“Most of us are sitting at home and whiling away time during the lockdown. We have been home for months now,” says Hakim Gulam, a papier-mache artist from Srinagar. For thousands of artisans associated with the crafts in and around Srinagar, sitting-idle-and-waiting has become more of a norm. “Those who have the raw materials are trying to create whatever they can out of that limited supply,” says Gulam. For the rest, there is zero productivity and zero sales.
The Kashmiri craft of papier-mache — which mainly uses wood, leftover wood pulp and paper waste — is staring at survival issues ever since the abrogation of Article 370 last August put the artisans in an indefinite lockdown. Adding to their woes is the COVID-19 lockdown, which, they feel, has diminished their future possibilities as well. “The art is concentrated mainly around downtown Srinagar and employs around 35,000 artisans — big and small, traders and kaarigars,” says Maqbool Farooqi, Deputy General Manager of J&K Apex Marketing Federation, which would organise various exhibitions for these artisans in collaboration with the state government. “But there have been no exhibitions this year,” says Farooqi. “Everything is shut and no one wanted to take the risk of getting together hundreds under one roof in the context of recent political developments in the state,” he adds.
Gulam, whose family of four is involved in the craft, besides a dozen kaarigars he employs, would participate every year in various artisan fairs across India — be it the events organised by Dastkari Haat Samiti, Surajkund Crafts Mela, exhibitions at Dilli Haat or the art fairs in Bengaluru and Pune. He says that the travel restrictions imposed in the state since last year have not only interrupted his participation in fairs but also local businesses, as tourism in the Valley has taken a big hit. “I would supply the boutique shop of a local five-star hotel but they have stopped giving orders due to a steep fall in international tourists since August,” he adds.
For papier-mache artists in the Valley (besides 35,000 in Srinagar, there are around 10,000 in Budgam district), their sole source of livelihood for the past 50 years has come through creating souvenirs — trays, shikaras, figurines, wall hangings and pen holders. But now, it seems, a dark future awaits them. The only saving grace perhaps is the sense of unity that turmoil often brings with it. “Even if we don’t have money or sales due to lockdown, we are certain that no kaarigar in Srinagar will sleep hungry. Each one of us has always ensured the other one eats,” says Gulam. Farooqi says there has been no initiative by the administration in the past two years to support this dying craft.
Masrat Ul-Islam, Director-Handicrafts, J&K Administration, admits to the setback. “Even though most of them (artisans) have raw materials and pending orders to complete, there will be problems in the long run if the lockdown extends. “The sales were affected for most of last year due to internet shutdown,” he says. Several handlooms and handicrafts in the state have suffered — be it the carpet weavers of Bandipora and Baramulla or kaani shawl makers of Budgam and the soozni artisans spread all over, adds Islam.
However, the administration believes that the crafts will survive as it has overcome the numerous disturbances in the state since the 1990s. “There’s a huge demand for Kashmiri handicraft in the international market; but if the lockdown changes international trends for luxury and decorative items, things won’t remain the same,” says Islam.
Gulam is hopeful. He says, “For the past few years, we had noticed a steady decline in the demand for traditional decorative items (wall hangings, flower vases) and a shift towards utility items (trays, pen holders, photo frames). We were thinking of reinventing and also had a few inputs in this direction but never found time to implement those.” He has now designed ludo, knots and crosses and a memory game in papier mache, and plans to sell these at boutique stores, for anywhere between Rs 2,500-5,000 per piece. “It takes me two days to create one board, as it requires precision and patience,” he adds. He is waiting to test the market before making them in bulk. Till then, he is using the samples to play games with his son and daughter.