I want the arts alive, not dead, proclaims this wise old man with a white beard and a grandfatherly grin. After an hour of going through his exquisite pashmina and kanni shawls made with love, precision and care in Paradise Valley, you’d be forgiven for thinking of Deepak Badhwar as the messiah of Kashmiri arts. But really, he’s just a man with a cause.
Born in Delhi but raised in places as far and wide as Kaithal (near Karnal, Haryana) and Afghanistan, Badhwar descends from a distinguished line of cotton mill owners and carpet-industry stalwarts. His great-great-grandfather began the family business in the late 19th century; it peaked around the time of Independence when his grandfather was at the helm. “But the cotton belt dried up around the 1960s,” reminisces Badhwar, “and so my father decided to get into the carpet business.” Their first exhibition was slated to open in December 1971 – but on the very first day, the Indo-Pak war was declared.
The unfortunate start to their new venture had a fortunate outcome: it led to a teenage Deepak taking more interest in his father’s business affairs. “My mother is from Kashmir, and I moved to Srinagar to pursue my graduation. That’s when I began dealing in shawls and carpets made in Kashmir,” he says. Later, in the early 1980s, he married a Kashmiri woman and developed a keen interest in miniature paintings. His fascination for traditional arts quickly grew into a passion. “I disagree when people call these people craftsmen or artisans,” he says. “They are artists. A shawl weaver cannot re-create the same product twice, just as a sculptor cannot make a duplicate copy of his original creation. It is our responsibility to support them and encourage them in their work, or else these techniques will just die out.”
Badhwar does walk his own talk of keeping the arts alive. One of his most important contributions to Kashmiri crafts is the re-creation of the 18th-century Pashmina carpet. These were only available to royalty in those days, such as the Maharaja of Jaipur. “I have managed to produce only two pieces since 2008, and a third one is being made. It takes two men 15 months to make one 4’ x 6’ carpet,” he informs. While the technique is not very different from that used on a fine silk carpet, the material does necessitate careful handling and a longer production time. “It is not possible to do commercial production, since the labour is so painstaking,” he says. Using top quality pashmina hand-knotted in single knots (which takes more time than the usual double-knot technique), these carpets take about one and half times the material as well. “Not all artists can do this sort of thing,” says Badhwar.
Besides carpets, he also specialises in shawls – the gossamer fine kinds you cannot get your hands off. Taking them out one at a time from a large wooden ‘treasure chest’ he keeps in his living room, you are introduced to a world of fine weaves and embroideries. “Fine pashmina and good quality kanni weaves are a dying art,” he regrets, as he displays a gorgeous green pashmina shawl with embroidery so fine that you cannot feel a single stitch on the surface. Badhwar then takes us on a tour of his collection of Indian art, each more exquisite than the previous – a box made of buffalo and camel bones since ivory has been outlawed; a metal shield inscribed with Koranic verses; a wall embellished with kuchch work made by Gujarati artists specially flown in to create it; a hundred-year-old colonial wall cabinet. “To me, luxury does not mean crystals and modern lighting. It means these ancient arts and traditional forms of beauty. I am surrounded by luxury but I am not attached to the material itself – it is the art that attracts me.”
The Delhi-based art connoisseur is critical of modern art buyers who evaluate a painting only for its investment value and promise of future commercial gains. “I would buy a work of art only if I really love it or want to live with it,” Badhwar opines. “I delight in the creativity of the artist. The kind of works I buy – carpets, shawls, chests, vases – are the kind of things I can actually use and relish. I don’t judge them only on their monetary value.” For this savant whose head is in the arts and heart in the Kashmir Valley, beauty is not just a means to a livelihood. It is the end in itself.