The Motifs of Kashmiri Papier Mâché

Kashmir is home to several handicrafts that are a significant source of livelihood for local artisans. Crewel Embroidery, phulkari, and silverware are among the many crafts that are practiced in the region. The origins of these handiworks can be traced back to the arrival of Islam in Kashmir in the 14th century. The Sadat (descendants of the prophet) who accompanied Sayed Ali Hamadani came from Iran, Iraq, Kabul, and other areas, and brought along with them a band of artisans and craftsmen who provided a new lease of life to the dying art of Kashmir. One such craft that has been passed down through generations of skilled artisans is paper mâché. 


What is papier mâche?

Papier mâché is a French term for “chewed paper”. The word paper mâché is used for materials that are primarily made from paper pieces or pulp which is mixed with glue and other substances. These materials can range from bowls to puppets. 

Papier mâché figurines are constructed using paper pulp, this process is termed as Shaktsazi.In this process, the paper pulp is soaked in water for a few days. Further, this paper pulp is crushed in a stone mortar to achieve a consistent texture. The pulp is then mixed with atij (rice mixture). The artist proceeds to mold the pulp when it is still slightly wet. After the item has gone through a smoothening process, then it is polished using a stone or baked clay. The object is then coated with a lacquer. 

 A lot of layering and detailing works are done in the later phase, that is Naqashi. The first step involves applying a base coat of paint to the papier mache items. Afterward, the artist carefully creates designs using his hands, taking into account the complexity of the desired patterns. The designers traditionally utilize colors made out of organic minerals as well as vegetable-based dyes. It is important to note that other imperative processes are employed, making the entire production of papier mache a long and time-consuming endeavor.

There are some recurring patterns and ideas that are meticulously depicted in these works. They range from floral and nature-inspired designs to detailed calligraphic designs. Here is a list of some frequently occurring motifs in the craft:


Snippet from MeMeraki's Kashmiri Paper Mache Masterclass


1. Chinar

The golden Chinar tree and its leaves hold a special place in the heart of Kashmir's culture, beautifully depicted in the exquisite paper mâché artwork. For generations, Kashmiri artisans have reverently celebrated the majestic Chinar trees for ages by readily incorporating the beauty of these leaves into their crafts. A typical Chinar is a large deciduous tree that can grow up to 30-40 meters tall and its wood is often used in making delicate furniture. Resembling the graceful maple leaves, the deeply-lobed foliage of the Chinar tree becomes a mesmerizing sight during the autumn months.


Snippet from MeMeraki's Kashmiri Paper Mache Masterclass


2. Cluster of Flowers

Be it the gorgeous Hazara ( thousands of flowers) patterns or colorful gul-andar-gul ( flower within a flower) designs, the flower motifs serve as a testimony of the bountiful gardens of Kashmir. Gulab  (Roses), Safed Mazarmond (irises),sumbhal (hyacinths) and an array of vibrant flowers that are stretched out in opulence throughout the baghs ( gardens), especially in the season of spring constitute a considerable part of  Kashmiri paper mâché elements.


Image from MeMeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Product Catalogue


3. Birds

One cannot overlook the significance of birds when discussing the popular motifs in the Kashmiri paper mâché. From the blue Kola Tonch (kingfisher) sitting on a branch, and bright green parrots to a lovely pair of  Wan Kukil ( oriental turtle dove) and majestic peacocks, they all find their niche in these delicately crafted artworks. Each bird is crafted with utmost care and precision, ensuring that the art impeccably captures the mesmerizing beauty of these magnificent feathered creatures.


Image from MeMeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Product Catalogue


4. Islamic Calligraphy

One pattern that is crafted with great precision in many papier mâché pieces is the beautiful calligraphy designs that feature verses from the Quran and other Islamic texts. Islamic calligraphy holds a deep connection with Kashmir's culture. The attention to detail in crafting these designs makes them appear flawless while drawing them on Haashiya (borders) or book covers.


Image from MeMeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Product Catalogue


5. Paisley or Badam Tarah

The classic paisley motif also termed as buta is typically composed of a teardrop shape with a curl at one end. In Kashmiri papier mâché, Paisley or Badam Tarah motif stands for fertility and abundance. This seed-like motif not only holds significance in Islamic art but also shares a connection with Hinduism. Paisley patterns are also relevant in Hinduism and are referred to as “ambi” or mango designs, representing fortune and fertility. Originating in Persia, Paisley designs continue to be a popular choice for beautifying Kashmiri shawls, vases, and trays. 


Image from MeMeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Product Catalogue


6. Arabesque

Arabesque designs are characterized by the rhythmic formation of fine curvilinear patterns of intertwining tendrils, plants, or complex geometric motifs. Normally, a single design is repeated multiple times to create a harmonious visual effect. These lovely loops are fundamental to various Islamic arts. The occurrence of arabesque patterns on Kashmiri papier mache is common and frequent, adding to the allure of the art form.  



Image from MeMeraki's Kashmir Paper Mache Product Catalogue


As the world of crafts continues to evolve, certain motifs have remained a steadfast presence, symbolizing the deep-rooted traditions and the serene landscape of the valley. Other timeless motifs such as the picturesque jungle or the royal Mughal darbar (Mughal court) bear witness to the enduring legacy and the profound connection that the present artisans hold with the age-old traditions and the ethereal beauty of the region.


In the vast realm of Kashmiri paper mâché, there is still much to explore and discover. If you are intrigued to delve deeper into this captivating art form, we invite you to view and follow along with our masterclass, where you can unravel the secrets and intricacies of Kashmiri paper mâché.



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