After interacting with the artisans and studying the Papier Mâché craft, researcher Peer Faizaan Bashir locates the challenges that the age-old Kashmir craft faces in the twenty-first century

 Derived from the French word, meaning ‘chewed paper’, Papier Mâché is the art of creating intricate designs on a piece of hard chewed paper with ink-filled Kalams with smooth tips. Historical studies suggest Zain-ul-Abidin had studied these arts in Samarqand in the fifteenth century.

With his accession to the throne, he invited competent teachers and craftsmen from there to train his subjects in these arts. The craft has been primarily pursued by the Shia Muslims. (The Valley of Kashmir Walter Lawrence; Culture and Political History of Kashmir PNK Bamzai Volume I, and A Study on The Different Delightful Craft Work In Kashmir, Tawseef Mohi Ud Din.)

“The skill shown by the Naqqash (designer)”, recorded Lawrence, “in sketching and designing is remarkable”. The industry reached its apogee during the Mughal rule when the products of the Papier Mâché art like pen cases, jewellery boxes, book-ends, etc, were in great demand in Delhi and other provincial capitals. (PNK Bamzai, Cultural and Political History of Kashmir Volume II.)

“The people of Kashmir write chiefly on Tuz which is the bark of a tree, worked into sheets with some rude art and which keeps for years. It was in great demand in India for writing purposes and for those who wished to impart dignity to their correspondence,” Mughal historian Abul Fazl has recorded. “Besides, Bhojpatra, the rag-paper of Kashmir was also in great demand in India. The Kashmiri rag-paper possessed a special quality that once the ink had been washed off, it could be reused for writing purposes. The best quality paper was made from rags, hemp fibre and silk and a large quantity of paper was obtained by pounding these materials. Besides paper, the Papier Mâché work also received huge patronage in the Mughal court.” (Handicrafts and Kashmiri artisans during the Mughal Period, Sameer Sofi.)

The popular designs of Papier Mâché objects include Hazara (a thousand flowers) and Gul-I-Ander-Gul (flower within the flower and the birds in foliage). The Sabzkar (foliage design) was selected by Aurangzeb. This design was highly polished with gold by which it created an alluring or fascinating depth. (Handicrafts and Kashmiri artisans during the Mughal Period, Sameer Sofi.)


The Papier-Machie work is known as Kar-i-Kalamdan because the best Papier-Machie articles of the medieval period were the pen-cases (kalamdan). Apart from pen-cases, tables, cabinets and trays were also made. Huge quantities with different colours of Papier Mâché articles like Kalamdans were manufactured from pulp paper decorated with floral motifs. (Walter Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmir and Culture and Political History of Kashmir, PNK Bamzai Volume I.)

During the eighteenth century, shawls were sent to France in Papier Mâché boxes which were separately sold there at high prices. (Handicrafts and Kashmiri artisans during the Mughal Period, Sameer Sofi.)

The Papier Mâché industry was in a flourishing condition during Kashmir’s Sikh era. Pen cases of several varieties were manufactured. Shields, bows and arrows with case, and combs were also made. Every Pandit in former times carried a pen case in the girdle bound over his Pheran or garment, or under his armpit, wherever he went.

The style of painting on these Papier Mâché articles was sometimes applied to palanquins, to the walls and ceilings of rooms. During the Sikh rule of Kashmir, the manufacture of paper was carried on very largely near Vicharnag, Srinagar. A good quantity of paper was exported to the Punjab. The Sikh aristocracy had palaces to live in, which contained very costly pieces of furniture like carpets, wall hangings, Papier Mâché articles, etc. A wealthy Karkhandar used to feed 200 poor people every day. (Political and Cultural History of Kashmir, PNK Bamzai Volume III.)

Artisan Groups

Papier Mâché making involves two main groups of artists: Sakhtasaz (craftsmen who create the base structure) and Naqqashi (artists who draw designs and polish the craft). The motifs used in Papier Mâché reflect a wide range of themes, including historical events, religious stories, poetic fantasies, and cultural symbols. These motifs serve as visual markers of the community’s collective memory, identity, and political history. The incorporation of various designs from different craft forms underscores the fluid exchange of artistic ideas within Kashmiri handicrafts. (Handicrafts and Kashmiri artisans during the Mughal Period, Sameer Sofi.)

These designs are very intricate, and the drawing is all freehand, for the workmen do not possess mathematical instruments. The skill shown by Nakash in sketching and designing is remarkable. (Walter Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmir.)

The technology of Papier Mâché in Kashmir is divided into two processes: making the object (Sakht-Sazi) and painting the surface (Naqashi). Sakhtsazi is derived from the Persian word Sakht meaning basic and Sazi meaning the act of making.

Artisan Insights

Muzaffar Ali Dar, a resident of the Zadibal area of Srinagar, has been engaged with the craft for the past fifty years. Before him, his parents would create intricate designs on paper. Speaking of the craft, he makes mention of the satisfaction he derives from the craft and the hard-earned money he takes delight in.

Not an iota of dissatisfaction was seen in the eyes of the crafter, nor did he suggest changing the profession.

Speaking of the places where this craft is pursued, he stated that Alamgiri Bazaar, Khanyar, Bhagwan-Pura, Hasna-Abad, etc have been associated with this craft. He doesn’t concur with the claims that only Shia Muslims are associated with the craft; he mentions many Sunni Muslims of Khanyar primarily engaged with the craft.

Munshi and Syedds, the upper caste section of people, do this work in Alamgiri Bazaar.

Firstly, we have to create a base for the Naqashi to work on. Base, in layman’s terms, is kind of like a piece of hard paper. To make the base, Sakhtsaaz collects paper, particularly the paper remnants from the printing press machine, which is then crushed and put into water to soften it. Subsequently, the paper is put on a mould – like balls, or any other shape – and dried and cut with a cutter and joined back with glue (Dyoor). The base is ready.

Thereafter, it is coloured with pen-like sticks dipped in ink by the Naqaash. The colours are gold, black, grey, blue, etc. The patterns used in Papier Mâché are detailed meticulously; it’s skill-demanding.


Zaffar Husain Khan is a resident of Zadibal. He is a former Papier Mâché artisan and has been engaged with the profession for twenty-five years. “We apply flowery designs, Chinar leaves”, he said pointing to the booming of the work post ‘90s, with the introduction of cartoon, house and crescent designs. “In the past and still these times, we have our designs (locally called Kashmiri Work); now, we are given computer-based designs to work on. Kashmiri-Kaam is applied on boxes, bells, cigarette boxes, fruit boxes, meter boxes, eggs, etc.”

Export Market

The crafter revealed certain interesting things about the craft and things associated with it. There is a good demand for the Papier Mâché products. It is exported to Germany, the Netherlands, and America, among other foreign countries. In Germany, especially, regular fairs occur, exhibiting the aesthetic craft.

Added Information

Comparing Papier Mâché artisans with coppersmiths and other artisans, they reveal they were happy with what they had: a decent amount of time, in fact inviting others to get engaged with this profession amidst a growing unemployment rate. From small families to popular families like Musipir of Madin-Sahib, everyone, regardless of caste and creed is associated with the craft. Akhter Mir and Shah Saab of Alamigiri Bazaar are the popular people engaged with the work. Sunni Muslims from Navakadal and Khanqah are associated with this profession.

The people associated with the craft create designs even on carved wooden products (Balls, Ring Boxes, among others) designing them with colourful ink. Initially, people used to make ink from the colourful rocks, which were crushed and made into a paste and were thus applied. Now the ink comes from outside Kashmir, and to create differently coloured ink, and the artisans mix it.

As far as the impact of machines on the artisans is nil, as they can’t produce the art: it could only be done with hands. Trying to have machines do such a kind of craft, people failed to do so. It hasn’t remained successful.


Even though machines can’t make Papier Mâché items, low-quality machine-made Papier Mâché products are there.

Karl Marx’s theory of the wealthy squeezing the poor in what matters to the economy has been raised by the Papier Mâché artisans. Zaffar Hussain, an ex-artisan, reiterated that the expert craftsmen (Wostikaar) take most of the benefits from the handicrafts while leaving the artisans with a petty amount of money to live by. “In the 1990s, we saw an increasing purchasing rate of the Papier Mâché products, due to the introduction of cartoon motifs. We got what we deserved,” one artisan said. “Then, over time, as they developed a sense of familiarity with the cartoon motifs, the expert craftsmen again started squeezing us.”

The craft would not be existing in the future, he added. “In the past, the worker would get 90 out of 100 rupees, let’s say, now the worker gets only 10 out of 100; the rest of the 90 is taken by the expert craftsmen. With increasing inflation and the petty sum I get for my work, I left the work,” the artisan said.

Why are youth inclined less towards handicrafts? There are many reasons.

 Idleness: Artisans have blamed idleness for the degraded conditions of the crafts. Hardly is there any young person who opts for handicrafts. The handicrafts are alive by the time we die. If we shuffle off this mortal coil, the high possibility of the handicrafts sector vanishing into thin air is most likely.

High-paying formidable jobs: Aspirations for the chairs-occupying jobs remain the other cause for the youth turning away from it. The handicraft sector demands patience, while the youth in the present era are stripped of it, one artisan suggests.

Social Stigma: The youth fear the possibility of society labelling them as monotonous, static or poor. This inhibits the youth from taking to Handicrafts.

Preservation: Possible solutions suggested by the artisans themselves include:

Introducing craft classes: The artisans clamoured for the initiation of classes at both the college and University levels; the Government must take it to the educational level and teach the youth about the sector and its historicity.

Sufficient Funds: The government must give enough money to the artisans to purchase enough implements and resources for the handicrafts to survive and thrive. The artisans raised the concern of not-so-much governmental protectionist policies. They have to take it seriously, artisans urge.


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