In Photos: Papier-mâché — The labyrinth of a dying art

An unsung Kashmiri artisan class is on the verge of quitting their ancestral line of work. Behind the walkout are multiple plaguing factors—prominent being the organized class exploitation and the local indifference. Free Press Kashmir’s photo chief walks into the craft workshop to capture the artisans’ struggle.

In a brightly lit room, around 10 artisans were holding paint-soaked brushes, unmoved with my presence, immersed in painting various showpieces—jewellery boxes, vases, bowls, lamp base, trays, table-tops, and also experimenting with new products. Here I was, in the middle of the Papier-mâché cosmos.

Talking about the art, it was in 14th century, when a famous Muslim saint Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani [R.A] introduced Kashmiri people with the craft of Papier-mâché.

It’s just like the art of pottery, where instead of clay, the artisan uses paper pulp to make the containers. Later on, the container is richly decorated with colourful illuminations like vibrant floral designs and geometric shapes etc.

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“To make a Papier-mâché product, first used paper is soaked in water till it disintegrates,” says Abdul Hamid Shah, a Papier-mâché artisan associated with the trade from last 25 years. “It’s then pounded, mixed with an adhesive solution, shaped over moulds, and allowed to dry and set before being printed and varnished.”

Taking forward the legacy of his forefathers from last 35 years, Abdul Majeed is another skilled Papier-mâché artisan from Srinagar.

“We only paint the boxes with different designs,” Majeed says. “We give it final shape with colours and designs, but eighty percent of work is done outside this workshop. We’re dependent on people who provide us with raw stock – including meshing, moulding, and shaping of Paper products for us. Without their support, Papier-mâché wouldn’t exist.”

Real Papier-mâché Artisans

Working as Papier-mâché artist for last 23 years at Nowpora area of Srinagar, Muhammad Rafiq says real artisans were never credited for this craft.

“Unfortunately, people who just give final shape to the product are considered real artisans,” Rafiq laments. “They [Naqaash] exhibit themselves as its maker. They do only Naqaashi, we do the real stuff.”

But Naqaashs, he says, take rewards as well as are benefited with government-sponsored schemes.

“We are never appreciated,” Rafiq rues.

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It is not only the missing recognition but the unprecedented downfall of trade in the market and loss of interest among the younger generation.

“For the last few years, we finish the orders that are purely meant for export, the local demand is attenuating and that’s the issue,” says Mehraj-ud-Din, another artisan from Nowpora workshop.

“Our young generation don’t see any future in it. Now, given the larger plight of our line of work, we too don’t want them to be part of this trade.”

An artisan mashing raw paper.

An artisan pounding raw paper.

Giving shape to the mashed paper.

Evolving an artifact.

Lined up for final process.

Ready to be inked.

This is what becomes of it, finally.


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