Intricate in detail, exquisite in colour, Papier-mâché art calls Kashmir it's home for nearly four centuries today. The French term Papier-mâché translates to “chewed paper” in English. The artisans of this technique painstakingly convert raw paper pulp into vases, boxes, lampstands and other daily objects of high aesthetic significance. The Shia community, predominantly from Srinagar is given credit for sustaining this artform.
Origin of Papier Mache Handicraft
Papier-mâché found its way to Kashmir from Persia and Iran in the late 14th Century through the trail of Mir Sayyed Hamdani, a Sufi mystic. Hamdani’s followers were predominantly craftsmen; well-versed with wood carving, copper engraving, and carpet weaving. During the period when Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir, colourful paintings on household wooden furniture known as kar-i-qulamdan dominated the region. Eventually, Kashmir moulded the Persian artform into kar-i-munaqqash, the local name for Kashmiri Papier-mâché.
The art form explores various themes, ranging from rich floral motifs to representations of the king’s Darbaar. Gul-andar-gul, Hazaarposh, and Mughal styles are the most commonly painted themes across the art form. Gul-andar-gul, meaning “flower within flower” is a prevalent theme which portrays complex patterns of overlapping flowers, perfected to the smallest detail. Hazaarposh, meaning a thousand flowers showcases a plethora of flowers. While the Hazaara style embraces the application of numerous colours, the Shirkha style of Papier-mâché uses a single tone to add more emphasis. In many Papier-mâché artworks, the artisans display scenes from the courts of the Mughal emperors in high detail. The Mughal kings were fond of this Kashmiri art and elevated the status of a Naqashi artisan during their rule.
How are Papier Mache products
- Sakhtsazi, Pishlawun, and Naqashi are the three significant steps to produce Papier-Mache artwork.
- Sakhtsazi refers to the preparation of the paper pulp and fashioning it in the required form before the Naqashi begins the tedious process of hand-painting.
- The raw paper pulp is allowed to soak in water for four days and pounded with a Muhul until the required consistency is obtained.
- After sun-drying, a rice-made local glue known as Atij is mixed with the lump of paper, rice, and straw.
- The artisan dedicates the next few hours to creating the Kalib, which is the object formed after removing the paper pulp from the desired mould after hardening.
- The women of the families generally take up the task of carefully smoothening the outer layer of the Kalib.
- A light coat of lacquer is applied on the smoothened object, followed by a second coat mixed with chalk powder and water.
- Afterwards, the surface is smoothened with either burnt brick or pumice stone.
You can buy Papier Mache handicrafts online from here. The artisans tirelessly work day after day to achieve the world-famous handcrafted products that Kashmir is adored.
Now, the Naqashi, the most meticulous artisan takes centre-stage. He creates a layer of butter paper between the plaster and the paintwork, ensuring the painted surface does not crack. Starting with a base coat of paint, the Naqashi builds his painting from scratch to splendour in a span of 3 days to a week.
Undoubtedly, Kashmir stands out for her unique take on combining multitudes of culture into breathtaking artforms. A wise teacher of tolerance, Kashmir has lived and owned the lifestyles of her rulers - be it the complex and intimidating styles of Persia or the Indian way of vibrancy and colour. “It is my vision to see this art in every Kashmiri household,” says a Naqashi artisan with 20 years of experience. “The art will surely die if local artisans do not show enthusiasm towards spreading it. Of course, for us to do that, we need support from the local banks, who often steer us away. This lack of support jeopardises the art form,” he continues to give us a more magnified understanding of the artisan’s plight. This traditional art form withstood the compelling ideologies of medieval Persia, followed by the Mughals of Central India and later by the Afghans and the Sikhs. Mainly, It derives influence from Persian and Iranian art.
India and art are inseparable. We take pride in our age-old art forms but fail to sustain the artisans who suffer the price of economy. The demand for Papier-mâché has been on the decline since the recession. Families are withdrawing from this dying art form, 450 years old. As an occupation, Kashmiri Papier-mâché has been struggling due to a rise in the price of raw materials and the relatively disappointing returns. Artisans bitterly seek refuge in better-paying wage jobs as a means to obtain a decent living. In its prime youth, Papier-mâché exports accounted for 3 billion out of the 15 billion total goods export. Today, that estimate dwindles at a weak 500 million.
The decline only means one thing for its demand. This rich Kashmiri artform finds a more foreign audience worldwide, who still believe that handmade art is beyond valuable. As avid lovers of handicraft, the sweat and hours poured into the making of a single vase is recognised and treasured. It is in the interest of our country to nourish this timeless artform before it finds extinction.