Visuals of paper maché: Kashmir’s 700-year-old 'chewed paper' craft

Visuals of paper maché: Kashmir’s 700-year-old ‘chewed paper’ craft

Visuals of Paper mache: Kashmir's 700-year-old chewed paper craft 30 stades

The first glance at Kashmir’s paper maché flower vases, boxes, trays and other items makes one feel that the craft is done on wood. The beautiful cups, lamps and beautifully decorated artefacts seem to not reveal their core – paper pulp. Today, Kashmiri paper maché (also paper-maché or paper machi) products are well known the world over.

But what’s not widely known is that the craft travelled from Persia to India in the 14th century. 

There are two versions to the story. It is said that Sufi saint Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who visited Kashmir, introduced the craft from Persia. The other belief is that Kashmir’s 8th ruler Zain-ul-Abidin saw this art in Samarkand, now in east-central Uzbekistan, and brought some artisans with him on return. They taught the art to Kashmiri locals and their descendants continue to practice the craft in the valley even today. 

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Papier-mâché is a French word meaning ‘chewed paper’ or ‘mashed paper’.

Kashmir’s emperors decorated even their doors and walls with paper maché and patronised the craft, which flourished. 

Process of paper maché

The craft begins with soaking waste paper in water for many days. This soaked waste paper, paddy straw and some cloth are pounded in a stone mortar to make a fine pulp. Glue made from rice is added to it and the mixture is applied over moulds. 

Once fully dried, the artwork is removed from the mould. It is here that women take over and smoothen out any rough surface using a stone or wooden file. 

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Then the object is ready for being coated with the first layer of paint. A second layer is also applied and when fully dry, it is covered with thin sheets of butter paper. This layer of butter paper prevents the paint from reaching the base, which could otherwise crack due to the paint. The piece is then beautified with more layers of paint and designs before it is ready for sale. 

Over the years, the demand for paper maché products increased and there sprang up an overseas market for paper maché handicrafts from Kashmir. 

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However, in the last few years, the art has been on a decline as the valley has been struggling with strife and shutdowns. COVID-19 has only worsened things. “My great grandfather set up this paper maché unit in 1917. Since then we have been practicing the art. But it is tough to find buyers now. There are no takers for our paper maché elephants, camels, eggs, jewellery boxes and other items,” says Amjad Bhat, who runs the over-100-year-old shop in Srinagar. 

“The world has been hit with Coronavirus and we are no exception. Our business is zero now,” he adds.

Fiza Hussain Bhat, another craftsman who once had a flourishing paper maché unit, says in the last 10 years, it has been tough to find craftsmen. “The earning are not enough to sustain artists and their families. So most people are quitting the craft,” he says.

Some organisations like Commitment to Kashmir (CtoK), a trust, are trying to help the craftsmen by training them in contemporary designs and trying to find a market for them. But in a world hit by COVID, jobs and salaries have been cut and it may not be easy to find buyers anytime soon. Wasim Nabi has captured the beauty of paper maché and the pain of its craftsmen in a video and pictures here:

Paper mache came to India in the 14th century from Persia. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Paper mache came to India in the 14th century from Persia. Pic: Wasim Nabi
The craft was patronised by Kashmir's emperors. Pic: Wasim Nabi
The craft was patronised by Kashmir’s emperors. Pic: Wasim Nabi

Also Read: COVID-19 gives new wings to kabootar bazi in Kashmir

Kashmiri emperors got even their walls and doors decorated with paper mache. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Kashmiri emperors got even their walls and doors decorated with paper mache. Pic: Wasim Nabi
The craft eventually became very popular among the masses as well. Pic: Wasim Nabi
The craft eventually became very popular among the masses as well. Pic: Wasim Nabi

Also Read: In pictures: Dussehra customs from across India

Artisans today make a variety of items using paper mache. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Artisans today make a variety of items using paper mache. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Storage boxes, animals, eggs, vases and lamps of paper mache are very popular among buyers. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Storage boxes, animals, eggs, vases and lamps of paper mache are very popular among buyers. Pic: Wasim Nabi

Also See: In pictures: Rajasthan’s traditional turbans & the man making them trendy

Artisans mostly work from home or their workshops. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Waste paper undergoes many processes before it is ready for naqshi or painting. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Waste paper undergoes many processes before it is ready for naqshi or painting. Pic: Wasim Nabi

Also Read: Maharashtra’s Chitrakathi painting: keeping alive the legacy of Chhatrapati Shivaji’s spies

The artisans today are struggling due to zero sales amid COVID-19. Pic: Wasim Nabi
The artisans today are struggling due to zero sales amid COVID-19. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Artisans are waiting for better days when they can sell their products again. Pic: Wasim Nabi
Artisans are waiting for better days when they can sell their products again. Pic: Wasim Nabi

(Lead Pic: by Wasim Nabi)

(Wasim Nabi is a Srinagar-based freelance multimedia journalist)

Also See: Visuals of Kashmir’s beauty in autumn

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