Syed Ajaz Shah: Once an award winning Papier-mâché artisan, now an auto driver

When his inherited line of living no longer fed his family, he first sold his acclaimed work for peanuts, before surprising everyone to come out and earn his day as an auto-rickshaw driver.

Hawal Srinagar’s busy marketplace has been turned intense by some middle-aged argumentative auto-drivers. While many of them shout while expressing their concern about rising petrol prices, Syed Ajaz Shah, a man in his late 30s, is quietly and calmly observing the scene.

The argument between the drivers is interrupted by a passenger’s veil voice, “Going to Lal Chowk, how much?”

The most senior one in the auto stand, a graying man, says, “It’s Ajaz’s number. Where is he?”

Ready to go, Ajaz before self-starting his auto turns blank on seeing the face of the passenger. Turning his face to the other side, Ajaz makes up an excuse and rushes towards his home rather than picking his first passenger of the day.

Entering in his room on the second storey of his ancestral house, Ajaz’s mind goes in to flashback when the same passenger would visit him as a student to learn the art of Papier-mâché.

With moist eyes, Ajaz turns his head low, and sits taking a sigh.

Syed Ajaz Shah. (FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid)

A resident of Hawal, Ajaz is an award-winning Papier-mâché artisan who bid adieu to the art and bought an auto rickshaw to support his family some months back.

The Kashmiri art has been passed on in his family from generations. But when Ajaz became its inheritor, he was forced to leave it, and explore other source of living to feed his family.

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“I’m being very honest with this that if our wives won’t have supported us financially, it is impossible for artisans like me to earn enough to feed our families,” Ajaz laments in his room decorated with his prized works, now, seemingly having no takers.

As an artisan who started Papier-mâché from a very young age, Ajaz has received six awards for his work, including two state awards, one all-India-level award, an award in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an award in Chandigarh and in International school Pathways Gurgaon and an international award in South Africa.

Ajaz recalls how art pieces would help him survive during the tough times.

“Eight years ago, in order to treat my ailing father, I sold a state award winning piece for Rs 30,000,” he says. “This art has given me more than enough but what choice did I have.”

Ajaz’s argument of distancing from his passion comes with some justifications.

“I used to earn Rs 100-150 per day as an artist, but now I earn around Rs 300 to 500 a day as an auto-driver,” he says. “My current job is far better than the old one.”

FPK Photo/Furqan Khurshid.

The negligence and the indifference of the government towards the sector is the main reason that has forced many Kashmiri artisans like Ajaz to give up their passion.

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“The promises of providing jobs to national award winners were never met as the eligibility was matriculation pass outs that least explains our art and artisans,” he rues. “We don’t have degrees but we have expertise in this art. But when I pleaded my case with officials, I was literally thrown out of the office, many times.”

Now, the most difficult part of his life is the time when he enters his room, once done with his day as an auto-driver.

“Seeing all my work and achievements lying there on the shelves of my room is the most difficult part,” Ajaz says, taking a look at his decorated trophies.

“It isn’t my passion only that is fading in front of my eyes, but it is a part of me dying when I am not able to do anything about it.”


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