Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on November 9, 2018, in Hasanabad.
Sadaf Wani: How long have you been involved with papier mache?
Fayaz Ahmad Jan: I have worked with the craft for over 37 years now. I learnt it from my father and other artists from the community. My grandfather and great-grandfather were also papier mache artists. It is a family occupation. I think it goes back to the time of Shah-i-Hamadan, who brought papier mache to Kashmir. We trace our lineage back to Iran, although we do not have conclusive documented evidence of it.
SW: Has there been any significant change in the technique of the craft since you started?
FJ: Yes, there have been definite changes. Most of the raw materials were obtained locally. Now, there is an increased reliance on ready-made material. Earlier, the craft was designed with stone colours. We would crush natural stones of different shades, add saresh (an adhesive), and make paint out of them. For black colour, we would use soot from lamps. Even though we still use some powdered colours, there has been a shift towards acrylic and water colours. We used to make our own varnish with materials sourced from trees, now we use synthetic.
We still make our own tools. The brushes that we use are made from the fine hair follicles of cats and goats, and duck feathers.
In older days, when papier mache was mostly used for decoration, gold played a vital part in its making. There are two techniques to make use of gold leaves. In the first, we use gold for drawing the outlines of various designs. Gold leaves are placed on an earthen plate, which is rubbed with a mixture of saresh and salt. As we add water to the mixture, the gold settles at the bottom. We pick the colour from the base, dip it in water and draw the outline. A layer of varnish is applied to the object before we add colours to it. Once the paint dries up, we rub it with mohra (a local stone), which gives it a shiny lustre.
The second technique requires mixing gold leaves with saresh and sugar crystals. The mixture is set aside for a couple of days before being used for drawing designs. It retains moisture in the morning but dries up as the day progresses, which is why painting using this technique needs to be done at dawn. Once the designs are drawn, we glue gold leaves to the body of the art object.
As gold leaves have become unaffordable, nowadays we make do with golden colour if the customer demands a similar feel. Papier mache is not very popular these days, so it is not a sustainable career option. I know a papier mache artist who works as an auto driver despite having a national award.
SW: What kind of changes are you referring to? Has there been a change in how the craft is perceived by the artists and the consumers?
FJ: There have been significant changes but only in certain aspects. In the older days, the buyer had a fascination for papier mache. There was prestige associated with owning the crafts. This also encouraged the artist to work with a certain dedication. There was a definite purpose. Now, the purpose is production itself. Various items like Christmas decorations are produced on a large scale, with the only intention being selling them.
So, while this mode of production has had immediate benefits because in terms of numbers a lot more products are being made and sold, I still feel it has been detrimental to the art form as a whole.
Earlier, one would create for the aesthetic value of the papier mache objects, and they were appreciated for that. But now, with the rise in production, there is a demand for covering every other thing with papier mache—tea cups, dry fruit bowls and whatnot. It has definitely taken something away from the experience of making art.
SW: What is the involvement of the members of the family, especially the women, in the process of making the craft?
FJ: I spend a lot of time working on papier mache at home, so the family is also involved. My wife used to help me a lot. She was very good at making shawl designs (a papier mache motif inspired by Kashmiri shawls). She would also help me with the polishing of the crafts. A lot of women help with the polishing and smoothening of the craft, the process is called pishlawyun.
My daughters are interested in the craft but they get discouraged when they see how much neglect it faces. My elder daughter is pursuing her MBBS in Iran and the younger one loves to paint, she makes wonderful sketches. But I do not know if they will take up the craft.
I remember when late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was the chief minister of Kashmir, he hosted a gathering of artists. He told the artists, what you do is good but make sure you only do this part-time. Imagine the chief minister saying that! He was aware of the problems of being in this occupation. Look at the imposition of GST, I know so many small karkhanas that have been affected. They cannot afford chartered accountants to file returns and take care of bureaucratic formalities. I am not among the worst-hit, but I now spend my days running around government offices with very little time to do my work.
SW: In Kashmir, one encounters papier mache used in a lot of historical monuments. Have you worked on restoration projects of any such monuments?
FJ: I have worked on museums across India. I have created art pieces in Mumbai International Airport. I created a piece that Omar Abdullah put up in his office when he was the chief minister. But I have not worked on restoration projects in Kashmir. When Khanqah-i-Moula was being restored, they invited me along with other papier mache artists to submit our samples. I knew that in the end, the artist presenting the lowest tender would win, which is why I did not participate. Art does not operate on tenders.
I also do not think that all of us can claim to be qualified to work on restoration projects. There is a difference of technique in making papier mache objects and restoring the papier mache objects that were created centuries ago. It is important to admit what we do not know. Hazrat Ali says, half of the knowledge is the ability to say I do not know. Monuments need different paints, different tools and techniques. Unless we are equipped with those things, we cannot undertake restoration projects. I also believe that restoration projects should stress on using our traditional motifs. Nowadays, with the advent of the internet a lot of new designs are being incorporated into papier mache. I do not think it is good for the craft.
SW: Do you travel for demonstrations? Have you had the opportunity to interact with artists from other parts of the world?
FJ: I have travelled extensively. I have been to USA and Singapore, and European countries, including France and Italy. I went to Sweden first in 1987, stayed there for over a month. I was so young that I had to be assisted from the airport. The foreign tours are often organised by the central government. Some tours have been organised by the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum and some by the Ministry of Textiles. A number of private exporters and NGOs also help organise such tours.
A couple of years back, I participated in a workshop in Dilli Haat. The organisers had invited papier mache artists from Iran. It was fascinating to see them work. I could see glimpses of the work of our ancestors. After that, I went to Iran twice. The quality of work there is captivating! They are not driven by the market. Once you go out and see the craft being valued, you realise why it is important to engage with the craft and preserve it.