Papier mache refers to the art of making an object from mashed and molded paper pulp. The object so made is traditionally painted and usually covered with a layer of lacquer or varnish.
In Kashmir papier mache originated in the form of making pen cases (kalamdans) from paper pulp. The kalamdans were in turn covered with floral or geometric patterns and finished with a coat of rogan(varnish). It was for this reason the craft was referred to as kar-i-kalamdan(the art of pen cases) or kar-i-munaqash( the art of decorating). Over a period of time the craft has evolved into a distinct art form of surface decoration (naqashi) applied over an object made completely from paper pulp or employing at least one layer of paper. Thus the term papier mache is applied to a craft that has come to represent the technique and process of surface decoration rather than the composition of the object which is to be decorated. Nevertheless the actual painting or naqashi is always applied over a layer of paper.
The art of naqashi is in turn the final stage of a highly evolved process, which starts with the making of the object (saakhta), the preparation of the surface, the selection of the requisite design pattern (naqsh or tarah) and colours to be used. All the different stages of the process are streamlined; employing skilled craftsmen.
The skills involved in the various stages are passed on the basis of oral traditions from one generation to next. Indeed till the advent of 20th Century the craft was a well kept secret maintained within the artisan community.
As the craft was practiced within a small close knit community, therefore women along with men were involved in one or another stage of the process though never as naqash, a trend which is continuing even as of today. Similarly age was no barrier and children as young as 3~4 years would be enrolled in the kharkhanas.
The motifs and designs that were traditionally employed in the naqashi work follow a pattern, which though prevalent in some other parts of the Islamic world also, are in the end distinctly reflective of the local settings. The color scheme that was used on the papier mache objects was mostly limited to four or five basic colors with numerous shade gradients. The overall effect of the object would normally tend towards blue, green or gold. The process of colour selection is influenced by a set of inherent sensibilities imbibed by the artisans through local customs. Thus the traditional color scheme comprising a rich though subdued colour palette seems to be reflective of the Kashmiri artisan’s preference for pastel colors locally known as sufiyana rangs.
Similar is the case with the various designs and motifs used. Paper mache objects reflect a very subtle grammar of motifs and styles highly influenced by the rich flora and fauna of Kashmir valley. The typical motifs used comprise floral or vegetative patterns of rose, iris, gul-i-wilayat, carnation, tsunth posh (apple blossom), gul-i-lala, gulal(poppy), pamposh(lotus), yambirzal(narcissus), nargis (daffodil), grape and chinar leaves. Rose figures very prominently in many of the designs, reflective of its local standing as the “king of flowers”. The rendering of the motifs is highly stylized and representative of Kashmiri craftsmanship. The chinar leaf is a favorite motif with artisans who prefer raised-embossed work (vathlavun). Stylized versions of almond (which was replicated in Europe as paisley) also find wide usage and seem to have been incorporated from shawl designs because of which these patterns are known as jamvar or kani tarh (a clear indication of the fact that the motif was derived from the existing shawls designs). The various motifs are also intermingled amongst themselves to make new patterns. The designs may be spread all over the surface (without an apparent beginning or end) repeatable (mostly in form of medallions) or used as a border (hashiya). Figurative representation can be found in designs based on court scenes (durabar), animal hunts (jungle tarah), historic epics or scenes from Umar Khayam’s Rubiyatt.
A unique feature of Kashmiri papier mache is the effect of delicate shading that is obtained by very fine brush work almost in the manner of fine semi curvilinear line work known as partaz. The same technique is also employed to fill in small gaps in the background between various motifs. In fact barring the base coat, which is done with broad vertical strokes, most of the rendering in Kashmiri papier mache is done with small circular or semi circular brush strokes. The motifs are delineated with fine, uniform lines.
Traditionally most of the colours used in papier mache were mineral, organic or vegetable based. In contemporary practices poster colours and acrylic primers are used. Similarly synthetic varnish has replaced the traditional rogan (lacquer) which was derived from sundaris(copal).
The brushwork on the base was traditionally done with locally made brushes whose hair was made from the bristle of goat or ass’s hair. These days brushes no: 12, 18 or 20 marketed under the name “Camel” are used for this purpose. The paintwork in the motifs is done with locally made brushes whose hair is derived from the tail of cat. The gold outlining of motifs is also done with the same brushes though some people have also started using pen nibs.
Papier mache work is presently done on a variety of objects ranging from items of furniture, gift items and even objects of apparel ware like bracelets, though the overall composition of the market comprise gift items.