The Art of Papier-Mâché (Paper Mache)



Pearls Jewellery Silver Paper Mache

Kashmir has been the muse to poets in every era. And that’s not without reason. It really is the land of mystique, beauty, art, handicrafts and culture.

One such very popular handicraft from the valley of Kashmir is papier-mâché. It is primarily based on paper pulp, and richly decorated and painted by hand with very delicate and intricate designs. 

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Photo Credit: House of Photography 

The tradition of paper macheir had has a long cultural lineage. This form of handicraft dates back to the 14th century when it was brought all the way from Persia to Medieval India. These artefacts are richly decorated and hand painted; generally in the form of boxes, trays, vases, bowls, cups, base of lamps and many other smaller objects.

The product is protected under the Geographic Indication Act 1999 of Government of India and is a very popular and much loved art form both in India as well as internationally.

If you walk down the streets of Kashmir, you will see papier-mâché being made and handprinted in homes and workshops and small sets-ups.

Paper Mache boxes art handcrafted handmade

Interestingly papier-mâché is a French word for ‘chewed paper’. It’s the term generally used for objects made by moulding paper pulp into various shapes and then decorating them into various shapes. However for the longest time now, papier-mâché as an art form has been identified as an art form from Kashmir.

Paper Mache Handcrafted Handmade in India

The history of papier-mâché technique is an interesting one. The papier-mâché technique of using paper pulp for making decorative objects was first adopted in Kashmir in the 15th century by King Zain-ul-Abidin. Mir Sayyed Ali Hamdani, a Sufi mystic, came to Kashmir during the late 14th century along with his followers, many of whom were craftsmen. These craftsmen used hand-made paper pulp from Iran, Central Asia. These artists who were also well-versed in other handicrafts such as woodcarving, copper engraving and carpet weaving made Kashmir their permanent home. They settled here along with their families.

Let’s take a bird’s eye view into the manufacturing process of the papier-mâché products.

Papier mache craft making happens in two phases: one set of artists, the sakhtasaz, make the base structure of the craft and then the naqqashi artists work on drawing the designs and polishing the craftThe sakhtasazi and naqqashi artists work closely with each other. Traditionally, the karkhana (workshop) was also the site where the sale of the craft items took place. Due to the long winters, most karkhanas took the form of a cottage industry within the premise of the house and all members of the family, including women and children took part in the making of the craft. This also led to the cultural lineage being passed on from generation to generation.

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The skilled artisans involved with this painstaking process are called sakhta makers. The materials involved with this process are discarded paper, cloth, straw of rice plant, copper sulfate, which are mixed and made into a pulp. The paper, after immersing in water for 4–5 weeks, is taken out and made into a pulp and dried. The dried paper is then converted to a powder. There is also a practice to mix the powdered paper with rice water to facilitate coagulation. The pulp thus made is applied on molds made in wood or brass.

Paper Mache House of Photography House of Digital Marketing

Photo Credit: House of Photography 

The present practice is, however, to complete the layering of pulp over the mold at one stage itself and then dry it before polishing it with gemstones. The artwork is then detached from the mold using a saw and then rejoined using dense glue. The joint is then rubbed slowly with a file made of wood known locally as kathwa. The surface is polished till all irregularities and edges become smooth. Then gold and silver foils are used in combination with the paste of chalk and glue mixture, which is applied to the exterior and interior surfaces of the object using a brush. After drying of the treated object, the surfaces are again polished using baked brick pieces. To prevent any cracking more paper strips are pasted and then polished again to smooth the surface, to get the colour of zamin or earth or of gold, white, black, blue or red. The surface of the object is demarcated with yellow colour, which is then followed by floral designs made in different colours in dark or light shades with application of adhesive compound called dor made of zarda, sugar and glue as adhesive, and applying gold or silver foils.

Paper Mache House of Hospitality House of Photography

Photo Credit: House of Photography 

The art object is then dried and given a varnish coat made of amber locally called kahruba or copal (sandirus) in a solution of methyl spirit. It is then sun dried. Following this process of drying the surface of the art object is cleaned thoroughly with a wet cloth. Then the surface of the artwork is again treated with a coat of silver and gold foils and then designs are created over the surface followed by a smoothing of the surface using gemstones such as jade (yashm). Then the art piece is again sun-dried and made ready for painting. Distemper colours made with pigments and glue are used to paint the artwork with various designs. The brushes used for the painting are made of hair of goat, cat or donkey. The practice was to use "craft mineral, organic and vegetable colours." 

And thus comes to life the most beautiful, exotic, extremely colourful handicraft from Kashmir, the Papier-Mâché. 

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About the Author: Aroti Akash Tugnait the Founder of Fallaknumaa and the Co-Founder and CEO of House of Hospitality. 

She is also a Leadership Development Practitioner and a Digital Marketeer with over 2 decades of experience with Harvard Business PublishingAccenture Consulting, and GE










1 comment

  • Savita

    Aroti…Well researched and written Article!!

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