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Studio Kilab’s contemporary twist to Kashmiri crafts

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Burhan ud din Khateeb, co-founder of Studio Kilab, is giving traditional Kashmiri crafts a contemporary touch while creating livelihood opportunities for local artists

Burhan ud din Khateeb, co-founder of Studio Kilab, is giving traditional Kashmiri crafts a contemporary touch while creating livelihood opportunities for local artists

When Burhan ud din Khateeb completed his Product Design course at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, in 2015, unlike his classmates who took up job offers at established companies, he decided to move back to his home in Kashmir.

Burhan, who co-founded Kashmir Innovation Lab (Studio Kilab) in Srinagar — a multidisciplinary design studio exploring the fields of crafts and sustainable living — with businessman Ishfaq Mir in 2018, says the Indonesian designer Singgih Susilo Kartono inspired him to return home. “Pak Singgih, as we call him in Bahasa, graduated as a product designer from one of the finest design institutions in Indonesia, after which he returned to his village and started working with local craftsmen. He went on to create refined products that have been sold abroad, and also bagged several international design awards,” says Burhan, adding that this story inspired him “to look at my own roots and think how I could possibly go back and use design for a positive change”. 

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Reopened in June 2022 after the pandemic-induced hiatus, Studio Kilab homes everything from lighting fixtures and bags to apparel and home décor. The idea of the initiative, says Burhan, was to make Kashmiri craft “open to newer collaborations and innovations for new market opportunities that would go on to create livelihood opportunities for the artists”. 

Burhan ud din Khateeb 
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The designer explains how on his return to Kashmir, he chose to work with paper mache for his final project. “I picked this as it uses recycled materials and can be moulded into any shape. I developed lamps, clocks and speakers.”

Burhan, who realised most craft projects in Kashmir lacked a holistic approach towards community development and craft revival, went on to work closely with Pak Singgih to understand how design-led community development works. “We worked on a new village model which looked at uplifting farmers and upskilling them by developing farmers’ markets, craft markets, homestays, etc,” says the artist. 

Four years later

Over the last four years, a lot has evolved and changed at the enterprise. “We started out with exploration in several directions, even looking at permaculture practices, natural building and sustainable living in general. We also worked with several crafts including wood work, willow wicker, metal, paper mache, etc., in the first year,” says Burhan.

One of their hit products, he says, was the range of adjustable chicken coops. “We had a tradition of rearing chickens in most homes, which is now fading. We worked with people who had in-depth knowledge about chicken rearing and made a series of chicken coops that became popular.” The basic version is crafted in plywood and metal mesh which is painted for outdoor use, and the other two variants are made of charred wood. 

The chicken coop

The chicken coop
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The team worked hard and made quick progress until August 2019, and when Article 370 got revoked, the duo lost touch with team members and operations halted completely. “We had no means of communication and it took many months for phones and 2g Internet to resume, and by then everything was scattered. I taught courses at NID and NIFT to sustain, and other team members did odd jobs for basic sustenance. This was immediately followed by COVID-19 and that was another huge blow,” he explains. As the craftsmen struggled even for basic meals, Burhan put together a collective of paper mache artists during the pandemic and pulled in some orders.

The paper mache speakers

The paper mache speakers
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In the pipeline

Burhan says one of the biggest reasons behind launching Studio Kilab was to put a contemporary spin on traditional crafts that are fading away. “We realised that the traditional Kashmiri handicrafts market is quite stagnant and we need to evolve our products and processes to meet current market needs. Young buyers are looking for utility in crafts along with the handmade story,” he explains.

He, along with Ishfaq, has brought in newer process innovations and tools. “We are using 3D software to figure out new shapes and we use this to make different cutouts in plywood. It’s inspired by certain processes of leather work.” This, he adds, also helps in better quality control and consistency in production “which is a prerequisite in today’s market” Now, the duo is partnering with brands such as Titan, Go Native that are looking to get consistent and reliable production from Kashmir.

A clock crafted at Studio Kilab

A clock crafted at Studio Kilab
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Recent launches at Studio Kilab include a range of chairs with willow wicker and metal. Paper mache furniture and a lighting collection is in the offing. “The chairs, stools and tables are inspired from drapery. We are reinforcing the paper pulp with metal mesh structures to give it the strength and stability required for furniture pieces,” says Burhan. There’s also a range of handmade felt products in the offing that includes lights, bags and other accessories. As for what he looks forward to in their new chapter, the designer says “COVID-19 taught us to be strong even in our worst and we restarted the studio with a new spirit and with the same goals of building a new, more robust crafts industry in Kashmir.”
 



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