Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted on November 5, 2018, in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Sadaf Wani: How did your involvement with papier mache begin?
Niyaz Bhat: I have been associated with papier mache since my childhood. I learnt it from my father, who was deeply involved with the craft. He had to support a large family and since one craft was not enough for sustenance, he used to deal in both shawl-making and papier mache. This shop, Rainbow Art Museum, was established in his time, around 1965. Before this, he used to work at home and sometimes in his karkhana (workshop). So, I grew up surrounded by the craft. Nowadays, the karkhana is separate from the shop. Mine is in Hawal, around 4 km from my establishment. I go to the karkhana when there is not much work at the shop, or during the winters when it gets too cold.
SW: How many generations of your family have been involved with the craft?
NB: It goes back many generations of my family. The art form itself arrived in Kashmir with Shah-i-Hamadan, who came with 700 karigars (craftsmen) from Iran. Those karigars taught the locals and that is how the locals became part of the tradition. Kashmiris learnt woodcarving, carpet-making and papier mache from them. The learners also included my ancestors. Since then the art form has stayed with my family.
SW: Since your father’s time, has there been any substantial change in the technique of making the craft or the materials used?
NB: There have been some changes. I learnt the craft from my father and another artist named Syed Hassan Razwi. For the last 20 years or so, we have been using kale wood as a base material. Kale wood is especially useful for making square-shaped objects, though paper is still a preferred material for objects that need curvature.
Kale wood is very light and easy to work with. It is harvested from a local tree, yaare kul (Himalayan blue pine), found in Kashmir. However, the wood can be obtained only through government agencies upon signing a contract. So, we get our supply from the government. We also make use of the wood from poplar trees for some objects.
Earlier, colours were derived from flowers like Kashmiri gulab (rose), zaffran (saffron) and mawal (cockscomb). Over time, there has been a decline in the use of natural colours, and they have been replaced with water colours and acryclic.
SW: Can you walk us through the process of making papier mache art?
NB: We divide the making of the crafted pieces into two parts. One set of artists make the base structure and the other set work on making the designs and polishing the craft. We deal mostly with the latter. There are different karkahanas for the two processes. To make the base material, press cuttings, old notebooks and tissue papers are kept in water for over a period of five to six days. Once soaked, they are placed in a stone mortar and a wooden pestle is used to grind them. A mixture of rice flour (maand) is added to the processed paper and poured into casts of desired shapes and sizes. It is then allowed to dry for four to five days, or more in the winters. Because Kashmir sees a longer winter, we keep a bukhari (traditional heater) in the karkhana to ensure that the crafts dry up quicker. The dried shapes are cut out with a saw and a rough coat of paint is applied to smoothen them.
Once the base structure is fit for use, it is coated with chalk mitti (powder) and saresh (a type of adhesive). Still rough in texture, it is smoothened with a kiln-burnt brick. This process is called gassayiee.
To make the craft water resistant, a layer of tissue paper is glued to it. This is followed by a final round of polishing with sandpaper, application of four base coats of colour and a coat of varnish. We then draw desirable designs on the bodies and rub them with a local stone called mohra, which gives them a shiny lustre.
SW: There is a lot of variation in the types of designs. Is there a categorisation you work with? Has there been any visible change in the designs and motifs in the recent past?
NB: The motifs of elephants and scenes from Indian villages are relatively new. When foreigners come to India, they see the village designs as representative of Indian culture. Initially, we used to make very few representational artworks on rural life, now we make a lot more of these. These designs are now known as ‘Indian designs’. Then there are Mughal designs, where we paint stories of Shah Jahan, Noor Jehan, Akbar and scenes from Mughal courts. We also have jungle, kaleen, kaashan, jamaavar, gulandar gul, gul-i-hazara, bagaldar chinar, gonder and gul-i-wilayat designs.
The price of the object is determined by the intricacy and density of the motifs. So, while the intricate designs take somewhere around 10 days of an artist’s labour, the basic designs take around two to three days. Consequently, there is a difference in the price. For boxes with similar dimensions, the intricately designed will cost around Rs 8,000 while basic designs sell for around Rs 1,000.
We try to improvise. Earlier, we used to mostly make bigger objects like vases but now we make smaller objects as well, including small animal figures and objects of everyday use (like dry fruit bowls, candle stands and flower vases). We also experiment with brass as base material.
SW: What is the involvement of the family members, especially the female members of the family, in the making of the art?
NB: Papier mache-making is a family affair. Everyone contributes in some capacity. In the earlier days, when the craft was made at home, men and women used to work together. Even today, a lot of women work in the making but in different capacities. My father and I taught around 200–300 people in our mohalla (neighbourhood). I have conducted various workshops in and around Kashmir to teach women. Now these women participants can make basic designs. Finer work, however, needs a lot of practice.
My son is not interested in the craft. He is pursuing his Ph.D. in Iran. My daughter, who is pursuing her B.Ed. from Kashmir University, has shown some promise. She helps with the finishing and varnishing process of the craft. She can make the velvet coatings inside the box and draw some basic designs. The entire family participates. My wife, who is primarily involved in the pashmina work, also pitches in and helps me with polishing the craft.
SW: Talking about the workspace, do the craftsmen work in designated spaces or from their respective homes?
NB: In earlier days, the work was done within the premises of the house. However, now a larger part of it is done in the karkhanas. The artists come around 10 am and leave by 6 pm. They can take up additional work, which they do in their respective homes. Some buyers demand customised items. The artists make those at home, where they have the required materials.
SW: Who do you see as consumers of your craft?
NB: It is a mix of people. There are a lot of tourists but also locals who buy the products with much enthusiasm. Some people want to see how we make the craft so we take them to the karkhana. It makes them happy to get a piece directly from the artist. Some people do not believe that the craft is handmade, so we take them to see it. They are fascinated. I went to Switzerland for a demonstration, and this one person would not believe that I designed the craft with my hands. Only after he saw the demonstration, did he believe me.
Only papier mache art in Kashmir is safe from the influence of the machine, everything else—woodwork, carpet-making and pashmina-weaving—has been taken over. The craft of papier mache has its worth because it is made by the artists. Machines cannot replicate this value.
SW: How often do you travel for demonstrations of the craft? And what kind of support do you get from the central and state governments?
NB: I have travelled to a lot of places, including Germany, Switzerland and Singapore. The trips are sponsored by the central government, often by the Ministry of Textiles. I have only travelled for demonstration, not to sell the craft items. Some people place orders during the demonstration, we export the finished goods later.
We export our crafts to various European countries and Japan. Some objects are very popular as ornaments for Christmas decorations. We also send our crafts to Cottage Emporium, Delhi Haat, Crafts Council of India, and National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum in Delhi.
SW: How do you envisage the future of the craft?
NB: I dream of having an institution where I can teach papier mache. I really want to teach this to as many people as possible. I have submitted proposals to various governments but nothing has materialised. If I could be allocated a piece of land, I would pitch in my own resources to start an institution. I am very thankful to this craft for it has sustained me. I have won three national awards, including one for a jewellery box in kaashan design. I have travelled to so many countries, educated my children and supported my family. I have had no formal education, barely studied till the fifth standard. This craft helped me build a life for myself. I have nothing but gratitude for it.