Kashmiri Heritage – Papier Mache, Handcrafted with Love

When asked in an interview about her fashionable looks, the American pop star Nicki Minaj said,
“Who wants to look simple when you can look stunning!” The transformation of something
simple into something completely stunning has always managed to blow our minds. Let us all
take a look at one more transformation, a story of becoming a star from scrap, a story of a
simple piece of paper!

Papier mache is an ancient art of making elegant handcrafted products of mashed and repulped paper waste mixed with glue. It is a collective term used to spell a lot of handcrafted objects made in fairly different ways. In some ways, the mashed paper is moulded around a solid form such as the wooden board or metal sheets or something as unusual as a balloon. In others, the paper is squeezed into the mould to achieve the desired shape. Shop Chaupal has been aiming to celebrate this heritage art and the artisans behind the products we carry with us in our stores.

This sustainable handmade makeover of paper in Kashmir was instituted around the late 14th
and early 15th century. One of the great sultans of Kashmir, Zain-ul-Abidin, while he was still a
prince in captivity in the glorious city of Samarkand had observed the art of ornamentation of
smoothened surfaces that were made of waste paper pulp. Decisively, he extended his invitation to the artists to his native land once he retained his power. From then the mache came a long way. In the beginning, it was termed as ‘Kar-i-qalamdan’ when it was still confined to a single article (long elongated pen cases). Later, it came to be known as ‘Kar-i-munaqqash’ implying the garnishment of layers of polished paper with a multitude of objects in making.
Furthermore, with the onset of Mughals in Kashmir, exactly 421 years ago from today, the
handicrafts extended massively to doors, windows, wall panels, ceilings, so on and so forth.
Kashmiri artisans built on their own individuality to the art form which catered to the attention it brought from all over the world. Indubitably, the art of papier mache was known in the East before it was introduced in Europe.
The way diverse kinds of sustainable handcrafted items and articles are created from mere
pieces of paper is very unique. The process of base making i.e. Sakhtasaazi is the very first
step wherein the waste papers are soaked into water for a few days. They are sometimes
added with waste cloth and rice straw to form the pulp. Then the pulp is mounted on a mould
and left to dry for a few more days. After that, gums and gypsum are coated over and rubbed
smooth with a baked clay piece. Sakhtasaazi is followed then by the process of drawing and
painting various intricate designs on the surface of the article, i.e. Naqashi.

The Kashmiri artisans mainly depict a five-lobed leaf, flowers, box patterns, jungle motifs and
specific symbols like Chinar (a type of tree native to Kashmir) and almonds in the art. They have even discovered unique artistic motifs and tailored their craft with the demands of the market economy with the ever-increasing western inclination towards papier mache. It is the only paper handicraft that has been exported abroad. When the western invaders traveled to Kashmir, the business of papier-mache boomed. In times like today, artisans continue to practice this art either for their personal use or for their limited clients with whom they are in touch.
With the world around us growing rightfully conscious of preserving mother earth and of collective sustainable development, these enlightening wonders in paperland have been setting an inspiring lead for the last 500 years and have a lot more to teach. The use of waste that is shredded paper, recycled materials, does not include any harmful chemicals which positively creates an eco friendly benchmark.
This art is completely advantageous to the severity of weather in Kashmir, since the workshops primarily exist in the house itself or maybe a cottage workshop, which in turn allows the females of the household to participate within the premise.

Ruhi, a fine papier mache artist herself and the sister of Liyakat Ali Dehqani, who is an award winning artist from Srinagar stated that her brother and her were majorly inspired from their father who inherited this gift of creating handcrafted goodies out of rubbish from their

Liayakat Ali Dehqani specializes in painting mesmerizing papier mache Christmas ornaments. He has been in the business for over two decades now working alongside his father and sister, supporting around 450 families directly or indirectly. Besides Christmas ornaments including bells, balls, stars, moon sets, Christmas trees, they are expert in making jewelry boxes, ring boxes and other decorative items as well. About the categorization of the artisans, it is not at all rigid as informed by Ruhi. Since the art runs in the family, they are self-taught. Although, the demarcation can be set on the basis of designs an artist can provide.

Independent of the designs and motifs, the artisans have been positive towards exchanging designs with other cultures and crafts as well. Some of the region-wide popular motifs include gul-andar-gul (flower upon flower, a relatively complex floral design), gul-i-hazara (a thousand
flower), gul-e-wilayat (foreign flowers). Chinar, and so on. However, this heritage art does not fancy the younger generations for a number of reasons. The seasonal nature of the occupation is one among many, and hence making a living out of papier-mache is impractical. Also, people
prefer cheaper machine-made goods over handmade individual products.

The increasing machinery and manufacturing techniques is gradually resulting in the heritage
handicraft dying, artisans deal with more than one artistic handicraft products in order to make both ends meet. Liyakat Dehqani also engages in the trade of Pashmina shawls as well.
Motifs in the handicrafts are even inclusive of theme-based designs such as the historical,
political and religious/spiritual (pirs and mureeds). Besides floral motifs, artisans have been
incorporating fauna and jungle scenes which attracts western crowds to India. Amongst them,
elephants top the jungle category. The incorporation of a variety of motifs from all aspects of life indicates that the artisans do not restrict their art to some political realm, however, they mediate to create their own artistic paradigm.


This is Sushant Saini. He is a 4th-year History research major in Shiv Nadar University, Noida-NCR. He is also minoring in International Relations and Governance Studies. He has been a youth cultural ambassador to the US in 2016-17 and was awarded Anne Walker Distinguished Service Award in 2017.

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