A Paper Mache artisan who witnessed the downfall of the handicraft toiled hard to improve its graph, but only faced a fraud. With perseverance and self belief, he not only bounced back, but also took scores of disillusioned artisans towards ashore, reports Bilal Handoo
In the quiet neighbourhood of Srinagar’s Zadibal area, Mohammad Amin Dar, 37, is silently applying brush over lifeless objects on the second floor of his modest house. The room is filled with Paper Mache items (of variety and shapes), empty paint tins and heap of raw materials. This is the workplace of Dar, where he makes and assembles Paper Mache objects throughout the year. And subsequently, sends them out to the exporters in New Delhi on the eve of Christmas and on other occasions.
Fresh from completing the Christmas assignment, Dar appears a content man. This year on the eve of Christmas, he sent out 1.5 lakh Paper Mache items which earned him Rs 40 lakh.
But the flow of work and money weren’t same 12 years ago. Dar was then leading a life of a disappointed artisan. There were hardly any takers of his artisan products. Demand for the handicraft was slumping, which forced many artisans to shift their line of survival. The future of once glorious handicraft looked blank and bleak. All this was playing at the back of his mind.
There was a time when Paper Mache artist would feel proud to step into the market by wearing a dress stained with paint, recalls Dar. People would regard the artisan with high esteem.
“In fact, there was a time in 1985, when people would prefer being a Paper Mache artisan than a government employee. But as situation turned extreme in the valley, the handicraft and people slid into forgetfulness,” says Dar, a man with brown curly hair and a glowing face. “It was disheartening to witness the downfall of the glorious handicraft.”
When Dar started as a Paper Mache artist 22 years ago, its fall had already begun. After spending a decade into learning intricacies and intimacies involved in the handicraft, he went to Delhi in 2001 to improve its prospects. There he met a Kashmiri exporter, who gave him the assignment of Paper Mache items worth Rs 15 lakh for completion. “It was a J&K Bank project and that man was playing a role of middleman,” says Dar, a father of two young kids. “He promised me Rs 16 lakh for completing the assignment.”
For the next nine months, Dar toiled hard to complete the assignment. In between, Bank officials took the samples of his work and expressed “happiness” over his “innovative” designs. And when everything was done and delivered, the middleman involved disappeared mysteriously.
As his absence prolonged, Dar went to his home, where the middleman’s bother handed over mere Rs 2.35 lakh to him instead Rs 16 lakh. The fraud left him shattered and heartbroken. For about a week, he couldn’t take his meals, as the loss wasn’t easily sinking.
Soon he left for Delhi with a hope to start his trade all over again. “I was done to death, but I wasn’t dead,” says Dar in a voice full with firmness.
What followed after that is akin to a fairy tale. Once stepped into the markets of Delhi, Dar went to Handicraft exporters to secure independent orders. After sweating hard to convince exporters in the heat of Delhi, Dar finally secured his first order.
He completed the order with the help of his younger sibling. But it never ended with first order itself. His “innovative” designs in Paper Mache including stars, eggs, boxes, Christmas trees and other things soon started a series of manufacturing orders.
Now the surged demand was beyond his personnel capacity to fulfil. Eventually, he hired a workforce. He consciously distributed his work among those artisan families who had earlier left Paper Mache due to low cost market and dwindling demand.
Soon, Dar was able to bring smiles back into the artisan families, who had started working as labourers for their living.
“My motive was to restore the glory of Paper Mache and that of the artisans associated with it,” says Dar. “It was never about personnel rise. It was collective rise for the sake of craft, which is facing government apathy, societal indifference and greed of few existing traders.”
Twelve years after, Dar is successfully running 25 units. These units are providing livelihood to hundreds of artisans at the moment.
The next immediate challenge for Dar is to expand the horizon of Paper Mache. He wants to set the industry free from the control of existing middlemen in the form of exporters.
“Just because buyers and exporters based outside Kashmir, we get minimal share in revenue,” he says. “The item we sell at Rs 30 to exporter fetches him almost double the price.”
Dar, who is now eyeing on international market, is seemingly upset over the pattern of affairs prevalent in the sector.
“It is really a sorry state of affairs to observe as how exporters are honoured with state and national awards for the creativity of artisans,” he says.
“But nobody talks about artisan, who sweats and toils hard to create an object which fetches all these awards.”