Kashmiri Papier Mache: The Story of an Exceptional Art

Nestled in the ethereal valleys and cradled by the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan mountains, a timeless artistic legacy endures. For centuries, Kashmiri Papier Mache art has triumphed over the trials of time. It serves as a vibrant testament to the exquisite craftsmanship and indomitable spirit of the Kashmiri people. Originating in the 14th century, this art form was introduced to the populace by the Sufi saint Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who arrived in the valley from Persia accompanied by a group of exceptional craftsmen proficient in various crafts. Through the medium of papier mache, Hamadani intertwined Islam with art, giving birth to an intricate tradition of creating embellished articles using paper, gum, and delicate designs.


While the mention of Kashmiri Papier Mache conjures images of a diverse range of intricately patterned articles today, it originally gained popularity under its Persian name, Kar-I-Qalamdan, during its nascent stage. The term Kar-I-Qalamdan holds significant historical and cultural importance for this craft. Qalamdan translates to "case for pens," which became the preferred article for showcasing the intricate patterns. Nobles frequently commissioned artists to adorn cases for their valuable pens, fragrances, and handkerchiefs, thus popularizing the art form. A glimpse at preserved artifacts from that era leaves no doubt that Persian artists had developed a refined sense of perfection that could only be achieved through generations of patient training. This expertise is evident in the intricate walls of Madin Sahib, located in Srinagar, Kashmir. Unfortunately, many historically significant pieces are now rare to find, prompting further exploration of a history that dates back as recently as the 19th century.


Border Tile from Madin Sahib circa 1655 (Source: jameelcentre.ashmolean.org)


As the 19th century dawned, the term Qar-I-Qalamdan gradually faded into obscurity, even though the techniques involved remained vibrant. Unfortunately, this period coincided with the height of colonial powers, and Kashmiri artists endured exploitation under French officials. The French discouraged the traditional term and disregarded its significance, yet they could not erase the sophistication inherited by the artists. Trade records reveal the exploitation suffered by these artisans, as the French took advantage of their highly sought-after Pashmina shawls by trading them for paltry prices within papier mache boxes. Not only were the artists underpaid for their intricate shawls, but they were also compelled to paint the boxes in the Qar-I-Qalamdan style and sell them separately in the French market. Exposure to foreign markets blurred the craft's traditional roots, and it gradually began to adorn a wide array of articles such as vases, plates, boxes, and other items based on demand. This expansion caught the attention of markets worldwide, marking a turning point in the craft's technique and range. It began catering to the demands of the European market, and the term "papier mache" superseded the original name, influencing the choice of colors and, in some cases, motifs. The Kashmiri papier mache we refer to today largely stems from this colonial history. Although the technique of "papier mache" originated from China, the birthplace of papermaking, in Kashmir, the term carries the stain of its exploitative colonial past. However, the native artisans have elevated its status by preserving this delicate artwork through the ages.


Shawl makers in Kashmir by William Simpson (Wikimedia)


Presently, the Kashmiri papier mache craft is characterized by the creation of highly embellished and vibrant objects made from paper pulp hardened with gum or other natural adhesives. Crafting these exquisite pieces demands skill and expertise, involving a meticulous and multi-step process carried out by two groups of artists: the Sakhta makers and the Naqaash.

The process begins by soaking waste newspaper in water for days or even weeks until it transforms into pulp. The excess water is then drained by applying pressure to the mixture. To achieve a smooth texture, the pulp is strained through fine fabric to remove impurities and lumps. A binding agent, such as natural gum or starch derived from rice or wheat flour, is added to the pulp, and constant beating of the paper and adhesives results in a smooth paste-like consistency. Some artists may incorporate additives like oil or salt to prevent fungal growth.

The paste is then applied evenly to wooden molds of various shapes and sizes, according to the desired products, and left to dry in the sun for a few days. Once dry, the shapes are carefully cut into two halves, which are later joined together after the hardened pulp is separated from the mold. Willow or poplar tree molds are commonly used due to their availability and durability.

Next, the dried pieces are coated with a layer of chalk powder mixed with water or have additional layers of paper strips added to fill any remaining unevenness and prevent cracking. Local stones are sourced to polish the dried pieces, creating a smooth texture. The surfaces are further smoothed using a moist cotton cloth before being left to dry. If necessary, the artists may use sandpaper for a final touch-up.

The creation of Kashmiri papier mache is undoubtedly a painstaking process, with the aforementioned steps focused on achieving the hardened paper, known as Sakhtsazi. However, the true transformation of paper into papier mache comes with the divine artistry of Naqashi, which represents the fine and intricate designs applied to the crafted objects.


Snippet from Materials lesson of MeMeraki's Kashmiri Paper Mache Masterclass


Naqashi is a fundamental aspect of Kashmiri papier mache, carried out by skilled artists who begin by applying a base coat that serves as the background for the entire painting. The most challenging part of the process is painting the motifs, which requires artists to first sketch intricate designs with pencils. These designs are then traced over using fine-tipped brushes and a vibrant range of colors. Naqashi is the realm where traditions harmonize with evolving times, as artists carefully choose colors, motifs, and patterns, pouring their sleepless nights into conceptualizing and effectively transferring them onto the articles.

The timeless tradition of Qar-I-Qalamdan has immortalized certain motifs that artists playfully incorporate into their work. One such motif is the chinar leaf, which symbolizes the shared memories of Persia and Kashmir and is sometimes mistaken for the Canadian maple leaf. When combined with the Badam tarah or almond-like motif, it creates a nostalgic portrayal that intertwines with the identity of Kashmir. The Hazara or Zarad Gulab, which represents a continuous pattern of a thousand flowers and a yellow rose respectively, evoke a sense of pride and magnificence. These motifs, inspired by local flora, fauna, and birds such as the bulbul, offer a genuine exploration of Kashmir's natural beauty. These are just a few examples among countless motifs that adorn the streets of the valley.

For those interested in modern interpretations, the arabesque designs deserve close examination. Artists take full creative liberty while designing them for the contemporary market, often narrating stories nestled deep within the heart of Kashmir. While traditional papier mache pieces eloquently depict scenes from the Quran, Persian novelties, and historical figures, contemporary designs primarily focus on arabesque designs and natural motifs. These designs are highly sought-after and allow for the use of multiple color palettes within the same design.

To enhance the sophistication of these handicrafts, artists use high-quality colors infused with real gold and silver. This elevates the craft and adds to its intricate value. Once the motifs are colored, the surface of the artwork is coated with layers of lacquer, providing a glossy finish and protecting the piece. When the lacquer dries, the resulting product radiates an iridescent shine that captivates every tourist who visits the artists' chambers.

It is safe to say that Sakhtsazi represents the body of Kashmiri papier mache, while Naqashi breathes life into its soul. Together, they give birth to handicrafts of iconic relevance and unimaginable value, creating a vibrant artistic heritage.


Snippet from Motifs lesson of MeMeraki's Kashmiri Paper Mache Masterclass


The creation of Kashmiri papier mache is a labor-intensive process that requires a tremendous amount of skill, expertise, and artistic sensitivity. It takes years for artists to develop their unique style and craftsmanship, resulting in a high price tag for their creations. Unfortunately, this has deterred potential buyers and affected people's attitudes towards the art form, posing a threat to its continued growth.

In the past, the scope of Naqashi was limited to a few box patterns and vases. However, in order to sustain their livelihoods, artists have started exploring and creating art on unconventional shapes that were previously unimaginable. They have even secularized motifs with Islamic origins to cater to a broader market. As a result, the art has lost some of its original associations with Sufi Muslim roots due to commercial demands.

Despite these challenges, artists persist in preserving the true essence of this art form, even in the face of inadequate financial support. The craft of Kashmiri papier mache exemplifies adaptability and transcends religious, geographical, and political constraints. It is not merely an artistic expression but also a defining element of Kashmiri identity. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize and preserve its cultural importance in any capacity possible.

Efforts should be made to support and promote Kashmiri papier mache, ensuring that artists receive the recognition they deserve. This could be achieved through increased financial assistance, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation among the public, and creating avenues for the art form to thrive. By doing so, we can safeguard this treasured heritage for future generations and honor the artistic legacy of the Kashmiri people.



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