A culturally rich province like Kashmir has been portrayed through many lenses over the years. It has been used as the backdrop for a myriad of stunning photographs and movies. It has been analysed for its state of political unrest, it has been looked at for its art, history, culture and craft. Sumaya Teli is a third generation Kashmiri woman living in America, who had always dreamed of reclaiming her home’s identity. Homegrown is republishing her story and photo series from her blog Mamanushka. Through this photo series that juxtaposes the intricately embroidered pherans of Kashmir against the backdrop of the city skyline in New York, she communicates images that are much like her identity – a melange of Kashmir, London and New York that holds on to culture and history, in their own unique ways while embracing the modern.
It’s not every day you can say something hasn’t been photographed in NYC. It’s the city of a million snapshots and a thousand fashion editorials – but where haute couture has been photographed on the lakes of the Dal in Srinagar – Kashmiri Embroidery has never been captured in a photoshoot on the streets of New York. Until now.
The Valley of Kashmir itself, is the photographer’s dream. It has too often been a backdrop to portray another nations fashion or beauty, whether it be decades of cultural appropriation by Bollywood or the iconic images of photographer Norman Parkinson for British Vogue in 1956.
Even when the subject of the photograph has been Kashmiri – the eye behind the camera often isn’t. In recent years I have seen an explosion of Kashmiri youth owning their own stories and taking the tools with which to tell them into their own hands. There is something magical and empowering about ‘Own Voice’ stories. Two of my absolute favourite photographers from the Valley – The Other Rumii and Kashmir Through My Lense exude this magic like no other.
I wished to add to the ‘Own Voice’ story of Kashmiri fashion and design- to upend those colonial-esque images of 1956 (British) Vogue and show the Kashmiri woman as centre stage -in an explosion of colour and floral motif. This time with a western city as the back drop, one where she is born or lays claim to residence. Unlike those, patronizing, albeit beautiful images, of white women in impossible gowns posing on shikaras.
The LA Long beach photo shoot that I did earlier, achieved this to a certain extent but it was still dreamlike in its evocative call to nature. This time I wanted to tell the story of the Real Urban Kashmiri Woman, an affirmation to my teenage self – where however much I wanted to ‘assimilate’ and shop the high streets of London, I always knew I had something too precious and valuable to let go of in the worn tilla threads that scratched my face every time my grandmother lovingly took my head to her chest in one of her epic hugs.
At Mamanushka we love bringing women together. I certainly had the photography, storytelling and styling covered myself. However, I wanted all the apparel to be modeled and designed by women who, like me, are at home with the hallmarks of many cultural identities rooted in being Kashmiri, and I wished to celebrate the best of these worlds.
For the beautiful clothes I reached out to Kashmiri New Yorker Nousheen Afzal, the designer behind the ‘Hamzaara’ label. Afzal started it as a way of making Kashmiri clothes available to Kashmiris and non-Kashmiris in the USA. She and her sister, Shazia Gojwari, work with a team of fifteen Kashmiri based artisans, and take their time to carefully select materials and choose the designs and combinations of colour and embroidery for each shawl and pheran. They typically design a total of six pherans or shawls per month – but the time that it takes to execute those designs varies depending on whether the embroidery is done by hand or by machine. Afzal happily curates and designs for both.
She says she always wanted to bring Kashmiri fashion to her now native New York and took a bold step in leaving her career in the medical field to pursue this growing sense of entrepreneurship.
Nousheen warmly invited me to her home to take my pick of any designs I may be inspired to photograph for this project. Under her banner of ‘Hamzaara New York’, I could see what she meant by the blending of modern and traditional- which many newfound Kashmiri designers aspire to but few get completely right.
That is the spirit we tried to capture in these images of models Sabreen and Mehrunissa. Sabreen is wearing an electric blue pure Pashmina shawl & brick red silk Aaari embroidery on a cream Kaftan and Mehrunissa has this very cool color blocked semi-pashmina along with a mustard wool Pheran with antique gold on maroon tilla.
Whether with minimal embroidery at the borders or flourishingly full embroidery all over – Kashmiri shawls have a charm that has lasted centuries. While the first picture shows a pure pashmina shawl in its undyed natural state, embroidered in a pink tea colored Sozni silk border; simplicity and grace at its best. I couldn’t resist styling it worn as a head wrap tied in a distinctively quintessential Kashmiri way. It’s not often we get to see this silhouette on a modern young woman as it’s mostly grandmothers who wear this style in Kashmir – but I say all ages need to embrace this! With the second image I wanted to show the Floral Motif Jamawar Shawl in a close up. In Blushing Shades of Lilac, Mint and Orange Blossom – the whole shawl is almost completely covered in embroidery.
Reclaiming the Pheran and traditional Kashmiri embroidery in its many forms (which some Kashmiris still dismiss as old fashioned) and bringing this heritage into public view is an important statement for me. I love the fact that we disrupted traffic and turned heads, a very difficult feat in New York City. Pherans in particular are so much more than just a piece of outerwear particular to Kashmiris in Indian Occupied Kashmir. It is a piece of clothing that is worn by both men and women and is so quintessentially Kashmiri that it – like its wearer- has been the subject of scrutiny and state policing. The pheran has come to represent a symbol of resistance and is a call to remember a land that is as vulnerable as it is beautiful.
Across the world, particularly in Europe and America, Kashmir is often only spoken of in terms of conflict and this seemed even more reason to remind this part of the world about its vibrancy, relevancy and contribution to fashion and culture.
Enjoy the gorgeousness people. As they say in ‘the city’ – everything’s a photograph in New York.
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