The credit goes to the Shia community of Kashmir for keeping alive papier mache art — colourful, exquisite, highly decorative and delicate — in the Valley since the 14th century. “This wealth has been handed down to me by my father who inherited it from my grandfather and so on. The colours and the shapes we carve from paper is what adds meaning to our lives,” says Zahid Rizvi, 40, a papier-mache artisan at Zadibal in Srinagar.
Over the centuries, the Shia community, now forming about 14% of the Valley’s population, has been perfecting the art. Historians believe that papier mache became popular as an art in the 15th century. Legend has it that a Kashmiri prince was sent to a jail in Samarkand in Central Asia, where he acquired the fine art, which is often equated with patience and endurance. The Muslim rulers of India, particularly Mughal kings, were fond of this art and were its patrons.
The process begins with soaking waste paper in water for days till it disintegrates and then mixing it with cloth, paddy straw and copper sulphate to form pulp. The pulp is put into moulds and given shape and form. Once it dries, the shape is cut away from the mould into two halves and then glued together. It is polished smooth with stone or baked clay and pasted with layers of tissue paper. Now, it is completely the baby of an artisan. After applying a base colour, the artisan draws a design. The object is then sandpapered or burnished and is finally painted with several coats of lacquer. The art got a major boost from the government in 2016, when the Nawakadal girls’ college in Srinagar introduced it in the craft curriculum. Saleem Beg, who heads the Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, believes the future of papier mache lies in elaborate murals.