No Paper Tigers

With the traditional papier-mâché getting focused attention at the societal and official levels, Khalid Bashir Gura met two artisans who had given up their well-paying good jobs to revive and improve the art, which many thought was in a free fall

Papier Machie artisan Mohammad Shafi Guroo 

Adjacent to Craft Development Institute, in a huge cold hall of Kashmir Papier-mâché Industrial Cooperative Society, two Papier-mâché artists are engrossed in carving design on a creamy paper mould. Around them, Papier-mâché products packed lay scattered. As the light dims, they stop working.

Not many people know that the two artists have given up lucrative government jobs to breathe life into the art that is on the margins of Kashmir’s craft basket.

The Cop

A resident of Nowpora in Srinagar, Syed Kousar, 41, inherited the craft from his father. A teenager in the early nineties, he said that due to prolonged curfews he was confined to four walls like other people. As he grew up around people associated with the Papier-mâché, he started falling in love with the art. “I soon mastered it with the help of a father,” he said.

Papier Mchie artist, Kousar Ahmad Shah

In 1999, Kousar was appointed in the police department as Selection Grade Constable. “Whenever I returned from duty, I busied myself with the craft. I would undertake some small projects and work till late at night. I had job satisfaction in it,” he said. He served the police for almost a decade.

He said he wanted to work as a full-time artist and would remain restless between his artistic passions and a lucrative government job. In 2007, he lost his teacher and mentor, his own father. This landed him in the role of being the sole breadwinner of the family. However, government jobs ensured security. As the family started looking for a bride, it triggered tensions as he would precondition a marriage to his resignation. Finally, in November 2008, he put in his papers and returned to the art full time.

Getting into a profession at a time when the elders were quitting it was a huge decision. But he did not stop there. Soon, when shutdown froze life, Kousar started attracting young men, mostly jobless and low paid people, into the Papier-mâché.

“I soon started teaching them and many educated youths who may have been jobless are able to earn on their own now. I even taught women,” Kousar said. “We gave women some specialized projects like making moulding paper pulp, Papier-mâché jewellery.” It started generating some income for families that lacked one.

New Designs

Kousar started making items, which defied clichéd imaginations and supply quality – mostly flower vases, boxes and items ordered by buyers. Soon, they also started making Papier-mâché furniture, jewellery for different offshore markets.

What helped Kousar most was his association with different companies. He worked with a Mumbai based company, Pearl Academy and implemented their projects that helped him sustain his initiative.

“I broke the conventional chain wherein many middlemen were involved,” Kousar said. “I directly went to the market, did exhibitions, created contacts to take my products in national and international markets.”

Kousar’s analysis is that art is facing a crisis because people have started using softwood instead of Papier-mâché. “It helps manage demands faster but it is not the real Papier-mâché,” he said. “Quality has taken a huge hit.”

This, he said, in spite of facing hardships owing to the Covid19 pandemic. “The demand has nosedived so there is no work,” he said. But it has not led him to regret his decision. “When I resigned I had a salary of Rs 28,000 but today I earn more.” He said. “I left the job because I knew I will be able to earn better with a skill.”

A Teacher

Muhammad Shafi Guroo, 51, a resident of Rainawari, is engrossed in carving designs on a mound of white paper pulp. As he stops moving brushes, he recalls his childhood fascination for this art.

“My father’s uncle had a workshop at home. After finishing school, I would rush to the centre and stare at artists with awe,” Guroo said. Soon, he mastered Papier-mâché art. At 25, he was trained to start his own centre with around 20 Papier-mâché artists. However, in 1995, Guroo a graduate of SP College was appointed as a school teacher. His job offer was a diversion as he was inclined more towards paper pulp, colours, designs and brushes.

“My starting salary was Rs 1800,” Guroo said but I used to earn more through Papier-mâché.

Presently working as an artisan at Industrial Cooperative Society, he manages to survive; however, he sometimes rues leaving the government job.

Before joining the society, Guroo too had to face hardships, especially in lockdown. “As there is a slump in the art and inflation has spiked, the life many times became difficult,” Guroo said. “Sometimes, I have had to take debts to survive.” Since his children are not interested in his skill, there were tough times.

Designer and Society

Artists in society said designers played an important role in the creation of creative products. They know the demand and changing dynamics of the market trends, unlike the earlier generation. This infusion of blending artistic creativity and imagination with modern designers is infusing life into the art, under stress.

The society was founded in February 2021 with 11 members. Functioning as a common centre for Papier-mâché artists, society is trying to revive the art. Finding it non-remunerative, a vast section of people are giving it up. Society supports members who have given up government jobs to pursue their passion.

Burhan Uddin Khatteb, a product designer and chairman of the evolving fledgling society said that it is important to have a global perspective of things and have market understanding. “It is not a workshop anymore but an organization now,” he said. “Kashmir’s handicrafts have faced a lot of stagnation and I develop designs and find new markets. We want to diversify product range to sustain the craft, generate livelihood and train new and retain the old.” The profits, he said must go to the craftsman rather than the middleman.

Presently, Burhan said there is a huge demand for sustainable, natural and handmade products globally. “Fed up of mechanized things, people are appreciating handmade products,” he said.

Kousar suggests the government should upgrade society into an institution. “As unemployment is spiking, the government should consider the essence of these institutions in imparting skills and involving youth in it. We struggle for basic facilities like renovation of a building, water, electricity, heating facilities at the centre,” he said.

Director Speaks

Mehmood Ahmad Shah, Director Handcrafts, said that art is but is evolving, not dying. There are around 2500 craftsmen in Kashmir. “We have a World Bank-funded project going on at Zadibal Papier-mâché cluster,” he said, where skill up-gradation and design product development courses are being undertaken by the experts. “In Srinagar, there are around 20 Papier-mâché centres and around 50 across Kashmir where trainees are paid stipend.”

Under the Karkhandar scheme, Shah said meritorious trainees will be given a monthly amount of Rs 2000 as an honorarium and the trainer will get Rs 2000 every month for each trainee and Rs 25000 support for logistics, raw materials etc.

At the same time, the department is organizing artisans into societies.  “Presently there are 3000 societies but we are supposed to create 2000 each year,” Shah said. “Last year, we paid three crore rupees but this year we are providing them Rs 10 crore.”

However, he agreed that middleman in pocketing the most. This Christmas, Papier-mâché artisans had to struggle to meet the demand of seven lakh balls. “It is just the beginning. It has to go a long way,” he said.

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