It’s Christmas, but it is far from a season of cheer for papier mâché artisans in Kashmir.
Barkat Ali (50) sits hunched at a workshop in a narrow alley in old Srinagar and carefully applies the final touches to a Christmas tree-hanging ornament – a red Santa Claus carrying a yellow bag, with a glittery string attached.
The Kangri (traditional charcoal heater) under his pheran (Kashmiri winter wear) keeps him warm as he focuses on miniature designs.
In the floor above – the storehouse of the Akhter Mir and Brothers papier mâché company – a large variety of Christmas decorations including Santa Claus tree hangings, balls with Santa painted on them, Christmas trees, colourful stars, bells and trinkets, are packed in boxes and ready to be exported.
“It has been a long tradition to produce Christmas decorations and export them. I have seen it since childhood,” Akhter Mir (55), who now heads the company, told HT. The company employs 100-odd people. The family has been in this business for over 100 years now.
“The beauty and finesse of these Christmas products is that it’s not machine made. The incomparable talent of the Kashmiri artisan is showcased in these art pieces,” says Mir.
Traders say Kashmiri papier mâché Christmas decorations are shipped across the country and the world, including the United States, United Kingdom and the Middle East. They are also readily available on the prominent e-retail platforms.
Syed Maqbool Hussain, a papier mâché artist from Alamgiri Bazar in Srinagar, points out that the designs on the artefacts vary according to the demand.
“We create a wide variety of interesting designs as per the market demand. For example, for a shipment for Bahrain or Rajasthan, we will draw Santa Claus riding a camel through a desert with his sack of gifts,” Hussain says.
He adds, “While we also draw Santas on Chinar leaf to give the ornament a traditional Kashmiri look.”
“A bulk is firstly exported to Delhi, from where large wholesalers ship the products to international markets,” says Hussain, whose family has been in the papier mâché business for decades now.
Papier-mâché art is said to be brought to the Valley by Persian Muslims in the 15th century and is a treasured handicraft variety of Kashmir. The lengthy process basically involves the application of paper pulp over wooden moulds and then meticulously painting the final shape with rich colours.
Papier-mâché products traditionally comprise vases, boxes, trays, and replicas of animals and birds. Latest innovations have the art form into tech products, like Bluetooth speakers and mobile phone cases.
But this famed art form in Kashmir is staring at oblivion. Artisans say they cannot sustain for long on the prevailing low wages in the industry and hence, youngsters are not willing to learn the art.
“Ye papier mâché khatam ho gaya hai Kashmir mein. (In Kashmir papier mâché is over). The profit has gone down over the years. Very few young people are coming forward to learn it,” Mir says.
On being asked why, he says, “The artisan is paid very less. The final product, sold in glamourous showrooms, is expensive but the artisan at the base of the chain earns very little.”
The artisans complain that after working from 8am to late night, all they earn per day is Rs 200-250. Many have left the industry to work as painters (earning around Rs 600 per day) or do menial jobs such as a driver and labourer.
Barkat Ali has not encouraged his children to become papier mâché artists. “Eyesight deteriorates soon because of constantly focussing on the miniature drawings. And in comparison to the hard work, you earn nothing,” Ali says.
Moreover, the handicraft industry as a whole has been badly hit by the unrest that has been convulsing Kashmir since July and has resulted in a completed collapse of tourism and related sectors.
Handicraft artisans and traders say that Srinagar’s major showrooms did little or no business since July and hence no fresh products were ordered nor could many from earlier orders be produced.
“Handicraft sector suffered a lot in the unrest. Since transportation was not possible, even the goods prepared before unrest could not be exported,” says Mushtaq Ahmad Wani who heads Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI).