In her senior art exhibition, Devyani Aggarwal ’18 focuses on the cashmere-shawl industry in India’s Kashmir Valley explores how cultural heritage can be a powerful tool in conflict resolution.
The exhibition, titled “Made in Cashmere: Craft in the Age of Colonialism and Conflict,” features original photos and installations curated by Aggarwal, as well as artwork from the Library of Congress and the San Diego Museum of Art.
“Kashmir is one of the most beautiful regions in India,” Aggarwal said. “I wanted to explore the past and present of this region, which has a history of conflict but also a history of craft.”
Through her exhibit, Aggarwal aimed to explore the social and political identity of the artisan, while studying the production of the cashmere shawl. She took inspiration from her documentary studies class, imbuing the exhibit with a documentary-style narrative.
Aggarwal describes her project as the culmination of her interest in politics, art and cultural preservation. The exhibit includes a series of photographs that depict the shawl-making process, news clippings that detail Kashmir’s military strife and a timeline tracing perceptions of the craft through the centuries.
“Students at Yale invest so much time and effort into their artwork, and it’s often overlooked,” said Jacqueline Hayre-Pérez ’21. “Devyani’s exhibit puts care and dedication into capturing the lives of individuals while putting her work in a global context.”
This exhibition has been a semester-long process for Aggarwal, who went home to New Delhi and interviewed Kashmiri people for her project. She also spent the semester collecting resources about and doing research on South Asian history.
“It’s always been on my bucket list to put together an exhibit,” Aggarwal said. “I’m also personally invested in bringing my culture to Yale. I don’t think people would have known about this otherwise; the response has been very heartwarming.”
In Kashmir, families of artisans dominate the shawl-making industry. The shawl-making process involves a sophisticated division of labor and skill specialization. After dehairing goats and antelopes to spin into a fine yarn, artisans spend one month making a plain shawl with a handloom, after which there are two possible paths for design. Kani weavers take colored threads and weave a design within the shawl, while embroiders use needlework to create their shawl designs. Artisans then leave their signatures as a mark of craftsmanship on this labor-intense product.
From start to finish, the entire process can take up to a year. These master craftsmen pass on their knowledge to their children who can carry it on in turn.
As Aggarwal shares in her exhibition, however, a fall in demand is putting this creative economy at risk due to the proliferation of mass-produced fake shawls.
“The value for artisanal labor is decreasing,” Aggarwal told the News. “People don’t have a reason to buy a shawl for 60,000 rupees when they can get a mechanically produced shawl for 6,000 rupees.”
According to Aggarwal, territorial conflicts in Kashmir have exacerbated this problem. Since India’s partition in 1947, Kashmir has been a heavily militarized territory disputed by India and Pakistan. Due to the violence in the region, merchants have started to export their products out of Kashmir rather than having patrons come directly to the marketplace.
“I think the exhibit intertwines historical and contemporary perspectives in a thoughtful way,” Brandon Canfield ’21 said.
Aggarwal’s exhibition analyzes what happens as people take Kashmiri culture out of Kashmir and present it to the world. The exhibition features examples of two start-ups that are selling shawls online. Aggarwal approved of the model used by the company “Crafted in Kashmir,” which educates consumers about where the shawls comes from and what they’re buying.
“But at the same time I wonder why you would spend $600 on a shawl without knowing the touch and feel of it,” Aggarwal said. “There are issues of cultural appropriation. The question is: Who owns this product?”
Big designers in India with global recognition have made efforts to incorporate Kashmiri embroidery into their work. Aggarwal applauds their efforts, but still questions what the role of the artisan or the maker is in getting the shawl from producer to consumer. Aggarwal aims to draw attention to how law and politics can sustain economies in which art is a livelihood.
“I want people to think more deeply about art without romanticizing it and how we can respect and provide justice for its creators.”
The exhibition will run until April 19.
Sophia Nam | firstname.lastname@example.org