An art that came from Samarqand in the 15th century, struggles to survive in Kashmir

Photo: Jasper Williams.

Kashmiri craftspersons say that it is a watershed moment for them, to either go further into debt or abandon the art altogether. 

As a result of the combination of geographic location, climatic conditions and human creativity, a deep awareness of the arts and crafts with soul emerged in Kashmir. With the conversion of Kashmir’s social milieu from the Buddhist faith to Islamic, as King Rinchen accepted Islam in the 14th century and state religion changed, the region’s tryst with arts and crafts began.

Even though the handicrafts of Kashmir has acquired worldwide fame for its aesthetics and refinement, today, it is struggling to sustain locally.

With diverse crafts ranging from carpets, Kashmiri shawls, wood carving and chain stitch, to papier-mache, Crewel, Namdha, Phool Kari, Basohli Painting and Calico Painting, the region has been producing handmade products that are in great demand throughout the world, particularly in Europe.

Photo: Rajnish Kumar.

Papier-mache , French for ‘chewed paper’, is an art peculiar to Kashmir, and was introduced to the Valley by Sultan Zain ul Abidin (1420-1470 CE) through experts from Samarqand. The art acquired a local flavour with the expert eye and attention to detail of the local artisans.

The work goes by the name of Kar-i-Qalamdani or pen-case craft because it is usually applied to the ornamentation of pen-cases and small boxes.

It is also called Kar-e-Munaqqash or painted work. The process of making a papier-mache product is rather elaborate and interesting.

Photo: Rajnish Kumar.

Abdul Hamid, a papier-mache artisan, associated with the trade from the last 25 years says, “first used paper is soaked in water till it disintegrates, it’s then pounded, mixed with an adhesive solution over moulds, and allowed to dry and set before being painted and varnished.”

The article is then covered with a coating of white paint on the surface of which a delicate pattern in colours, chiefly crimson, green, and blue is drawn with a fine brush.

Flowers and curved designs which are seen mainly on the shawls are most commonly produced.

Photo: Jasper Williams.

The designs are complex and the drawing is all freehand.

It is surprising to see the beautiful forms into which mashed-paper can be shaped. Some of the articles now made are: picture frames, screens, tables, teapots, trays, vases, stamp boxes, and pen cases.

The work is extended to floral decoration of books, memorials, and the like.

Papier mache technique, as it is present in Kashmir, involves decoration in colour over smoothened surfaces with designs like: flower in flower (gulander gul), the thousand flowers (hazare), the deer flower (gul vilayat), miniature mughal paints and mythological figures.

Photo: Ashiba Saeed.

Season plays a very important role in this whole process. Each craft has its own seasons for production, for example, walnut woodcarvers, carpet weavers and papier mache artisans, prefer to work during the summer months, when the days are longer and the light is better, which is crucial for the minuteness of their work.

The skill shown, says Lawrence in his books ‘The Valley of Kashmir’, by the designer in sketching and designing is ‘remarkable’.

“The art of papier-mache is pursued largely by the Kashmir Musalmans of the Shia sect. These artisans shared the relaxed attitude of the Shias of Persia who have always been open and less rigid than other Muslims in their observance of the Islamic laws which forbade the painting of men or animals for fear of setting of false gods.”

Talking about the scope of papier-mache, Brigid Keenan in her book ‘Travels in Kashmir’ says, “the way in which the Mughals lived, gave plenty of scope for the employment of Kashmir’s craftsmen especially papier-mache artists, who painted on wood just as skilfully as on objects made of paper; and several Kashmiri papier-mache artists may well have been employed in the workshops of the Mughal court in India.”

Photo: Ashiba Saeed.

William Moorcraft, who traveled to Kashmir in 1819 C.E. during the rule of Ranjit Singh to study the Kashmiri shawl industry mentions that under the Mughals, the papier-mache industry had flourished and employed a large number of craftsmen who periodically sent samples of their painting down to Delhi to be inspected by the Emperor.

After Mughals, came the Afghans who ruled from 1753 C.E. Afghan rule oppressive for artisans as cruel taxation with many other repressive conditions for craft production were introduced.

Then, during the Sikh rule, craftsmen became more vulnerable to oppression.

As Moorcraft visited Kashmir during this rule, he saw that the number of papier-mache artisans working in Srinagar had reduced to just forty, and he estimated that they produced about 1,000 pen cases a year.

Photo: Ashiba Saeed.

Then came the Dogra rule in 1846, during which colonial influence on crafts and several agitations by artisans during the latter half of 19th and early 20th centuries, gave a new direction to the craft. When Kashmiri Pashmina shawls became popular in Europe, the famed fabric with exquisite embroidery was sent as far as France in Papier-mache boxes, which were separately sold.

The evolution of crafts in Kashmir follows that of the capital city, Srinagar.

Even in the present times of modernization, crafts are mainly concentrated in the downtown areas, from Khaniyar, stretching till the Idgah on the west, and to Hawal-Soura in the north of Srinagar.

After the Indian subcontinent was partitioned, tourism contributed fairly well to Kashmir’s economy, followed by handicrafts, which itself was dependant on Tourism. However, with the raging political conflict in the last three decades, a large section of the handicraft trade and businesses moved to Delhi and other international capitals. As a result, the handicraft production became a steady source of sustenance for the economically weaker section that could not afford to leave the Valley, but manufactured products that were sold by the businesses in foreign markets.

The current state of craft production and trade is highly unorganized, unclear and in a state of flux. Artisans from the papier mache industry have been forced to take up other jobs.

Ajaz Shah from Hawal, who is an award-winning papier-mache artisan turned to driving an auto to support his family.

Muhammad Rafiq, who is working as a papier-mache artist for the past 23 years, says real artisans were never credited for this craft.

“Unfortunately, people who give the final shape to the product are considered real artisans, they (Naqaash) exhibit themselves as the maker. They do only Naqqashi, we do the real stuff,” Muhammad Rafiq says.

Photo: Jasper Williams

Another artisan from Nowpora, Mehraj-ud-Din, says, “our younger generations don’t see a future in it. Now given the plight of our work, we also do not want them to be a part of this trade.”

The reasons for this are many: lack of government policy, global competition, cheap imitation, absence of patronage, lack of conducive environment and social disregard. However, the present artisan community has also become self-satisfied and closed to new ideas.

It is a decisive time for Kashmiri crafts to either go further into decline or to struggle to introspect within, to find new paradigms that are open to fresh ideas and inspiration.


Inayatullah is a student of History currently pursuing his Masters Degree at the University of Hyderabad.

All photos taken by students of National Institute of Fashion Technology, Srinagar as part of their ‘Craft Documentation’ coursework. 


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