This startup’s souvenir products highlight the rich culture and heritage of terror-struck Kashmir
New York City, considered by some the greatest city in the world, has been celebrated since the 70s with the famous ‘I Love New York’ advertising slogan. And most of us in faraway India have sported a T-shirt with the logo at some point or the other. Be it an Eiffel Tower keychain, or a koala fridge magnet, we are often inclined to celebrate other countries, their famous monuments, and culture, even if we have not visited these places.
But how often do we come across similar products highlighting Indian cities or monuments. Sama Bég wanted to change this, so she returned from the US to Kashmir, her home, and did just that.
Sama Bég and few of the products sold by her startup.
“I have noticed an abundance of products in Kashmir that celebrated foreign identities more than native ones. In fact in 2012 I saw a young boy wearing a shirt that said ‘I love NY’ in my own town, Anantnag. This bothered me. Having lived in the US, I had never once seen someone show off an ‘I love Kashmir’ T-shirt. I wondered why people were so keen to celebrate western cultures instead of their own rich heritage. Being a proud Kashmiri, I also wondered why there were no products that celebrated our Kashmiri identity in a contemporary way,” the 31-year-old says.
Sama quit her career in healthcare management in the US, and moved back to India in 2015. With an aim to preserve and promote Kashmiri culture while supporting local artists and graphic designers, she founded Koshur Lifestyle in 2017.
What started as a small online store to sell products that were designed and produced in Kashmir, has today become a symbol of pride for all Kashmiris across the globe. In 2019, the team also launched a unique calendar that captured the essence of the Kashmiri culture and heritage by celebrating 12 Kashmiri women and their contribution to create a diverse and tolerant society.
The calendar celebrates Kashmiri women's contribution in the field of healthcare, arts, music, education, politics and more.
Kashmir’s talent reminds untouched
“In places of conflict, the voice and talent of the average person is often drowned out by the noise of violence. This endeavour is also an attempt to show the world that despite the many challenges we face in Kashmir, we have not - and never will - lose the desire to live and celebrate beauty,” Sama says.
As Kashmir reels under the aftermath of the latest terror attack in Pulwama district it becomes all the more important to discuss the narratives that bring the positive side of the Valley. While the region is often caught in curfews, riots, and frequent internet shutdowns, Kashmirirs have found refuge in the contemporary arts.
Sama notes that the lack of exposure and access to the outside world and internet has helped the Kashmiri youth to become creative in their outlook where they are found to spend time on arts and crafts projects. For instance because comic books and board games were difficult to come by in the 1990s in Kashmir, her cousin would make his own book at home by recycling cardboard and other items.
Young artists like Zaira Wasim and Yawar Abdal support and sport Koshur Lifestyle products.
Earlier there we no outlets in Kashmir to cerebrate arts and crafts. With Koshur Lifestyle, Sama wants to not only encourage artists and graphic designers by providing them a platform to showcase their talent, but through her brand she hopes to highlight Kashmir’s humour, daily conversations, and citizens lifestyle.
“Localised, tailored content and merchandise is seeing a large market. Art as a commodity is seeing a market. This combines both in a compact, useful product,” she says.
The native Kashmiri brand
It was essential for Sama to ensure that her startup celebrated Kashmir and that her products also remained true to its native roots. Hence the marketing, the ideation, development and creation of products, and the designs, are all undertaken by Kashmiris themselves. In fact, the profits from the sale of goods are also donated to CHINAR Kashmir, a non-profit that works toward rehabilitating orphans.
Koshur Wear organised a private performance by Ali Safuddin for children at Chinar Kashmir on the occasion of Eid.
To ensure authenticity of her brand, she brought in her childhood friend and graphic designer Mustaali Raj to help her develop the logo and designs. She also was able to rope in popular Kashmiri cartoonist Mir Suhail to develop some of their first designs. The first two products– their Koshur Heart T-shirt and the signature Kalle Kharab T-shirt— drew accolades from Kashmiris even from North America.
“In 2015 when I moved home I didn’t know many people in the business community in Kashmir. At that time, two young gentleman – Ejaz Ayoub and Sameer Gojwari – were conducting monthly meetups for entrepreneurs and young business people in Srinagar. They both helped me understand how the company registration process works in India and provided a lot of moral support for my idea. As they say, your network is your net worth – from that point on my network in Kashmir has grown,” Sama adds.
Sama soon began to collaborate with other native Kashmir-based startups and shops to expand her product base. The calendar, for instance, was conceptualised by Sonth Kashmir, a quirky Kashmiri stationery brand.
Sama introduces her startup and her clothing line to fellow organisations and startups in Kashmir.
Pride for Kashmir
Multiple startups like Kashmir Box, KashmirOneStop, and Kashmir Looms celebrate and sell native Kashmiri-hand made products online. Sama says that her bootstrapped enterprise is different because quality is something that she does not comprise on.
“Not many people have a sense of ethics in this part of the world and don’t understand copyrights on art and design. Some of our designs and concepts have been copied exactly as they were,” she adds.
Further, being an online brand too poses a challenge, as the internet is frequently blocked by the government, and that hits their business.
Few of the products sold by Koshur Lifestyle.
Despite these setbacks, Sama remain firm in her mission to discover new items and accessories to celebrate her heritage.
“The feeling I get from seeing random people out and about in Kashmir wearing or using my products with pride is my biggest success,” Sama concludes.