By Poviet Preet Kaur
Kashmir has always been a place full of surprises, a land of art and crafts. Everything in Kashmir has a traditional touch. Sadly, however, some of its art forms are on the verge of extinction.
Known for its one of the rich art form Kashmir has seen a downfall in its oldest art form – papier machie.
Passed down from generation to generation, papier machie has adapted itself to the changing times. Being culturally diverse and distinct, a variety of art forms have evolved over the years which have given a tough competition to the Kashmir’s papier machie industry. Some of the art forms are untouched by modernisation but have found a way with adapting to new art forms.
The history of papier machie can be traced back to the Persian (Iranian) mystic Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (RA) who first introduced papier-mache in India in the 14th century. He is said to have come to Kashmir with 700 craftsmen from Iran, who taught the local Kashmiris carpet making, woodwork, papier mache and most of the handicraft work that continues to be practised there till date.
Papier machie craft is largely pursued by the Shia sector of Kashmiri Muslims. They have been the traditional craftsmen engaged with this occupation since ages with a hand on the craft. A large number of craftspeople trace their ancestry back to the craftsmen who had migrated with Shah-i-Hamadan from Iran. While some have documented evidence to trace their ancestry and exodus, others rely on stories and legends. A number of craftspeople claim that although they do not trace their ancestry to Iran and the art form was learnt by their forefathers from the Persian artists who brought this famous craft to Kashmir.
The two important aspects to this unique art form—Sakthsazi and the Naquashi create an incredible, aesthetic appeal enhancing the brightness and beauty of the space. Papier mache craft making happens in two phases: one set of artists, the sakhtasaz, make the base structure of the craft and then the naqqashi artists work on drawing the designs and polishing the craft.
The sakhtasazi and naqqashi artists work closely with each other. The first step Sakthsazi involves making the foundation of the papier-macheor object with the paper pulp while Naquashi is the final step of painting and decoration. In the Sakthsazi stage of making a Kashmir papiermache item, the paper pulp is soaked in water for 3 to 4 days and then put in a stone mortar and grinded so that all of the paper is in a uniform way. The pulp is then left in the sun for drying before it is mixed with atji, a kind of rice glue.A mold made of clay or wood allows the artist to shape the paper and glue mixture around it.The paper is taken off the mold before it is completely dry and then shaped and lacquered to make the outside smooth.
After the item has gone through the smoothing process a thin layer of butter paper protects the outside and will eventually keep the outer layer of paint from cracking off the finished product.Sakthsazi as an art form was conceived about 700 years ago and is still the cynosure of artisans of Kashmir.
Turning our focus back on the important aspect of this art form of saving this precious art form from falling into the verge of extinction, the major reason behind the downfall of the papier machie is the current prevailing political situation in the valley which puts forward a number of obstacles and limitations for the craftsmen and the craft.
Bilal Ahmad who owns a factory outlet in the downtown Srinagar states that, “despite its rich art form the papier machie is losing its patronage, the local government is responsible for this dying art form. We are not having any support from the local or central government from last two years, not even the Kashmir Tourism Industry pays a heed to our conditions. Many of my craftsmen who used to create this intrinsic art with me are nowadays driving public transport and selling vegetables”.
The tourism industry which is considered the lifeline of Kashmiri art and craft is dying a slow death from last two years of unrest. It has got the craftsmen split or getting into other jobs and leaving behind the culture. The only reason which makes the papier mache different from the other art forms is that Papier mache continues to rely on freehand drawing and painting.
Pandit Anand Kaul in his article ‘The Papier Mache Industry’, has also mentioned that Kashmiri shawls were sent to France in papier mache boxes, which were sold separately there at higher prices which adds authenticity of the rich art form papier mache craft and shows how this art form has played an important part in Kashmir’s cultural exchange with the outside world.
According to the Bilal Ahmad, “as the Kashmir papier mache art is one of the oldest art forms in India, it doesn’t get the type of media attention which it deserves from various media barons and industry sources either in the past or even during the present times.”
For the art and craft industry there are still hopes that they would be heard and their industry will soon see a boom in the business, and things will return back to normal, with the new industrialisation norms. For them it is art they choose to remember and unrest to forget.