All things Kashmir: Sonth, a spring of revival

“O home, a thousand houses be sacrificed for you… Wish I had to never step out of your door.” That’s the translation of a Kaeshur proverb “garah wandai gara sasah, barah neraha nah zah.” It drives home an intense nostalgia for all things Kaeshur, especially for those staying out of the valley. But even for the dwellers, original Kaeshur words, proverbs and other heritage seems to be fading away. Amidst a growing sense of loss, two young women are making an effort to preserve the linguistic and cultural legacy of Kashmir.

27-year-old Oxford post-graduate, Onaiza Drabu, and her 23-year-old architect cousin, Nusaiba Khan, have come up with Sonth (meaning Spring in Kaeshur) – a brand of souvenirs and merchandise inspired by Kashmir. For instance, the proverb about the love for home mentioned above is among several ones displayed on a desk calendar. And there are postcards, fridge magnets, coasters and bags in the product line – all showcasing the Kashmir grandeur.

“I wanted to design something different. For instance, there is a surprising lack of quality souvenirs like postcards in Kashmir,” Drabu told Kashmir Dispatch. “I grew up seeing calendars filled with pictures of stuff I didn’t even like, so I tapped into this need in the market.”

The duo designed the merchandise together after a planning of about two years.While Khan did most of the artwork, Drabu helped create the digital cartoons. First, they printed a small batch to gauge people’s interest and response on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The response was so overwhelming that they decided to set up a two-day pop-up store on the rooftop of a restaurant at Srinagar’s Zero Bridge. “We ran out of the table calendars at the store,” says Drabu. “It was interesting and we had mixed buyers, but people are mostly reaching out to us online.”

Onaiza Drabu (R) and Nusaiba Khan (L)

Since its launch in January this year, Sonth’s biggest hit has been the desk calendar featuring 12 popular Kaeshur proverbs and idioms. “I feel that learning proverbs helps connect with the language more than speaking it every day,” says Drabu. “Sometimes they awaken phrases that would probably die out in the age of memes and texting.”

Kashmir architecture and the soul of the old city is captured in some of the products. Sonth offers multi-colour notebooks featuring motifs of the endangered hangul’s antlers, and the intricate patterns of the wooden khatambandh ceilings. A postcard depicts the Akhoon Mullah Masjid, a 17th century mosque now lying in ruins on the foothills of the Hari Parbat hill. A fridge magnet shows an old traditional medicine shop at Khanqah-e-Mola with jars of herbal medicine resting atop its window sill.

A set of fridge magnets also illustrates the popular Kashmir lullaby, Bishta Bishta Byaaro, about a cat that climbs up the jungle, comes down with a basil leaf to feed pigeons. There are tote bags, colorful coasters and bookmarks too.

So how did the idea of creating a brand inspired by Kashmir’s art, architecture, nature and language come about? In 2014, just after finishing her Young India Fellowship in New Delhi, Drabu started a blog called “The Lipton Chai” to explain meanings of Kashmir proverbs and idioms. The blog was an instant hit among Kashmir people. She was flooded with requests for T-shirts and other merchandise inspired by Kashmir.

In one of her humorous blog posts, Drabu illustrated the famous Kaeshur idiom kothen aech yini, showing a pair of eyes peering out from the knees, and text explaining the proverb’s figurative meaning.

A fridge magnet created by the duo.

“The Lipton Chai helped me connect with the language and folklore of Kashmir,” says Drabu, who has studied anthropology. “The content was mostly crowd sourced, which I would research and finally illustrate.” It was then that she came up with the idea of starting a “quirky stationary brand” inspired by Kashmir.

Drabu is also working on a research project, collecting oral and written folktales. She has also founded Daak, a literature blog aimed at collecting and preserving lesser-known stories and artworks from Kashmir and the Indian subcontinent. Last year, she released an illustrated eBook, Vaeliv Gaenzravav, on Kashmiri counting for kids. Sonth co-founder Nusaiba Khan, who studies at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, also works on heritage and traditional architecture in Srinagar.

The young women plan to expand their product line soon. There is no plan for a physical retail store for now, but their pop-up stores and online sales will see a major push in May.