Kashmiri Papier Mâché
By Sayan Lodh
Papier Mâché in French means ‘chewed paper.’ Within India, the art form is unique to Kashmir. The technique is used for making items in various shapes and sizes such as pen- cases, birds, animals, photo frames, toys, etc. featuring intricate designs of Kashmir’s flora and fauna.
The exchange of designs among the craft forms is one of the key features of Kashmiri handicrafts. Patterns from woodcarving, shawls, and carpets are often replicated in papier mâché. Classical styles include Arabesque, Yarkhand. Some of the contemporary popular designs include: Gulander Gul (flower inside flower), Gul-i Vilayat (foreign flowers), Gonder (bunch), Bagalder Chinar (Chinar leaf motif), Gul-i Hazara (thousand flowers), Kashan and Kaleen (carpets), Jamavar (a type of shawl worn by Kashmiris), among others. Sadaf Nazir Wani opines, ‘The hand of the papier mache maker is in constant communication with
Sociopolitical history of their context, and the craft is a manifestation of their understanding of history and culture.’
The process of making papier mâché products involves two stages. The first called Sakhtasazi involves making the actual product from a mixture of mashed paper pulp, rice straw and copper sulphate. The second Naqashi involves finishing and decorating the item through application of several coats of organic paint and lacquer. Although nowadays synthetic dies and varnishes are used due to commercialisation, the entire time-consuming process is manually done by expert craftsmen, and requires lot of patience and practice. The products are generally made in summertime due to longer daylight hours, crucial for the work’s intricateness.
The history of papier mâché is entangled with the history of Kashmiri handmade paper called koshur kagaz. Kashmir became the first paper producing region in India in 15 th century, when Sultan Zain-ul Abidin brought paper makers and other craftsmen during his return from detention in Samarqand. Papier mâché is also known as kar-i qalamdani or pen case work, and kar-i munaqqash or painted work, as the art form was generally used to produce pen-cases and boxes. The kosur kagaz was in great demand across India due to writing of manuscripts. The demand for pen-cases was high in Kashmir due to the presence of the elite workers or munshis comprising of scribes, accountants, secretaries. The demand for pen-cases, book binding materials, and manuscript paper led to the flourishing of paper mâché. A pen-case, besides being a utilitarian item, served as a symbol of the munshis’ profession alongside paper scrolls.
Papier Mâché was introduced in Kashmir by Central Asian and Persian immigrants in the 15th century. The beginning of the industry can be traced to two opinions. The first one attributes the introduction to 14 th century Persian mystic Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, popularly called ‘Shah-i Hamadan’. Hamdani arrived in Kashmir with about 700 followers, some of whom were expert craftsmen. Afzal Abdullah (owner of ‘Asia Crafts’ one of the oldest shops in Srinagar selling handmade papier mâché products started by his grandfather in 1945) calls papier mâché ‘a gift from Persia’, and a depiction of the ‘eclectic Iranian culture’. Many craftsmen like Abdullah claim descent from the original Persian craftsmen who arrived with Hamdani. The second one advocates the origin to Sultan Zain-ul Abidin (1420-1470), who brought in expert artisans from Samarqand. The artisans trained locals in the art. Papier mâché was applied to decorate woodwork, and even used as a substitute for plaster of Paris as evident in the ceiling of Shah Hamadan mosque.
The craft reached new heights in the Mughal era with patronage to the Kashmiri artisans in their karkhanas (workshops). The 17 th century French traveller-cum-physician, Francois Bernier noted about the craft in his book Travels in the Mogul Empire. Bernier noted that the interiors of the black marble summerhouse at Shalimar garden was painted and ornamente with papier mâché. Similar techniques were used to decorate Mughal furniture, elephant howdah, palanquin, tent poles, and even the Emperor’s throne. Mughal emperors often gifted papier mâché items to other rulers, and dignitaries. Kashmiri artisans periodically sent samples for examination by the Mughal Emperor. Aurangzeb patronised a specific design of papier mâché called subz-kar or highly varnished vegetation on a golden background.
During the subsequent periods of Afghan and Sikh rule in Kashmir between 1753 and 1846 AD, handicrafts in general suffered as the artisans were subjected to oppression and excessive taxation. Yet, William Moorcroft who travelled extensively in Kashmir between 1819 and 1823, mentioned about lavish papier mâché decorations in howdahs, palanquins, and buildings (walls and ceilings). The crafts again flourished during the Dogra rule due to royal patronage, colonial influence, and agitations by artisans for their rights in late 19 th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of Kashmiri pashmina shawls in Europe led to regular exports between 19th - 20th centuries. Anand Kaul mentioned that the shawls were packed in exquisite papier mâché boxes, which were sold separately as premium artworks in France. The development of the papier mâché industry paralleled the development of Srinagar in colonial period, being concentrated mainly in downtown areas of the city. Specimens prior to 19th century are rare, due to the perishable nature of papier mâché.
Papier mâché has been deeply intertwined with the cultural tradition of Kashmir for the past 600 years. In the pre-colonial era, paper mâché making was largely a family occupation with the skills being passed on from one generation to the other. However, since the second half of the 19th century, other craftsmen were also initiated into the art. Besides it generates employment for many households. In 2015, there were attempts to boost the art form through its inclusion in educational curriculum at school and college levels to develop the creative instincts of students. Nazeer Ahmad Punjabi, a papier mâché artist welcomed the move stating that it would be extremely beneficial in the long run.
Afzal Abdullah remarks, ‘Due to the counterfeit products in the market and unskilled people engaging in the art, it has lost its significance among buyers.’ He continued that at present there are just 40 artisans who know the real art, and the next generation are not interested as the work requires lots of patience.
The instability since 1990s, has immensely damaged the Kashmiri industries. The covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns further affected the Kashmiri tourism and handicraft industries, culminating in a loss of about $7 million according to Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Due to low pay (about ₹300 per day), many artisans have engaged in other professions to make their ends meet. Award-winning papier mâché artist Ajaz Shah turned an auto driver to run his household, while Niyaz Ahmad Bhat took up shawl making besides papier mâché to support his large family. Mehraj-ud-din spoke about his next generation’s disinterest in taking up the craft due to lack of prospects. Mohammad Rafiq, a papier mâché maker, lamented that the real makers (Sakhtasaz) who laboriously created the product but never got their due with only the lacquer workers (Naqqash) who provide the finishing touches getting all the credit. Inayatullah Din remarked that the main causes for the decline of the craft are lack of government support, conductive environment, availability of cheaper machine-made duplicates, and social disregard. Din also blames the self-satisfaction, and closeness to new creative ideas of the artisanal community for the decay. Nasir Mir (co owner of ‘Akhtar Hussain Mir and Brothers’ at Alamgiri Bazar, Srinagar) opined that the craft is in coma, waiting for its slow death as the younger generation look towards other lucrative fields. Previously, the job was well paid with papier mâché items being considered luxury. Nowadays the industry has been crippled by high cost of raw materials, and easy availability of counterfeit products leading to low labour charges.
Only time will tell whether the centuries old craft dies a slow death, or is revived in a new packaging. Governmental policies and aid packages can aid the craftsmen, reviving the industry. Policies to teach the craft to the students at primary, secondary, and tertiary level is commendable. E-commerce can become an important tool in the hands of the craftsmen to sell their items directly to consumers worldwide, increasing their income by reducing the middlemen.