The year 1320 AD marks a significant shift in the socio-cultural history of Kashmir with the transfer of power from Hindu to Muslim rule and the establishment of the Sultanate in the valley. As with most other Muslim dynasties of that time in the Indian sub-continent, the ruling elite of the Sultans of Kashmir comprised a large number of foreigners, especially Persians and Central Asians. These foreigners included missionaries, preachers, men of letters, swords and merchants who bought with them an appreciation of art and crafts that had developed in the wider Islamic world. Hence the Sultanate rule laid the foundation for the evolution of a unique cultural ethos showing synthesis between the ancient traditions of Kashmir and a host of new ideas originating from Persia, Arabia and Central Asia.>
The two men who stand out for their contribution to the development of this new culture are Mir Syed Ali Hamdani and Sultan Zain-ul Abideen. Syed Ali or as he is popularly known as Shah-i-Hamdan was a famous Persian mystic who is said to have been responsible for the widespread conversion to Islam of people in Kashmir. The Syed who fled to Kashmir from Persia following Timur’s invasion brought with him a host of artisans and craftsmen who found favor with local court. The 15th Century king of Kashmir Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen supplemented this work of Syed Ali. Most traditional historical references maintain that Zain-ul-Abideen invited craftsmen from all part of Islamic world especially from Iran and Central Asia. Indeed according to popular legends, Zain-ul-Abideen is said to have spent some time at Smarkand before his accession to the throne. This journey to the then heart of the Islamic civilization if it did actually take is would indeed have imbibed the young prince with a refined taste for art and crafts that were yet lacking in his own kingdom. And once he ascended the throne, the Sultan made a sustained attempt (even coercion) to enrich his land. Amongst the various crafts that got introduced in this period is the art of making lacquered pen cases known as kar-i-kalamdan.
According to Encyclopedia Kashmir, the art of making pen cases from mashed paper was known in the Seljuk Iran; from where it must have spread to other parts of Central Asia including Samarkand. The art of kar-i-kalamdan does not seem to have found much favor with the people of Central Asia and Iran where the metal and wooden pen-cases commanded the market. It was from Samarkand, according to a leading contemporary papier mache artist Mohammed Saleh Beigh that Zain-ul Abideen obtained artisans well versed in the art of kar-i-kalamdan or as it was alternatively called kar-i-munakash.
Most historical records maintain that the craft was to a large extent limited to the capital city of Srinagar and that too within the Shia community; a majority of whom were immigrants from Persia or surrounding areas. Unfortunately no papier mache object from the Sultanate period (14th to 16th Century) survives today. The art must also have been practiced during the Mughal period but hardly any documentary evidences from that period survive to explain the nature and the extent of the craft. Mughal records, nevertheless make mention of the fact that the Kashmiris were renowned for their painting skills. Though the reference seems to be with regards to miniature painting, yet it does support the tradition of an established artisan community whose members might have diversified into the wider and more acclaimed field of miniature painting. Interestingly this is a tradition that find place even in contemporary Kashmir. Many of the younger children associated with traditional papier mache (artisan) families, have switched over to painting after completing professional course from the Srinagar School of Music & Fine Arts.
During the course of the 19th century, a number of French agents were operating within the valley. These agents who were basically engaged in the trade of pashmina shawls also gave an impetus to the papier mache industry also albeit in an indirect manner. The shawls that were sent from Kashmir to France used to be packed in papier mache boxes and once they had reached France were sold separately; fetching high price. Soon these papier mache objects carved a separate market for themselves in France and other parts of Europe. Gradually along with boxes, papier mache flower vases were also in demand in the French market.
The extent of the French influence on the local Kashmiri artisan can be gauged from the fact that the term “papier mache” replaced the traditional name of the craft in its native place also. The French influence had its drawbacks, the most serious of which was the designs or color schemes that were introduced on the demand of the French agents catering to the then prevalent European tastes.
An interesting feature of the industry was the slow and steady replacement of paper as the basic material for the craft. In the latter part of the 19th Century wooden boxes made of silver fir (budloo) replaced the traditional paper pulp boxes. Thereafter in the 20th Century mashed paper and wood was increasingly replaced by ghata (paper board sheet). Thus today very few items that are sold in the Kashmiri market by the name of papier mache are made from mashed paper. Indeed what is referred to as papier mache both locally and in the outside market is the art of naqashi or the painting of various floral, geometrical and figurative designs and patterns on the various items, covered with lacquer.