A Portrait of the Artist as a Differently Abled Man in Kashmir

Carving a niche for himself in the field of embroidery, Tariq Ahmad Mir has battled adversity at every stage in his life. The biggest, however, has been since August 5.

Srinagar: After Article 370, which conferred a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, was scrapped on August 5, 2019, and a protracted communications blockade was imposed in the region last year, Tariq Ahmad Mir, a differently-abled embroidery craftsperson felt antsy.

He didn’t know how he would sell the dozens of shawls stacked up at home.

After a hiatus of more than nine weeks, when mobile postpaid cellular service was resumed in the Valley, Mir received a phone call from Delhi, informing him about his selection for the Fair Trade Forum Fellowship funded by the Fair Trade Forum-India (FTF-I). Ten artisans from across India were chosen. Mir was among them.

“Subsequently, I was also allowed to set up a stall at Delhi Haat where I sold the stock,” said Mir.

A differently-abled youth from a nondescript village called Gotipora in the Valley, Mir has been suffering from muscular dystrophy, a condition which leads to the degeneration of muscles, since his childhood. However, he has never let his crippling disability stop him from carving a niche for himself in the field of embroidery.

Mir has a masters in Urdu from Kashmir University, Srinagar and had qualified for the National Eligibility Test.

“After I failed to get a teaching job at the school or college level for couple of years, I took to needlework,” he said, speaking to The Wire. “I learnt embroidery skills from my father, who is a well-known needleworker in the area,” he added.

Tariq Ahmad Mir. Photo: Mir Zeeshan

Mir two other brothers were also born with the same condition and last year he lost one of them to the disease.

Merely a year after taking to needlework, Mir founded his own group of needleworkers called ‘Special Hands of Kashmir’.

Soon after founding the group in 2009, Mir registered it with the department of handicrafts in Jammu and Kashmir. ‘Special Hands of Kashmir’ is now the source of livelihood for 40 craftspersons.

In the past, the group has made inroads in several art exhibitions inside and outside the Valley – the first was in November 2014 when it was part of a 14-day exhibition of India International Trade Fair (IITF). The group was also invited to the Surajkund Mela in Faridabad in February 2014 and the Winter Mela (Kashmir Festival Special flood victims) DASKAAR in Delhi in 2014.

Other events and exhibitions where the group was invited included the Maximum Employment to Serve the Handicrafts (MESH) Annual Program in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, the 2017 Winter Mela Dastakar in New Delhi, the One Day Exhibition at the Christian school Safderjung Tea and the Chai Guest House in Delhi.

Mir has also received many appreciations like the role model in disability sector on the eve of the World Disability Day, 2013 at M.A Road College of Education Srinagar, and role model award by JIGER NGO in 2017 at Jammu.

Last year in October, Mir was also selected for the New Indian Artisan Fellowship for six months by the fair trade forum funded by the central government.

The FTFI selected only 10 artisans across the country before they were shortlisted and then interviewed. The fellowship would afford to Mir the opportunity to learn the latest skills for marketing and designs.

Mir is currently at the Surajkund Mela, which commenced on February 1.

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As a disabled person, Mir has constantly struggled in his life, initially to complete his studies and then as an artisan.

Recalling his first challenge as a student in school, Mir said that he had to walk a distance of close to 2 km from his home daily till he graduated from Class X.

Pursuing secondary school education was even tougher for Mir as he had to travel via a lone local bus service from his native village of Gotipora to the district headquarter in Budgam.

Mir would often miss the bus in the morning and would be forced to skip classes, but he somehow managed to pass class XII.

When he decided to pursue an undergraduate education in Amar Singh College, Srinagar, he felt it was too risky for him to travel in overloaded buses without any companions. After a year of college, Mir applied to complete his degree via distance education.

All of these hurdles failed to dampen Mir’s enthusiasm and desire for education and soon he was studying at Kashmir University for his post-graduation in Urdu and he then qualified for the competitive NET exams in 2018.

Tariq Ahmad Mir’s embroideries. Photo: Mir Zeeshan

Mir has since been unable to secure a job for himself.

A major challenge arose for him while joining his father’s profession and establishing Special Hands of Kashmir.

In the initial days after the group was founded, it used to work for middlemen and would earn little.

“The government handicrafts department has never encouraged differently-abled artisans. The department gives fewer chances to us for showcasing our needle skills at state or national level platforms,” Mir said

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“Less market reach of the needle skill is haunting us, but a ray of hope in the form of the Association for Rehabilitation Under National Trust Initiative of Marketing (ARUNIM) – an initiative of National Trust under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment – emerged in 2008 for marketing. But suddenly, in 2015, they stopped funding us,” said Mir.

With the scrapping of Article 370, a tumultuous phase unfolded for Mir and his group of needleworkers, as the Valley witnessed total communications blackout.

“We stopped our work during the months of August and September,” Mir said. “In July 2019, I had been shortlisted for an interview by the New Indian Artisan Fellowship. I had attended the interview but the list of final selections was expected in the month of August. With no mode of communication, I had no way of finding out about the list.”

Adding that the lack of information perturbed him, Mir said that one day in October he decided to go to the police station in Saibugh. “There I called the officials in charge of the fellowship from a police officer’s phone. The officials gave me the good news about my selection in the fellowship,” Mir said.

“This fellowship is for six months and, during this period, they will teache us new and advanced skills of marketing and designs,” he said.

Mir also requested the handicrafts department and government officials to facilitate opportunities for people to participate in Jammu and Kashmir Union territory and National exhibitions.

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“The government of Jammu and Kashmir can help our craft by initiating a training programme regarding market trends, demands, orientation and capacity building,” said Mir.

Despite numerous hardships and challenges, Tariq Ahmad Mir continues to inspire thousands in the Valley of Kashmir.

Mir Zeeshan is a Kashmir-based journalist.