Papier Mache: Kashmir’s window to outside world
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Papier Mache: Kashmir’s window to outside world

‘There is no wrong way to make pretty things’----Anonymous

Post by COL SATISH SINGH LALOTRA on Tuesday, September 20, 2022

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Art and the craftsmanship of an individual can’t be bound in any manner and has to be given an unfettered genius it deserves to flourish far and wide in order to take out the best out of an artist. It calls for an unqualified attempt on the part of all concerned to promote the art in its varied forms, if at all it has to make its presence felt far and wide. In fact art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known. Kashmir’s Papier mache is one such art form which has developed from generation to generation adapting to the ever changing times. Unfortunately, there are more exceptions to this than there are rules in the recent times. The niche art forms are the life and blood of art form all over the world and Kashmir’s papier mache is no exception. The Kashmir papier mache art is a beautiful way of brightening up your home and filling it with objects that will spark delight and discussion. Papier mache art was first introduced in India in the 14th century by the Persian (Iranain) mystic Mir Syed Ali Hamdani. The mystic was visiting Kashmir region from Persia and brought skill artisans and craftsmen along with him. The Persian method of making papier mache melded with similar art forms from central Asia and lo, behold a unique art form was born ---Kashmir papier mache.

Over time the Kashmir artisans added their own flourish and flavor to this art form bringing to their creations from all over the world. My interest in this art form got a shot in the arm during my not so frequent visits to the valley /Pahalgam in the mid-80s as also after a long hiatus in the mid-1990s and early 2000. I was witness to its growth by leaps and bounds before the scourge of militancy hit the area with full fury; and saw how the Kashmir papier mache shops eagerly catered to a wide horde of tourist influx that made a hard bargain in their various transactions. For the uninitiated there are two important aspects to this unique form –Sakthsazi and the Naquashi. The first step Sakthsazi involves making the foundation of the papier mache or object with the paper pulp, while Naquashi is the final step of painting and decoration. In the Sakthsazi stage of making a Kashmiri papier mache item, the paper pulp is soaked in water for 3 to 4 days and then put in a stone mortar and ground so that all of the paper is uniform in its consistency. The pulp gets left in the sun for drying before getting mixed with ‘atji’, a kind of rice glue.  A mould made of clay or wood allows the artist to shape the paper and glue mixture around it.The paper is taken off the mould before it is completely dry and then shaped and lacquered to make the outside smooth.

 

The item having gone through above smoothening process is further applied a thin layer of butter paper which protects the outside and keeps the outer layer of paint from cracking off the finished product. ‘Saktsazi’ as an art form was conceived about 700 years ago and is still the cynosure of the artisans of Kashmir. Despite its fine form, ‘Sakthsazi’ is losing its sheen among its popular people and going down the popularity graph.The prime reason for this is because of the political situation in the valley which always remains on the edge. Due to almost nil incentives coming their way, either from local dispensations over the years or the lack of connoisseurs of this great art the workshops of the artisans are in a dilapidated state. As brought earlier, since Kashmir papiermache is a combination of Sakthsazi and Naquashi techniques, with the artisans equally committed to their profession the absence of any incentives has got this team split with most of them working either from their homes or work stations. Adding to their woes is the advent of new technologies and manufacturing techniques thereby sounding a death knell for the traditional art form. The economic viability has taken a massive hit due to machine carving too. The art and its products mostly cater to the premier luxury sector with the price range on the upper side thereby again acting as a dampener for the masses to indulge in its purchase. Lower quality, cheaper machine products have given a tough challenge to the sector, with artisans struggling to keep the sector going.

Thus the market forces /dynamics instead of helping the artisans have in fact acted as a deterrent. Though the Kashmiri papiermache art is one of the oldest in India, it does not command the type of media attention which it deserves from various media barons and industry sources either in the past or even during the present times. Media blitzkrieg catapults any art form into the public gaze and increases the visibility quotient of an item thereby doubling its market value which unfortunately has not happened over here. This obscurity has cut into the price tagging of the items leading to a situation where they have remained stagnant for the last 20 years or so without showing any forward movement. Correspondingly the price inflation has made the raw material very prohibitive in cost thereby tossing the artisans and their calculus into a tail spin. Coming to the Naquashi stage in the overall buildup of an item, it is sufficient to know that this is the final stage of making a papier mache object. It involves of making a base coat of paint and applying to the item. Thereafter the artisan makes the designs of his choice by hand on the outside of the item, which means no item of Kashmir papier mache is same. This also proves that on an item of Kashmir papier mache, the artisan has carved out his personality, mood and professional acumen all combined for everyone to see and appreciate.

 

 

Traditional artists often use colours derived from minerals, organic or vegetable bases with common themes appearing on these objects to include Kashmiri symbols like almonds and chinar leaf with its 5 pointed corners. This ancient form continues to the present day taking a new hue and ideas but intrinsically staying true to its foundations brought to Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani.  Coming back to the crucial question of saving this precious art form falling into the abyss of oblivion and resurrecting it to its past glory; changed business ethics, marketing strategy and finance has made it mandatory that this unique art form be connected to all relevant national and international art and culture platforms for its better visibility and worldwide reach. Despite intervention by the way of introduction of new and newer designs and figuring out the limitations of its craftsmen, the need of the hour is to tackle this problem in a more professional and humane manner.

To take it to a global level this art form will require oodles of will power, good intention, and entrepreneurship from all and sundry to include artisans, the connoisseurs of this art, the local government of the day as well as the central government at New Delhi. Though this art form figures in the GI- TAG of intellectual property rights as enunciated by the GOI to take it to the next higher level but linking it to institutes like the ‘India heritage walks’ will infuse it with the much deprived oxygen it needs at this stage. The idea is to form some sort of collective organization to band together all these disparate groups of Kashmir artisans and craftsmen, strengthen them by design intervention and marketing exposure to push the boundaries of this craft far and wide. It is never too late to breathe an air of optimism, hope and expectancy into the Kashmiri papier mache art by the stake holders, both at the center and at the UT level. In the past several years, the unprecedented floods, abrogation of article 370, which gave special status to J&K, the COVID-19 pandemic lock down have all combined to break the back of this art form.  The only viable solution in the present times is to dispel the gloom cast by the above situations by hand holding the art form and its artisans with a genuine intention.

 

(The writer is a retired army officer and can be approached on his email….slalotra 4729@gmail.com)

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