A row of colors lying on one side of a shelf, the raw material carefully placed in a corner of the room and the half-finished boxes are scattered all across the floor where papier mâché genius, Zaffar Wani, with every stroke of his brush is carrying forward legacy of four generations of papier mâché artists.
In the past, his home in the Alamgari Bazaar of old city would thrive with the making of papier mâchéart masterpieces with a number of workers in the workshop. Their women would actively be part in the making of pulp based products. Many people including foreigners would come, appreciate their craftsmanship and end up giving orders for the products.
Growing up in a family while watching his elders, he imbibed the knowledge of the craft and started practicing it when he was just 8 years old. Even though papier mâché artists were at his home, he went to the renowned masters of Srinagar of that time to master the fineness of the craft. Ghulam Rasool Khan, Ashiq Hussain Bhat, Nazir Ahmad Wani were among them who did his mentoring.
The learning was not a cakewalk for him. Wani recalls the very first day when he was asked to hold a round stone in hands and told to press,this made his hands sweat, the reason for which he learned later on in life. It was the first thing a student of papier mâchécraft would be asked to do by his master. This smoothens the hands to make the papier mâché pulp, easily. The activity would be done for months followed by the use of sand paper to make the surfaces smooth.
Owing to the unavailability of resources, he said the tools be it a brush, called Kalam (pen), or colors were made by the artists themselves with natural processes.
While taking us through the process of making a Kalam, a papier mâchébrush (pen) he said, “The Kalam was made using tail of a cat. The hairs were put in the water and the tip was made. The other end of the hairs was tied with the thread. The handmade Kalams were smooth and would make finer designs than the one available today.”
The tied cat hair is put in Pargaz for holding the hairs together and to be used as pen to make the designs. Due to the ban imposed on using animal skin or hair to make products, the kalams with cat’s tails are not made now.
A beginner used to start making designs over the mashq or slates for honing the skills.There would be occasions in the journey of budding artists which were celebrated by holding small gatherings over tea or Kehwa.
“When someone would use kalam for the first time or make designs over the products. Those moments are important for an artist and used to be celebrated with the masters,” Wani recalled.
Talking about the designs, he said the floral designs of the yesteryears which are difficult to make, are even relevant today. Some of them are hazar, gulander gul, gul e vilayet, Sindre posh etc. Hazar being the toughest, is the work involving scores of flowers and is more intricate as compared to the other designs.
“Now people give their own designs which are very easy to make but the old traditional designs are very difficult to make. To master the art of designing, it took me 8 years,” he said.
While making floral designs over the handcrafted boxes, he said the paper mâché work has specialized artisans for every set of designs.
For papier mâché, the colors were made naturally by grinding. The powder was sieved with the help of cloth. He said that the natural colors would not fade away. Gold used to highlight other complimentary colors would not blacken even after decades. The orange color was less available so artists in the past would use Saffron to make orange tone.
“The natural colors would not come off the hands even after washing. People of Iran used to name colors based on the names of the city. In Kashmir, we would name colors in our mother tongue like asmaen for sky blue, lajwada for a darker shade of blue,” he said.
He further said that the artists used to visit places and imbibe naturistic elements to get the inspiration for designs and colors.
He feels that the craft has become easy today with everything available in the market. “In the past, everything was handmade. The designs were searched and made. There was a quest to look for color shades, designs and tools as well. There is a delight in doing things the old way,” he said.
He has redone designs in Khanqah-e-Moula shrine many times. “The designs of Khanqah are rich and are more than 100 years old. The date of some of the designs are unknown. The old designs are difficult to make because they were made imaginatively by the artisans,” he said.
As per Wani, every design is unique and for mass production of products, similar designs are made by tracing.
Christmas balls, stars, moons and bells are some of the items that are in demand currently. Less commonly made are table lamps, big decorative pieces, jewellery box and powder box.
Change of medium
Lot of products used to be made with the pulp papier mâchébut, from the last 8-10 years, the medium has been experimented from pulp to glass, steel, plastic and wood. Wani said that papier mâchépainting over steel is in demand these days.
A large number of papier mâché boxes are exported to foreign countries. Mango shaped box which has a velvet coating inside for keeping the good fragrance is filled with chocolates and sold.During Christmas, the papier mâchéChristmas balls are used to decorate the X-Mass tree.
He said the fairs and exhibitions are held in countries like America and England where people show interest and appreciate the craft.Recently, Mahatta Art Gallery, Sringar, got the customized papier mâchékeychains made for their hotel.
“Now the utility of these things has been expanded. One can have a papier mâchésteel kitchenware. The demand for the products is more in European countries than in the East. They would decorate their homes with these products which would make the artisans happy. They would hold our hands and kiss them while appreciating our work,” he said.
Teaching craft in classrooms
His finest hands took him to places like Brazil, Malaysia, Middle East and a number of metro-cities of India and held classes to teach people.
“Students get intrigued to see the craft and want to learn. Many suggested having a proper learning space instead of teaching them for an hour or two but due to the pandemic, things didn’t work out,” he said.
Recalling one of the classes held in Delhi, he said the class was attended by doctors and professors who learnt the craft for recreational purposes to calm themselves.
Lately in Srinagar, he is taking craft classes at Saint Paul International Academy in collaboration with EdRAAK (Educational Revival through Arts and Aesthetics in Kashmir), an initiative which works for the education revival through arts and aesthetics, where students are learning papier mâchécraft three days in a week.
“There are few students who are learning the craft with greater interest. I told them to enjoy learning. Some of the kids belong to the family of artisans but they got inspired in the craft during the sessions only. If one in a class of fifty would be seriously interested and would carry forward the craft, that would be enough,” he said.
There are many institutions and people who are contacting EdRAAk and Wani for having craft classes for their kids.
Fall of the craft and hope for its rise
Wani, who has been in the craft for almost 40 years has witnessed the high and low of craft markets. He said that the artisans of humble background who couldn’t make good money despite putting their efforts switched their jobs.
“The artisans are paid less despite the final product being sold at a high price. The craftsman puts a lot of strain on the eyes. What pains me is when the craft is devalued by selling the products on the roadside on mats,” he said.
He said that his child, who has just joined the local school, often fiddles with the things at his workplace and he doesn’t stop him. “Since the craft runs in his blood, I can’t stop him from pursuing it. There are many kids like him who want to take up the age-old craft. If authorities and those of sensitive people among society offer a helping hand, many innovations can be done with the craft.”