The Dire Future of Kashmiri Papier Mache

Across the globe, Kashmir has a renowned status for its handmade crafts such as carpets and wood carvings. One of the items originating from Kashmir is the age-old craft of papier mache. Previously lauded for its fine quality, this traditional craft is gradually dying out, raising concerns for the Kashmiri artisans.

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Photo by Meruyert Gonullu from Pexels

HISTORY


Papier mache is an exquisite form of art rooted in Persia, now known as Iran. Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who was a scholar, poet and Sufi Muslim saint, first introduced this sophisticated craft in the late 14th century. He led a large group of talented craftsmen from Persia into India to teach and pilot this art form in Kashmir.


In the 15th century, Sultan Zain-ul-Abadin returned from captivity in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. During his imprisonment, he picked up the unique art forms that were prevalent across Central Asia and when he returned to Kashmir, he encouraged the people to adopt the practice.


During the Mughal era, the influx of immigrants, especially from Central Asia, brought along their art forms and influenced the Kashmiri culture. This influence is evident in many landmarks across the valley. Shah-e-Hamadan Masjid, situated in the heart of Srinagar, is a great example of how this powerful craft has spread beyond its borders. The interiors of this mosque are gracefully decorated with elements of Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Many look to these structures as an oasis of peace in the chaos-ton state.

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Papier Mache wall in Shah-e-Hamadan Mosque (Image by Mike Prince)

THE BACK-BREAKING PROCESS


For a craft that has been passed down over generations of artisans, one would expect that the process would have been modernised and simplified. However, the former statement does not stand true for papier mache. The dedicated artisans of this craft remain true to the original process and techniques. These talented artists believe that staying authentic allows for greater sentimental value and appreciation for each art piece.


This taxing process is mainly conducted by two sets of distinct artisans - the Sakhasaz and the Naqqash. The Sakhasaz are responsible for designing and moulding the paper pulp, while the Naqqash are delegated to paint onto these moulds.

To begin this complex process, paper is first soaked and boiled in hot water, after which it is mixed with flour and other natural starch. Salt is an important ingredient in this process as it prevents the product from developing mould overtime. Finally, the entire mixture is ground into a consistency similar to that of heavy cream before it is bound together with adhesive glue. The paper pulp is left to dry for two to three days before the craftsmen proceed to decorate them.


When dried, these products are rubbed smooth and polished with a baked piece of clay and passed onto the naqqash, who begin to work their magic. Each figurine is hand painted by Kashmir’s finest craftsmen, making them unique in their own ways. Inspired by the jaw-dropping Kashmiri landscape, artisans vary between fine lines, curls, dots, animals or even words for each product. The organic design on each product adds character and radiates the dedication of these craftsmen. The great attention to detail on these handicrafts is what initially acquired global fame.

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Papier mache goods, Kashmir by flowcomm

After the tedious task of moulding and painting, a final coat of varnish is applied to give the product an illuminating look. Products are sold locally to tourists, across India, and even exported to European countries such as France. In fact, the French traders were the first people to introduce this refined art to the European markets. As the name suggests, papier mache is derived from the French language, translating ‘chewed paper’.


Also See | The Traditional Attire of Kashmir


CHALLENGES


Unfortunately, the bleak economy has taken a toll on this elegant art form. The industry faces a drastic drop in demand, which can be attributed to many reasons. However, the crux of this matter is the growing popularity of FMCG products. The neighbouring country, China, is the biggest producer of cheaper and machine-made products which has adversely affected the Kashmiri artisans.


This poor outlook on business draws a cloud of worry over these hardworking artisans heads. Many of them belong to a poorer economic background and their livelihoods are predominantly dependent on their papier-mache business. A lower income would directly affect their way of life and especially so if they were breadwinners of their families. Working out of their own homes or a tiny workspace, these artisans rely deeply on this art form to solely survive.

REIGNITING THE FLAME


This perishing art form has caught the attention of the Indian government which has responded proactively to protect the industry and its independent artisans. The government has introduced papier mache in many school curriculums to encourage the younger generation to carry on this ancient form of art. There have also been workshops for local artists to upskill themselves and remain globally competitive. Essentially, these workshops are funded by the World Bank, with a whopping Rs. 2.18 crore, in an attempt to help these struggling artists.


Another local artisan, Iqbal Ahmad Wan, has taken it onto himself to expand the boundaries of this art form. He has introduced a special series of products that are visual impairment-friendly by incorporating braille into this 700 year old art.

A watershed moment in papier mache history, this progress ushers a significant era for both the art form and the artisans. They can either take the uncertain path to continue this traditionally aesthetic art form and preserve it or they can take the definitive path and secure their livelihoods by letting go of this art and entering a more stable industry.

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Author

Khushi Makasare

Pratha Content Writer