Despite the pandemic’s devastating impact on business, foreign orders have begun to trickle in ahead of Christmas, giving the dying craft a lifeline.
Ahead of Christmas, Nasir Ahmed Mir, 60, a Kashmiri Muslim artist is busy giving the finishing touches to miniature paper mache Santa Claus dolls. The order is being readied for sale in the international market.
Sitting in one corner of a room strewn with paper mache articles and splattered with glitter and paint, Nasir is engrossed in his work and has no time to talk.
Nasir and his older brother Mohammad Akhtar Mir, 65, own one of the biggest paper mache workshops in Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir. They are among the biggest exporters of the 700-year-old craft, which has seen a decline over the years.
Paper mache articles are made from paper pulp, and the process involves various levels of expert craftsmanship. Earlier, artisans used colours of their choice, but now clients customise items according to the colour palette they want.
The work involves finesse and each item is deftly painted with attention given to each detail and pattern. The artisan’s brushstroke is a work of art in itself.
With Christmas looming around the corner, the Mir workshop is a busy place. Over a dozen artisans are working overtime to get Christmas orders ready for clients abroad. They are adroitly painting Christmas bulbs, bells, miniature Santa Claus reindeer, hanging stars and moon ornaments.
With Kashmir having a miniscule 0.28 percent Christian population and a few chapels, Christmas paper mache goods are primarily sold internationally and have no local buyers. Mohammad said demand comes from the US, UK and other foreign countries.
For two years the Mirs received no international orders, but a trickle has poured in ahead of Christmas this year, infusing some life into the dying art.
Nasir said he has already dispatched an order of 100,000 glittery Christmas bulbs to a customer in the UK. Another 20,000 Christmas bulbs, miniature elephants, and reindeers were being prepared for a US client.
“Christmas orders have been placed after two years. But it is not the same as it used to be before 2019. Our business has decreased by almost 70 percent,” he said.
As a result of the pandemic, raw material costs sharply increased, as did carrier charges.
“The art is declining. Only those above 40 years of age are associated with it. Youngsters want to study and earn better,” said Nasir.
Fayaz Ahmed Bhat, an artisan at Mir’s workshop, said they had been preparing Christmas orders for the past month.
“Last year, there were no orders to prepare for Christmas due to Covid-19,” said Bhat, carefully holding a freshly painted Christmas bulb.
Unlike the Mirs’, MA Ramzana’s showroom along the Dal Lake in Srinagar has no customers and no orders on Christmas. “There is no business since the pandemic hit. We do not have a single order for Christmas,” said Bashir Ahmed, a sales executive at the showroom.
The paper mache export business was dealt a huge blow by two subsequent lockdowns in Kashmir. The export business came to a halt in 2019 when the Indian government imposed a lockdown after stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and reducing it to a Union Territory. Immediately afterwards, the coronavirus lockdown at the beginning of 2020 made things worse for Mir.
Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) president Sheikh Ashiq said from August 2019 to 2020, businesses overall had suffered a loss of Rs 40,000 crore ($5.3 billion).
“For the past three years, the export handicraft business has been going through a bad phase. We are just touching just Rs 600 crore ($80.7 million) exports, while at the peak it was Rs 1700 crore ($228.8 million). This means we are more than 50 percent down. We will have to stop the losses and go up,” the KCCI president said.
He said the handicraft industry needed to be revived. “We have put forward a charter of demands before the government for the complete revival of the handicraft sector and we hope things will move,” Sheikh Ashiq said.
Apart from the dwindling business, manufacturers have been burdened by increased freight charges. “Before the pandemic the items were shipped to foreign countries, but now we have to send the parcels by air which costs us more,” said Nasir.
To keep going through two consecutive lockdowns so that he did not have to shut his workshop, Mirs’ artisans made paper mache items for weddings, which included fruit baskets, dry fruit bowls and jewellery boxes.
Mohammad and his brother are the third generation in their family associated with paper mache. Apart from the downturn in business, he worries about carrying forward the artistic legacy too. “Till I live and have the energy, I will continue to work. But I am unsure who will take care of the business after me.”
Once a thriving art, thousands of families in Kashmir earned their livelihood by selling and making paper mache items. The number of people involved in the trade has now decreased due to various reasons, the latest blow being the pandemic.
Of the 50 artisans two years ago, less than half remain with the Mir workshop. The Mir brothers said the reason that many, including some master craftsmen, left was because it was impossible for them to run households with the earnings from the craft.
To bolster the demand for Christmas orders, the Mirs are now sourcing other local artisans. Paper mache manufacturers who are still in the business earn from exports and the domestic wedding market.
“We started making decorative items for weddings some five years ago and in the past three years, it has picked up and has allowed us to pay our artisans and keep going,” said Nasir.
Artisans work from 9am to sometimes 10pm, but the money they earn is not commensurate with the long hours of work. Despite business picking up a bit ahead of Christmas, artisans, who earn Rs 200-250 ($2.70-3.37) a day, live a hand-to-mouth existence.
“We want our children to get educated so that they have a better life. My daily income means nothing. We don’t want our children to carry on with the art,” said Bhat.