Papier Mâché: Fading Art and Dying Artists

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By Riyaz Ahmad Dar

The decade of 80’s was the golden era for the papier mâché trade. The artisans were par excellence and represented the epitome of glory.

It always fascinates, to observe, how an artist brings to life to an object with the motifs of Chinar in soulful colour combinations and breathtaking symmetry. The artwork is very delicate and for many years one has to learn how to hold a brush and draw the floral designs on various objects. The exquisite strokes of the brush is the artistic genius and one is fascinated to see the excellent displays of this art at many historical places.

The pecuniary rewards and global recognitions brought them fame and financial securities. This was means for them to live a dignified life in the society. It won’t be a surprise for many of us to agree that their income was satisfactory and sufficient to meet the basic necessities of life and provide quality education to their children. They led the king size life and felt immense pride for their profession.

One such artist of high repute was ”Sule Kak “who conducted his life as if he were one of the greatest artists on the earth, a true heavyweight, someone who had enormous self reliance and deep respect for the art that he created.

At his work place , as a morning ritual,the apprentices prepared Hookah (Jajear),replacing it’s jar with fresh water,cleaned the bowl and placed a thick ring of tobacco on it,chiseling a fine pit in the center for the coals, ignited it with ‘ match sticks for the intoxicating smoke.

It was painstaking,they had to rub and smooth the roughness of different objects and color their outer surfaces.It was only after many years of toil that SK would guide and let them do the main frame work. Such was the work culture and the hardest way to teach and promote it down the line but he could never compromise on the quality of work.

He always met the deadlines for the order executions and on time deliveries but no one could stop him to miss a cricket match(as he was the fast bowing sensation in local competitions) and last show on Fridays. He had his own circle of friends who could easily purchase the tickets at the Firdous, Shiraz and Shah Cinema’s.

Life was not all about work, every summer, his friends accompanied him to pay obeisance at the Baba Reshi Shrine. They cooked together and stayed there for a night. In the morning they trekked to nearby Gulmarg to enjoy the horse and gondola rides. Next month, they would plan a locality trip to Pahalgam and boarded the KMD bus for the journey .They camped near the roaring Lidder river, assembled and feasted on the sumptuous Wazwan. Post dinner, they played cards till dawn and also arranged the beddings for those who were dead tired. These social get togethers were cherished by every family.

Such were the best days of life, people lived carefree life and were not familiar with the Diabetes, Hypertension, Cancer and other dreadful diseases. Even the expired medicines could do wonders and healed the patients.

And than there came a time when every trade was affected by the unrest in nineties and economic crises but papier mâché art and trade suffered worst. Due to curfews and hartals, people remained confined and tried their hands on it. Some black sheep’s started mass production on a very low rates and became the reason for the sub standard qualities. Day by day the situation only became worse. this only added more financial burden and daily uncertainties for the artisans. Like all others, SK couldn’t meet the both ends and started selling the vegetables. Time passed, so did his ventures. He opened an STD (long distance phone booth) shop but even the STD business couldn’t survive for too long.

In all those tough times, SK tried hard to provide basic affordable education to his three daughters. The family could only survive on the limited papier mâché  income and that couldn’t fetch him more than 5000 Rs a month. So he and his spouse started working at a local firm for a fixed monthly salary of Rs 14000. The family lived very happily until the day his spouse felt a lump in her right breast.Their small world turned upside down and further medical investigations revealed that she had reached at stage 3 metastasis.

Also Read: Why Is This Award Winning Artist Driving An Auto Rickshaw

Sometimes ignorance is the blessing but the treatment and medical bills took away his peace of mind. He moved from pillar to post to arrange the money and took her to Delhi’s Apollo Hospital for the oncology surgery. His affluent cousin’s did not come forward to console and help him in this uphill battle.They are the same philanthropists who are always anxiously waiting to replace the torn masjid floorings but maintained criminal silence on this human suffering. Charity should begin at home but more than anything else it has only become a Show Off business for many. SK was helpless and resorted to social media campaign on FB but unfortunately those paper warriors hardly contributed anything and yes, in a month, there was a surprise money of around Rs 17000 credited by few people from the middle east.

But life doesn’t stop here,few people arranged the finances and expensive medicines to save her on time. She is doing well and resumed her work as well.

Few months back, I took my mother for a routine checkup at Karan Nagar facility and there I saw a beautiful woman entrepreneur whom I knew courtesy FB. After few days through her updates

I was shocked to learn that she was also suffering from cancer.

Death and diseases don’t spare anybody but still people are deeply engrossed in worldly affairs without any value for the human life.

Papier mâché  is the crown of our rich heritage but it is on decline as the people are no more dependent on it and have already started investing in other fields.

Story of a renowned national award winning papier mâché artist, driving an Auto Rickshaw for the survival, was published on the pages of Kashmir Observer. There are others who have ended up being J&K Bank ATM guards.

It’s high time for the government to revive the strategies and frame the art courses which can be taught at the college level to save our identity, create revenue streams for them to earn a dignified livelihood. Govt can even introduce medical insurance schemes for these artisans, so that the precious lives can be saved and people are not forced to beg for their survival and take the streets for their loved ones.

A lot can be done, but a little effort and compassion are highly required from all of us to make an IMPACT!


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