SRINAGAR: Sitting in his small workshop in Alamgiri Bazar, Srinagar, artist Abdul Majeed Bhat, 50, is delicately designing flowers and birds on a papier-maché vase. Dozens of vases and bowls are lined up for him to decorate. “It’s a tough job and requires hours of back-breaking work,” says Majeed with a deep sigh.
Majeed doesn’t own a shop but has been in this profession as long as he can remember. “I inherited this skill from my father who in turn learned it from his father,” he says. Continuing the family business, Majeed’s two sons and his daughter also make a living out of this trade.
Papier-maché traces its roots to Central Asia. Zain-ul-Abideen, a popular and revered prince of Kashmir, is said to have introduced this art here in the 15th century after spending years at Samarkand in Central Asia. Today, thousands of craftsmen are associated with this craft with their products making it to all corners of the world. Papier-maché is their French name, meaning “chewed paper”, referring to the process involved in making this composite material, using pieces of paper soaked in water until they turn to pulp. The pulp is sometimes reinforced with textiles and bound with an adhesive such as glue, starch or wallpaper paste.
In Kashmir, the art was known as Kar-i-munakash until the French changed the name to papier-maché during the 19th century. At the time, a large number of French agents were active in the Valley, exporting pashmina wool to Europe. These shawls were packed in papier-maché boxes, which were sold separately once they reached France, fetching a high price. Soon these products carved a separate market in Europe along with papier-maché flower vases. Gradually, the local name for the art was replaced by the French one.
Oblivious to his trade’s French connection, Majeed remains busy making at his ancestral craft. He leaves paper to soak in water for two to three days, until it disintegrates. Then, as he explains, “The paper is pounded, mixed with an adhesive solution, shaped over moulds and allowed to dry and set before being printed and varnished.”
Majeed then sells his wares to a local businessman who in turn sells it to foreigners and whosoever is interested in art and craft. “There is contentment that my hand-made products grace the rooms of foreigners,” says Majeed over a soft chuckle.
Papier-maché has over the years become highly stylised and its appeal has been enhanced with the use of real gold and silver paint and by adding intricate decorations. The motifs seen in Kashmiri papier-maché are usually flowers and birds and have a strong Persian feel.
The papier-maché objects produced in Kashmir today vary from Christmas ornaments to coasters and include boxes of every imaginable size and shape. These objects are not only beautifully decorated but are surprisingly light and strong. Their lacquer coating protects them from water and gives them extra durability.
Some items like bowls and vases are lined with brass, while on special orders boxes and other items are jeweled with gold and silver leaves and depict beautiful landscapes and such inseparably Kashmiri objects like a house boat and shikaras.
“The art is evolving at a fast pace,” says Majeed’s son, Junaid, 25, who has been working alongside with his father for the last seven years. “We receive orders to make new and different kinds of papier-maché products and decorate them with alien designs, which was not the case a few years ago,” he adds.
Junaid left his studies after passing his higher secondary class to lend a helping hand to his father and contribute to the family income. “I am earning enough to make my ends meet,” says the content Junaid.
Papier-maché is not only the bread and butter of the Bhat family, it has become an integral part of their living.
“I want to pass on this craft to my future generations just as it was passed on to me from my ancestors,” says Majeed, as his sons nod in affirmation.