Srinagar, Oct 19 (IANS/ 101 Reporters): Gently stroking the vibrant canvas with a pointed paintbrush, Nowsheeba Mushtaq (18) talks about her tryst with Kashmiri paper mache. "I am a calligrapher and I want to come up with a fusion art of paper mache and calligraphy. That is why I decided to learn it," says the class 12 student from Rainawari in Srinagar.
Mushtaq has been learning the paper mache crafting technique from Hakeem Manzoor (48), an artist from Gani Doori in Alamgari Bazar area of Srinagar, who has pioneered the art's comeback by incorporating it into the interior design concepts of houses and other buildings.
Earlier, paper mache was confined to showcases as they were mostly small display items.
Once a lucrative business, paper mache became a dying art of Kashmir with the passage of time. The unprecedented floods, abrogation of Article 370, Internet blockade and the Covid-19 lockdown hit the artists who remained steadfast in their commitment to traditional methods and struggled to adapt to the new model.
Many of them were forced to shut down their workshops and look for other jobs.
However, those who understood the significance of Manzoor's work and followed his path were able to turn over the tide, besides breathing new life into the age-old craft. While making paper mache an attractive element in contemporary Kashmiri homes, they also began to attract young hands into the field.
The new entrants were provided with a free-of-cost platform where they could not only learn, but also experiment in fusion art.
Fusion patterns, new canvas
The history of paper mache in the region goes back to the 14th century, when Muslim saint Mir Syed Ali Hamadani a.k.a. Shah-e-Hamdan brought skilled artists to Kashmir from Persia.
He was also credited with the introduction of several other crafts to the region.
The shift towards the new approach began in 2007, when a customer asked Manzoor if paper mache could be done on his house ceiling.
Manzoor took it up as a challenge and drew on his 40 years of experience to come up with a scintillating creation. It proved as a window of opportunity to accord new relevance to the rich craft.
"I was the first one to introduce paper mache art in the interiors. Though my first project was in 2007, the concept got widely known only by 2010," Manzoor tells 101Reporters.
He has won the appreciation of his peers, local community and outsiders for his work.
Traditionally, artists soak newspaper, tissue paper, cardboard or old magazines for several days, before mixing it with copper sulfate, straw and cloth.
This pulpy mixture is placed on a mould and left to dry. Later, the surface is coated with glue and gypsum.
After smoothening the surface and shaping it as per the requirement, several layers of tissue papers are pasted on it. Lacquer is applied after another round of polishing.
Traditionally, artists apply organic or vegetable colours as base coat before proceeding to work on the object using their hands.
In the modern approach, the structural base for paper mache projects is either wood or medium-density fibreboard panels. Artisans opt for high quality acrylic waterproof paints nowadays. According to its practitioners, the contemporary method is more challenging than the traditional one because it requires detailed graphing, accurate scaling and perfect strokes.
While chinar trees, flowers, birds and almonds are used as motifs for traditional paper mache, the artists now follow a mixed pattern of traditional and kani prints, calligraphy and Turkish designs.
The traditional paper mache costs 2,500 to 3,000 per box. On the other hand, a paper mache panel for interiors costs Rs 700 per sq ft.
Panels come in different ranges such as 24 and 32 sq ft.
"The cost varies depending on the specific design preferences and square feet desired by the customer. More intricate designs on the panel will result in higher costs," Manzoor explains.
According to him, the time required to complete a work depends on the order. The time frame can be anything from 15 days to a month, or even longer.
In 2014, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage appointed Manzoor to take up paper mache projects on behalf of the government.
Since then, Manzoor has worked on multiple projects, including those in famous shrines of Kashmir. He has also trained 15 students on paper mache.
The works of Nasir Hussain Khan (55), who has 42 years of experience in the field, can be seen in many places of Kashmir, including Syed Dastigeer Sahib Shrine in Srinagar and Eden Resorts and Spa in Pahalgam. He also has clients in Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Asked about the contemporary model, Khan tells 101Reporters that the shift was necessary.
"In order to catch up with the modern trend and to keep our traditional art alive, the need to incorporate paper mache into interiors was essential," says Khan, who has trained 20 students so far.
Many artisans have made the transition from traditional to interior paper mache designing, which has resulted in a significant increase in both sales and income. Earlier, they were making Rs 40,000 to 50,000.
Some have reported up to 50 per cent increase in sales and income after the transition. Social media has been a vital tool to extend their reach, enhance marketing efforts, establish new contacts and showcase their creative work.
What made it popular?
Unlike the traditional decorative paper mache items, interior designs resonated well with the local community when it was introduced into khatamband (Kashmir's traditional ceiling art). The new approach not only caught the attention of interior designers and homeowners, but also the youth who began to see it as an income-generating profession.
The aspiring artists attend classes and workshops of skilled interior artists because there is a potential to learn and innovate. In contrast, the older artists using traditional methods are often reluctant to use new models due to the comfort they feel with their traditional techniques. This often puts off young learners.
"I was appreciative of paper mache from my childhood itself. When I joined classes, I was introduced to the interior design element. I am now very eager to master this art and eventually set up my own workshop," beams Wasifa Kuchay (29), a student of Khan.
"Manzoor sir's paper mache creations are guiding lights for someone like me, who is still on the path of learning. His ability to blend the traditional with the modern art is truly impressive," says Falak Iqbal (21), a student of Manzoor.
Despite successfully learning paper mache interior design, only a few have managed to set up their own businesses or workshops due to the substantial financial investment required to run the craft independently.
"I learnt paper mache interior art for a long time... the government's support is necessary to sustain this fusion model," says Zahoor Ahmed (55), a former student of Manzoor who runs an interior business unit.
"The new model of paper mache has also boosted other sectors such as carpentry, contractors and interior designing," Irfan, another former student of Manzoor, tells 101Reporters.
Idrees, a student of Khan, started to learn paper mache in 2015 and interior paper mache in 2020.
"Now, I have my own interior art business. Exhibiting in Mumbai, Delhi and Surat gave my business a big boost. I receive many panel orders from across India," he says.
Fayaz Ahmed (45) tells 101Reporters that investing in interior paper mache is really worth the money because of its quality and artistry.
"We as citizens can contribute a little in the preservation and promotion of our traditional art. Besides, it adds to the overall charm of my home," he says.
Zubair Bastal says choosing paper mache for interior walls can bring a unique and personal touch, giving a sense of individuality to the decor.
"It is handmade and a meaningful choice. It allows you to support local artisans," he adds.
Tariq Ahmed (48) remembers how people incorporated intricate paper mache designs on khatamband ceilings and preferred interior paper mache panels over false ceilings after the art went into innovation mode.
"The rooms in my house have seen a unique transformation. They look fresh and appealing," he adds.
Though the artists are hopeful about paper mache's income generation capacity and future, they feel dissatisfied with the government support in the form of events and exhibitions and credit card scheme.
They want the government to encourage students and provide them with platforms to display works.
They also emphasise the importance of training and nurturing customer relationships to help the art survive.