the year 2000, he was apprehensive of its future.

        “When you start a new business it is dark in front of you, you don’t know what’s going to happen, new country, new people, new area,’ he says. However, on his second day of business Bhat sold three tribal carpets to his first customer, the dean of VCU Qatar. So impressed was the latter with his shop, he brought him another customer the following day, and she in turn brought another. Suddenly Bhat was doing handsome business and the name ‘Rug Man’ came to do the streets everywhere. He explained how what began as an endearing term of reference helped his business grow. “It’s become a trademark now, everyone knows the Rug Man, and I have a website under that name.” Upstairs in Kashmir Handicrafts Emporium, Bhat says, is Aladdin’s cave of rugs. This room, otherwise plain and unembellished, dazzles with intricately and colourfully designed carpets. Each rug is wreathed in history and tells a story of a nomadic family; these are more than just rugs, they are pieces of art.

          The rugs are made mainly by the women in the tribe; women who are uneducated, yet the designs they weave are amazingly detailed and in many cases symmetrical. These designs have been passed from mothers to their daughters across the ages. Depending on the size these rugs can take years to make, with colours sourced from plants and roots used to make natural dyes. The majority of these nomadic rugs are sourced from Afghanistan. “It’s beautiful, lush green with forests, lakes and streams,” says Bhat. “Most tribes from neighbouring areas try to go to Afghanistan and settle there. There are now a variety of tribes there, rather than just native Afghan tribes.” Each year Bhat makes his journey to Afghanistan to purchase nomadic rugs. “We go through the most dangerous road, the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. My cousin and I have five gunmen with us.

           These gunmen are legal and licensed bodyguards who travel with us in two jeeps,” he says. “Everyone knows we have weapons and they do not come near us. I have been doing this for the last 23 years.” It’s a dangerous expedition to make, but Bhat is determined not to desert the tribes who rely on him for their livelihood: “I am very happy, and deep inside I feel I am supporting a good cause, helping these people and buying their rugs and selling them here. I am risking my life going there, but I still want to go and meet these wonderful people, it’s amazing. For all these years these people have suffered, living difficult lives. But that hasn’t killed their love for art.” Bhat’s absolute enthusiasm is infectious as he speaks animatedly about purchasing not just a handmade tribal rug but also a family heirloom. “They are like magnificent paintings. The magic of tribal rugs is that they never look used or worn. You will never have to change it; it will remain with you forever.”