The ‘hint of sweet spring was in the air; it was the first day of March’ after long vacations school had opened. Nonetheless, the heaps of frozen snow still littered the lanes, blankets of snow covered many mud roofs in our Mohalla and the latticed windows pasted with brown paper and old newspapers were even shut. Those days, glass window panes were a rarity, most of the houses had two sets of window panes, one called ‘Dili-Daarih’ (plank windows) and another ‘Panjiri-Darrih’ (lattice windows). At the onset of winter, the rich engaged Kagazgar, people proficient in pasting paper on latticed windows- to make paper transparent they applied hot mustard oil on the brown paper. The poor generally affixed old newspapers on them. It was now my second year in school, but I was yet to graduate from kindergarten class to Awwal (first), a few days later examinations would be held and few days results later announced. On the result, the announcement would be from first to fifth all pass. For me, walking to school after vacations had a lot of thrill. It was ten minutes’ walk to school, nonetheless for my stopping over at the bird shop and listening melodious songs of thrushes and pipits in the cages and then watching Sali Pattgour, an elderly artisan decorously adorning cotton tassels (parandi) with golden threads and spinning golden yarns for golden pendants and other jewellery, it took me half an hour to cover the distance.
I had an innate admiration for the artistry of our artisans and enjoyed watching those creating marvels with their needles and tiny tools. Of all the crafts person, it was four gold engravers crouching in the ground floor room of the six-story iconic house- a piece of grand architecture in front of my first school the Government Middle School, Daribal that often made me curious. I was not the only child, who wanted to know what the four men with miniature-hammers were softly hammering at on small anvils. And like hoopoes, what were they picking up with small tongs. Many times my buddies and I went up the three steps of the stair leading to the room to get a closer look at their workplace. It had been the pastime of generations of children, since the mid-thirties, when the school nicknamed Jabari-Chatahal was founded in twenty Taq, four-story building of Maharaja Bricks. Hamid Sahib, a pass out from my school, my father’s colleague shared same experience about the workplace of these artisans creating a masterpiece of engraved gold and gemstones- that adorned crowns and the lapels of army generals.
Of the four great artists, the last one Mohammad Amin Kundanagar died on Thursday at the age of ninety-six and with him died the art of gold engravings in Kashmir. Besides, being an artist par-excellence and oldest surviving calligrapher of Arabic and Persian, he was a close witness to political happenings in the state from 13 July 1931- the Kundanagar House has been the epicenter of the freedom struggle. In 2018, I had three interviews with him about some crucial meetings of the Muslim Conference held in the Kundanagar House, before the birth of the National Conference. It was news about his death that took me down the memory lane and made me remember my days at the Daribal Middle School.
‘Like many other great craftsmen, Mohammad Baba ancestor of the family had arrived into Kashmir, along with the caravan of Syed Ali Hamadani and settled around Khanaqah-I-Moula. It was Nazim-u-Din, third generation artisan of the family who perfected the art of gem-studded engraved gold jewellery and the family name changed from Baba to Kundan Gar- the gold engravers. The artefacts produced by the family found a way into the royal courts. And the art passed on from generation to generation. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the ‘Kundan’ jewellery became very popular with the wealthy and ‘big landed estate’ families- both Hindus and Muslims. It became a status symbol with aristocracy- immigrants and natives. The great artefacts crafted by the four brothers Ghulam Ahmad, Ghulam Mohidin, Maqbool Hussain and Mohamad Amin and their father Ghulam Ahmad for more than a century and a half, are to this day priced possession of some wealthy families of Kashmir, and Amin Sahib remembered almost names of the families that visited their workplace.
‘In the Kundan art only purest of gold is used, traces of metallic impurity will spoil lustre and sheen of this jewellery. The commonly used jewellery of those times Jigni, Ticka, Taweez, bracelets and, Jumka and Holidal after they were studded with gems and engraved by skilful hands of turned into rare masterpieces. Some holidall Kundan with holy verses engraved and embellished with gems and precious stones are rarest of masterpieces of gold art of Kashmir.’
In the death of Mohammad Amin, the last master craftsman the Kundan art also died and other crafts are about to die.
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist