Sunday, November 29, 2015

Kashmiri Paper Mache Boxes

                         I love it when my projects just start off as a project and along the way it triggers a memory…..I have experienced that trigger a few times in this year-long journey that I have undertaken of exploring the rich traditional arts and crafts of India.  This project too began the same way; as a project, as a personal exploration of the paper mache arts of Kashmir; but in one deep lost moment when I was painting the box…memories came together and I realized I have a personal connect with this project. I remembered a small shiny round floral box with red and orange flowers, a black inside, and a triangle notch, a box that my mother had, that she used to keep in a small cupboard in her dressing table and that this box had some red glass bangles, a small stick doll and some other odds and ends in it. Memories are so unpredictable.….I didn’t remember Ma’s box when I was looking at pictures of paper mache boxes, or when I was planning out this project, or when I was researching the history of these paper mache objects. This memory of amma’s box came up when I was painting, when I am usually lost deep in the process. In recollecting that memory now when I was working on this project; took Ma’s box from just being an object that sat on her dresser to something that’s alive, something that is more interesting, more relevant and imbued with meaning. This linking of Amma’s box aggregated different incidents and small moments from my childhood, conversations with Ma, memories revolving around the box; giving the box a new valuable meaning and identity, a soul, an essence. Ma’s box has simply ceased to be just a box that I might have been okay with losing and is now of treasured valuable significance.

                        I called up dad, sent him a close similar picture of a paper mache box that I pulled from the internet and asked him to look for amma’s box. I remembered where it could be exactly and dad found it. Here’s Ma’s Kashmiri paper mache box: pictures taken on a phone camera by my dad in Bangalore, India. Dad remembers buying this box in Jammu at the local Raghunath bazaar in 1973 when they were stationed there right after their marriage. Memories….I am sure this triggered many for daddy too.

                             Many of my readers in India or from India will find these paper mache boxes familiar….we used to see them all the time in local exhibitions and handicraft fairs.
Like these:

                      Paper Mache is a delicate decorative art, born in Persia originally and brought to Kashmir by a Kashmiri Prince who spent years in a prison at Samarkand in Central Asia. The art was further encouraged by mogul emperors that came from Uzbekistan in Central Asia in the 15th and 16th century and ruled India for nearly 200-300 years. Inspired by the serene and beautiful valley of Kashmir, the lakes and meadows, the majestic snow clad mountains, this art took root in the simple homes of local people and evolved into a rich traditional folk art form. The creativity and romance of this art was then passed down the family through the generations.

                    Kashmiri paper mache objects are distinctively identifiable by the wonderfully vibrant, extremely detailed, and intricate small hand painted motifs of flowers bursting in full bloom and birds singing, and the illuminated finish on them.

                   The creation of a papier-mâché object can be divided into two distinct categories, the sakhtsazi (making the object) and the naqashi (painting the surface). In the traditional method of making these paper mache objects, waste paper is soaked in water for several days until it disintegrates. After the excess water is drained, the soaked paper is mixed with rice straw, cloth, and copper soleplate to form a pulp.  This mixture is packed into molds of different shapes and left to dry for two to three days. After it dries, the shape is cut away in two halves and then glued again. The surface is then brushed with a layer of glue and gypsum, smoothened with a stone or hardened clay, and finally pasted with several layers of tissue paper. A neutral base color is painted on and now the piece is ready for the detailed painting work.

                     The intricate design painted are always done free hand and are usually of very small florals and birds in bright colors, and with a strong Persian flair. Gold is used on most objects, either as the only color, or as a highlight for certain motifs. Among other rich designs are 'Arabesque', done in gold against a brown or red ground to show sprays of rose blossoms in fine lines and 'Yarkand', an elaborate design built up in spirals with gold rosettes radiating from various centers and white flowers laid over gold scroll work. The colors used were obtained by soaking and grinding vegetable and mineral dyes into pigments. Finally the object is sandpapered or burnished and is finally painted with several coats of lacquer. This lacquer gives the finished product a high gloss and smoothness, and increases with every coat applied and is a very distinctive feature of Kashimiri paper mache products. Another noticeable feature is that the boxes have a triangle notch that works as a locking mechanism. The result is an exquisite art piece object that also serves as a utility piece. 
               Changing with the times, Kashmiri paper mache products have become highly stylized and modern and now include Christmas ornaments, coasters, napkin holders, some have real gold or silver used in them, some are made with wood or cardboard instead of paper mache as it is cheaper and less time and effort intensive.

Here's my attempt of the Kashmiri paper mache boxes:

I began with a store bought small light wood box that I base painted in a neutral warm white color. 

I decided on florals with twirling vines and paisleys, a pattern true to kashmir crafts, patterns that you might see on boxes and their famous pashmina shawls and other embroidery pieces. 

After several coats of a high gloss lacquer


Wikipedia has a history of different methods of paper mache as done in different parts of the world here:

Check out a large variety of products for inspiration here:

Videos to watch:

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