In late December, it begins to look a lot like Christmas in Kashmir: there are conifers covered in snow, stars glitter across the dark skies. Though only 0.2% of the state’s population is Christian, preparations for the festival begin months in advance – as Kashmir’s traditional papier-mâché artisans speed up production of Christmas decorations to be sold through India and also exported.
Kashmir’s papier-mâché products are best known for their exquisite floral patterns, courtly scenes depicting the Mughals, and birds and bright flowers. But over the past two decades, its unique Christmas decorations have been growing in popularity.
Arists, most of whom are Muslim create the decorations blending traditional Kashmiri designs, based on Persian papier-mâché art, with western concepts and symbols like Father Christmas. It is not just this amalgam, though, that makes their work unique, it is also the artisanal value of the process – each ornament is handmade.
Traditionally, Kashmiri artisans made boxes, vases, lamps, plates and figurines of animals. Now, an increasing number of artisans are making small and large eggs for Easter, as well as spooky wall-hangers for Halloween. There’s also a diverse offering of Christmas baubles.
Mohammad Syed Rizvi, a papier-mâché artisan from Srinagar who has won state and national awards for his craft, said that artisans in the Valley have been making Christmas decorations for a long time, but business has grown in the last 20 years. It is Kashmir’s craftsmanship, he believes, that gives its products an edge over the machine-produced baubles from elsewhere.
“You can create designs on plastic balls as well, but they do not have the same value as handmade products,” Rizvi said.
Even though the artisans have little exposure to traditional Western Christmas celebrations, they recognise the motifs: palm-sized Santa Claus figurines dangle from trees with open arms, and hollow ball-shaped ornaments are painted with nativity scenes. Cutouts of increasing size with identical caricatures, or two-dimensional stars with traditional patterns are also part of the Christmas loot. The decorations are mainly exported to Western markets, including the United States.
Mohammad Amin Dar, a papier-mâché artisan in Srinagar, said his workshop produced and exported over three lakh Christmas balls each season. To compete with the influx of Chinese-made plastic decorations, Dar travelled to Hong Kong to pick up some tricks of the trade. “China makes decorations using painted plastic balls which are easy and quicker to make,” he said. “I noticed in Hong Kong how ball decorations were wrapped in brown paper. We are also using similar base, but without relying on machines.”
Dar emphasises on the workmanship of his decorations – thin short strips of brown paper are carefully pasted over the balls to avoid kinks and wrinkles. The decorations are then varnished, and motifs painted over them, before a final coat of polish is added using a simple teacup.
At Dar’s papier-mâché workshop in old Srinagar city, boxes packed with Christmas decorations were stacked above one another, ready to be shipped. Artisans leaned against bare brick walls, in a dimly lit and cold room, painting small hollow balls made out of paper pulp.
For this, the scrap paper from printing presses is soaked in water until the paper softens, after which it is pounded thoroughly. The paper pulp is then mixed with rice dough to bind the pulp and moulded in different shapes before being set out to dry. During winters artificial sources of warmth are used to aid the drying. Another round of drying strengthens the moulded paper pulp over which artisans apply a base colour. Christmas and traditional motifs are then painted onto each moulding without the aid of stencils and yet each piece of design is identical to the casual observer.
The painted pieces are eventually dried and polished for finishing before being packed in cartons to be shipped outside the state. According to artisans, Christmas balls are the most in demand, followed by stars, eggs and bells.
As the international market for Kashmiri Christmas papier-mâché has expanded, innovations in design and concepts have been shaped by the cultural sensibilities of the destination market. Rizvi said Christmas motifs depicting Santa Claus riding camels was introduced due to a high demand for papier-mâché decorations in Middle Eastern markets, particularly Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.