It’s hard to imagine that these beautifully crafted pieces of art are created from some of the simplest of raw materials. Umer Beigh reports on the creative genius of the Kashmiri Papier-mâché.
Papier-mâché is a delicate decorative art. In the past, real gold was used to create it. But with the time, innovations and faster methods of motif application style have introduced changes to it. This art is highly influenced by Persian form of artistry which was further encouraged by the Mughal rulers. It is said that in Kashmir, it was introduced by Prince Sultan Zain-ul Abidin in the15th century. Since then, it has passed down from one generation to another. However, Kashmiri craftsmen have still maintained the old culture of making it by hand as Kar-i-Qalamdaan (art of a person who holds pen, brush and inkpots).
Abdul Hafiz, a Sakta artisan (pulp molder) says, “In Kashmir the traditional method involves the paper pulp which serves as a base to manufacture finely painted lacquered ware. The waste paper is soaked in water for several days till it disintegrates. Later the excess water is drained and the soaked waste paper, cloth, rice straw and copper sulphate (Aitij informally) are mixed to form a pulp.” He adds, “This mixture is placed in a mould and left to dry for two to three days. On drying, we cut away the shape from the mould in two halves and glue it again,” he says.
The surface is then coated with the layer of glue and gypsum, rubbed smooth with a stone or clay and pasted with the layers of tissue paper. The object is then burnished and sent for the next process. The work of one artisan is done, and now it goes to the Naqash (painter) who will bring it into life.
“We first coat a base color of lacquer to it so that the desired design is done accordingly. Nature was the inspiration in deriving the motifs and designs. The popular designs which are sold all over the world as curio products, are coasters and Christmas ornaments,” says Sajad Hussain, a painter who has been in this art for almost 22 years. Almost 12 colors can be painted onto the toughest designs, which involve huge labour and time. Among other rich designs are ‘Arabesque’ and ‘Yarkand’.
“It requires three years to learn this art. And an artist has to learn new innovative methods throughout his life,” Sajad says.
The brush which the painters use for detailed artwork like painting for floral, geometrical and figurative designs and patterns on items covered with lacquer is made from the hair of a cats tail. Papier-mâché objects are thus made in two phases, the Sakht Sazi (making the surface) and the Naqashi (painting the surface). Above all, it is the skill of many talented hands altogether which bring such a beautiful craft on a mantel.
In addition to the paper pulp mould there have been new innovations over time. Now objects like bowls and vases are lined with brass, cardboard is used for making curved cylindrical shapes, boxes made of wood and other items are ornamented with gold and silver leaves, thus portraying beautiful landscapes; and objects like houseboats are made as well.
The Papier-mâché export market was reportedly established during the 19th century when the French commissioned artisans to create gift boxes for Pashmina shawls; thereby bringing this art into the global limelight. At present more than one lakh people are associated with the trade in Kashmir. In 2007-08, the state exported Papier-mâché products worth Rs 33.06 crore and the innovations in this field are expected to increase the export market significantly. Aiming to diversify the skills of Papier-mâché artists in Kashmir, Srinagar based Craft Development Institute (CDI) had introduced the concept of glass painting among artisans. Popular souvenirs available at the local market in Kashmir range from Rs 35 to 38,000. Specific products ordered by exporters are aslo made ,
According to Bilal Ahmad, an exporter who is in this field for more than two decades, “Items worth around 15- 20 crore are exported yearly according to our estimate.”