Where Have All the Kathmandu Quiltmakers Gone?
Where have all the quilt-makers gone?
By MANISHA NEUPANE & RAJITA DHUNGANA
Nathan Yadav, 35, stands in the gallis of Bhedasingh, Ason everyday, armed with his wooden Dhanus. (Similar to a bow for a bow and arrows) He calls out to the people passing by with a sharp “Sirak dasana banaune ho?” accompanied by an occasional twang of his medieval-looking apparatus, advertising his quilt-making services the way he's been doing for years. Bhedasingh has long been popular for cotton blankets; it is where people from all over the Valley used come to at one time—and there are a fair number who still do—for a range of cotton products, including mattresses, bedding and even clothes. And it is here that many men like Yadav are found earning a living.
Yadav, originally from Raxaul, India, has been in Kathmandu for almost a decade now. He came here hoping to use his skills in a trade that he had learnt as a young man and make some decent money. “Quilt-makers are not in that great demand in India because of the hot weather there. This is why many of us who make cotton blankets come here, to Nepal, where more work is available,” says Yadav. Most quilt-makers, in fact, hail from the border regions, including Bihar, Sisauni, and Raxaul. Some of them have families that have been living in Nepal for three generations.
The quilt-makers either wait in the gallis of major transactional places like Ason and Lagankhel, or roam the suburbs carrying the Dhanus. Although already diminishing, their numbers receive a distinctive boost with the arrival of winter, as demand for warm bedding starts rising—particularly between August and February. “They make solid profits during the winter, and they work very fast. One worker can make at least three blankets per day, charging Rs. 350-400 per piece ((around $4.50 to $5.50),” says Pradeep Shrestha, who owns Machhindra Clothing, a small enterprise that often hires the workers.
Most long-time residents of Kathmandu are familiar with the peculiar drone of the Dhanus, played like a string instrument to announce the presence of a quilt-maker in the vicinity. In a city where a variety of street hawkers abound, the Dhanus' twang is a distinctive—or at least used to be—part of the soundscape. It also makes for a unique sight, with its oddly-shaped wooden body fitted with a string, used to chop up cotton and make it softer and fluffier.
Abdul Hamid, a quilt-maker who has been in this line of work for more than 40 years, says that he enjoys what he does, despite being far from his family and home in Rautahat. However, Abdul doesn't believe this will remain a sustainable source of income, not for long anyway. “The cotton blankets that we make are now being replaced in large amounts by readymade Chinese blankets. It has hampered our work a lot and business is no more like it used to be before,” he says.
It is precisely this sense of uncertainty regarding the future of a profession already at risk of becoming obsolete—in the face of a barrage of mass-produced replacements flooding the market in the last decade—that has compelled many quilt-makers to find part-time work elsewhere to support their families, especially during the off seasons.
“It wasn't always like this; this used to be a profitable trade. Not only was I able to built a house of my own in Rautahat but also got my sons and daughters married,” says Abdul.
This downward trend is reiterated by Pradeep, but he says there are still occasions on which these traditional-made products are sought after specifically. “This time of year, it's the wedding season, and people prefer traditional blankets to the readymade ones. We usually get a considerable number of orders,” he says. He adds that although sales of these old-school blankets might suffer, they probably won't ever be replaced totally. “People have a certain attachment to things they've seen being used in their families and cotton blankets are one of them,” he says.
Maya Kumari Shrestha, for instance, says that she wouldn't settle for anything else, a big reason for which is the price. These traditional siraks cost Rs. 700 to 800 (around $10)whereas the Chinese blankets are much more expensive, starting from Rs. 1,200 (around $16). “Its hard to think of replacing them. We have already gotten used to the siraks and dasnas,” she says. Sita Ghimire demonstrates a similar view while shopping for blankets for her daughter's wedding. “The Chinese blankets might look attractive but they are incomparable to our traditional oodnis,” she says. “Moreover these oodnis can be remade and reused, and have great utility value.” Sita laments the fact that there are fewer quilt-makers on the streets today, forcing her to come all the way to Bhedasingh. “When my elder daughter was getting married five years back, I didn't have to come here. Nowadays, there are hardly any quilt-makers that visit my area.”
With dwindling numbers and a dwindling source of income, these quilt-makers are facing what many traditional professions and crafts have suffered under the inescapable clutch of globalisation—a gradual phase-out. For now at least, they appear to have a loyal customer base in Kathmandu, but who is to say what will happen tomorrow? With more and more machine-made products hitting the store-shelves at increasingly competitive prices, these traditional siraks—and their makers—are having a hard time holding their ground. The sound of the Dhanus, once a friendly reminder of cold weather and warm beds, looks set to fade out slowly.