Dying Art of Papier Mache
Papier-mache has been around and with us from centuries, it has represented Kashmir worldwide but, unfortunately we are losing this finest form of art. With new technologies and manufacturing techniques, the traditional art of papier-mache in Kashmir is on a verge of decline. The unchecked counterfeit products in the market and unskilled people engaging in the art, it has lost its significance among buyers and in last couple of decades with political unrest on rise this field of art has taken a hard hit. There is economical uncertainty looming the craft, and people especially youngsters prefer other jobs over papier-mache. The low quality, cheap machine products are hurting the craft more than anything. The traditional papier-mache art and its products involving an extensive process, demands the price range on the upper side and the imitated cheap products affect the market value deserved by traditional papier mache objects. The artisans who have spent decades with this craft are struggling to earn a livelihood and keep the sector going.
Arshad Hussain, a professional papier-mache artist is concerned about the future of the craft. Hussain who is from Kathi Maidan, Alamgari Bazar Srinagar lost his father at an early age, and his family’s economic conditions forced him to drop from the school and look for some job. He struggled around for quite some time and eventually landed up in the field of Papier Mache. Hussain learned papier-mache and this craft supported him in the hardest times of his life. “ Papier Mache supported me in a time when there was no hope left, it is more than just craft for me”, Hussain said, adding that, “I have been in the field of papier-mache from last 20 years, I have witnessed when it was on its pinnacle and now unfortunately its future and future of artisans like myself seems uncertain,”. Hussain is an active artisan and he has held state as well as national level papier-mache workshops.
Papier Mache is a unique Kashmiri craft and the technique of using paper pulp was first adopted in Kashmir in the 15th century by King Zain-ul-Abidin. Mir Sayyed Ali Hamdani, popularly known as Shah-i-Hamdan, a Sufi mystic, came to Kashmir during the late 14th century along with his followers, many of whom were craftsmen. These craftsmen used hand-made paper pulp from Iran, Central Asia. These artists who were also well-versed in other handicrafts such as woodcarving, copper engraving and carpet weaving made Kashmir their permanent home and settled here along with their families.
“Papier mache was highly cherished and respected art and it needed great effort to master the technique of papier mache. It has been with us from centuries and benefitted us economically as well as aesthetically, but unfortunately we are losing it. Although we are trying to add some innovations to the art by introducing new designs apart from traditional ones but there are many inexperienced artisans in the field who are making it difficult for us to bring it back to the position it deserves”, Arshad Hussain said. Adding that, “the processes of making a papier- mache object demands skill, patience and dedication, and unskilled artisans who want it done without holding to proper procedure are ruining the image and significance of the craft”.
There are series of steps involved in the process of making papier- mache object and the materials involved in the process are discarded paper, cloth, straw of rice plant, copper sulfate, which are mixed and made into a pulp. The paper, is immersed in water for 4–5 weeks, and then taken out and made into a pulp and dried. The dried paper is then mashed into powder. There is also a practice to mix the powdered paper with rice water to facilitate coagulation. The pulp thus made is applied on molds made in wood or brass. In earlier times, the mold was made of clay by the craftsman himself. The present practice is, however, to complete the layering of pulp over the mold at one stage itself and then dry it before polishing it with gemstones.
After detaching it from the mould the surface of the artwork is polished and then gold and silver foils in combination with the paste of chalk and glue mixture is applied to the exterior and interior surfaces of the object using a brush. After drying of the treated object, the surfaces are again polished using baked brick pieces. To prevent any cracking more paper strips are pasted and then polished again to smooth the surface, to get the colour of zamin or earth or of gold, white, black, blue or red. The surface of the object is demarcated with yellow colour, which is then followed by floral designs made in different colours in dark or light shades with application of adhesive compound called dor made of zarda, sugar and glue as adhesive and applying gold or silver foils.
The art object is then dried and given a varnish coat made of amber locally called kahruba or copal (sandirus) in a solution of methyl spirit. It is then sun dried. Following this process of drying the surface of the art object is cleaned thoroughly with a wet cloth. Then the surface of the artwork is again treated with a coat of silver and gold foils and then designs are created over the surface followed by a smoothing of the surface using gemstones such as jade (yashm). Then the art piece is again sun-dried and made ready for painting. Distemper colours made with pigments and glue are used to paint the artwork with various designs. The brushes used for the painting are made of hair of goat, cat or donkey. The practice was to use “craft mineral, organic and vegetable colours.
The procedure of papier- mache is quite serious and it definitely demands immense determination, skill and experience. And the artists associated with this field of art genuinely deserve a good value for their product. “The art of papier-mache was a well respected art form and it had a great significance, it is very disappointing how we are letting it down. I have spend decades perfecting my craft and it has in return supported me both economically and emotionally, but now I feel it’s hard to keep up with this craft, the demand for papier-mache has fallen drastically”, said Hussain , adding that, “The uncertain political situation in the valley greatly affected this art, but there are other reasons also which cannot be undermined. One main reason that I feel has hurt papier-mache besides political issue is the lack of promotion on broader scale. Government has also been less concerned about its future and future of people associated with the craft. There is a need of collective effort to promote papier-mache and government must provide more opportunities for artists like me who totally depend on this craft. And we must encourage our youth by explaining them the importance of papier-mache and how it represented Kashmir for centuries.