Papier-Mâché on Verge of Extinction in Kashmir

I am sure atleast once in your lifetime you have been asked this question – “If you are a beach person or a mountain lover?” Some of us may find it difficult to choose one, but for me, I could answer it in a heartbeat. I am a diehard fan of mountains! My love for mountains started at a very early age of nine when I first visited Kashmir in the Year 2005. Till today I feel grateful for that opportunity. No doubt, I immediately fell in love with the lush-green valley, the Mughal Gardens, Pari Mahal, Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Aru. But what I loved the most was boating on the Dal lake. The whole experience of Nehru Garden, the floating kitchen Garden and shopping while rowing was exhilarating for me. It was during this trip that I was introduced to the beautiful art of Papier-mâché which is also known to the locals as ‘Kari Munaqqash’ or ‘Kari Qalamdani’. I was stunned by the elegance and gracefulness of this art form. I couldn’t get my hands fast enough on these beautifully crafted objects. Since then Papier-mâché has adorned the walls of my living room.

Papier mâché art form in Kashmir is staring at oblivion. Artisans say they cannot sustain for long on the prevailing low wages in the industry and hence, youngsters are not willing to learn the art.

Hindustan Times
Kashmiri artisans who produce unique Christmas decorations stare at oblivion | Photo By Waseem Andrabi

The origin of Papier-mâché can be traced back to Han dynasty of China which is also known for inventing paper. They used Papier-mâché to make helmets and pot lids. Eventually the interest in the art form spread to Japan and Persia, where it was used to make decorative items such as carnival masks, Halloween decorations and objects like toys, tables, chairs, jewelry boxes, etc. Papier-mâché contains long culture lineage of Kashmir within its rich history. In fact, the rise of the art form is closely linked with the emergence of Islam in the valley. It is said to have been brought to Kashmir by the eighth Sultan of Kashmir, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, from Samarkand in the fifteenth century. However, the people of Kashmir associate it with Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani of Iran. It is believed that that he brought to Kashmir 700 craftsmen from Iran, who taught the local Kashmiris the art of Papier-mâché along with carpet making, woodwork and most of the handicraft work that continues to be practiced in the Valley till date. The interiors of the Shah Hamdan mosque which is situated on the banks of Jhelum River in Srinagar, represent a beautiful depiction of the same.

The process of Papier-mâché craft making involves two types of artists- the Sakhtasaz who are responsible for making the basic structure of the craft and the Naqqashi artists are responsible for drawing the designs on the surface and polishing the craft. Almost every household in the locality of areas like Kupwara, Baramula, Badgam and Anantnag has their own Karkhanas wherein every family member including women is involved in the making process. Most of the women are involved in polishing and smoothening of the craft which is called Pishlawyun. Although Papier-mâché is considered to be a family occupation, passed from generation to generation, many artists take it up because of their interest in Papier-mâché; others practice it because of lack of other economic opportunities.

Some of the popular motifs of Kashmir’s Papier-mâché craft are Kaleen (carpet), Kashan (a carpet design named after a city in Iran), Jamavar (a type of shawl worn by the Kashmiris), Gul-andar-gul (flower upon flower, indicating the complexity of design), Gul-i-Hazara (a thousand flowers), Gul-e-Wilayat (foreign flowers), Bagaldar Chinar (a type of chinar leaf motif), and Gonder (a bunch) designs. With the increase in tourism in the valley, artists have been quick to incorporate themes like Kashmir’s flora and fauna and scenes from Indian villages which are quite popular with foreign tourists. Other common themes which form an important element in the formation of motifs are Mughal designs, Jungle themes, Philosophical themes, Historical episodes and religious stories of public interest and Poetic fantasies. The Papier-mâché paintings sometimes have verses from the Quran written in Arabic or Persian poetry written along the length of the hashiya. Artists have also started crafting functional products like bridal purses, stands for mobile phones, visting cards to stay afloat.

But to my disappointment, the online presence of the art form is at its minimum. For somebody who doesn’t reside in the valley; acquiring Papier-mâché crafts becomes extremely difficult and I end up relying on somebody visiting the valley or if I am very lucky maybe I find it in the handicrafts melas organized in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, etc. Now that the world is moving at a very fast pace on digital platforms, it’s the right time for the artists to surf on this wave and make this art form more accessible to people like me. The steady decline in the number of artists who still practice traditional art forms is a worrying trend. Today art is a big industry in itself and with proper exposure and packaging, not only can this traditional art form get worldwide recognition but artisans will also have a greater income and better livelihood. However, due to constant shutdown of internet in the valley, implementing this wouldn’t be easy. I believe this is where it is necessary for the artisans and the government representatives to sit down and reach at collaborative solution and make the art form available to global audience on online platforms. I hope to see this traditional art flourishing in near future like any other art which in return will give immense prosperity to the artisans of Kashmir.

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