“Creativity is contagious, pass it on”, once said Albert Einstein. And isn’t that how arts and crafts evolve and grow? Generation after generation observes, learns and develops crafts to ensure that the legacy adapts to changing times. Unfortunately, there are more exceptions to this than there are rules. Niche arts lose their heritage in this age of information overload. I was on a mission to understand one such craft.
Conceived 700 years ago, Sakhtasazi is a type of papier mâché that involves moulding raw paper pulp into aesthetically pleasing objects. This Kashmiri art form, while similar to the well-known papier mâché techniques, involves the unique style of beating the object into shape. The result is a smooth-surfaced, colourful artifact. Sadly, this ancient technique is at risk. With only about 40 artists still practicing this craft, Sakhtasazi is struggling to remain relevant.
Granted I was at the workshop on work, but my deadlines—to my editor’s horror—were the last thing on my mind when we got down to the practical. The workshop was organised by the organisation Commitment to Kashmir (CtoK), in association with India Heritage Walks, and aimed to discuss and demonstrate the Sakhta craft while giving the participants a chance to practice it first-hand. Our walk leader Burhan ud Din Khateeb, along with artist Nazir, took a moment to describe the art and its history as we sprawled around him in a circle. Post a quick introduction, we got down to get our hands dirty (literally).
Video: Burhan ud Din Khateeb teaching participants how to sort paper bits.
The process seemed pretty simple: The paper (any uncoated kind is acceptable) is loosened in water and then ground to create small bits for use. While the grinding is traditionally done by mortar and pestle, a machine now simplifies the process. Then one must refine the paper bits by sorting out the longer pieces by hand. This is done to avoid any air gaps in the final product. Don’t worry tree-huggers, these pieces are then reused for later projects. Handmade-glue made with rice flour is then added to the concoction to create a dough-like consistency. A sheet of paper is attached to a base (I chose a diya) and then coated with the pulp. Finally, it is beaten into shape with an unwrinkled surface and dried.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Well, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t overconfident myself. However, I learned my lesson the hard way. Our cleaning of the paper was shoddy, the paper attached to the base felt too loose and I spent over an hour trying to properly coat the object. It was during my attempt to achieve a steady surface that I came to a realisation—traditional arts often lose their charm because people overlook the hard work behind the process.
Nevertheless, the end products still look beautiful. Then why is Sakhtasazi losing its patronage? A chat with Burhan brought forth the bigger picture in play. “Because of the political situation in Kashmir, the workshop has been broken. The craftsmen used to work together, now they’re working out of their individual homes which has led to unnecessary competition. The market has crushed the maker, instead of supporting them. So, things are not updated and they have the same prices for the products that they had 20 years ago. On the other side, if you look at the economy, the inflation rates are so high, things have become more expensive. That has been a big cause towards its decline. And because they were separated, they were exploited and couldn’t take benefits that they could have as a strong organisation. They would have been able to approach a lot more people and do some marketing to help themselves. You haven’t seen that happening in Kashmiri crafts”, he explained.
Curious about the future of the craft, I asked for his opinion on how one could save this craft. “I think [it can be done] by design intervention and figuring out what the limitations of the craftsmen are. And, how to use modern technology to push certain aspects of the craft. To take it to a global stage will definitely provide more collaborations and opportunities through which we could generate livelihood for these craftsmen. I think an international exposure, strong collective that can deliver [would help].”
Burhan discovered the craft during his final graduation project and decided to connect to his roots in Kashmir through crafts. He runs a collective that started due to an intervention by CtoK and some other organisations who worked with the craftsmen. The idea of the collective is to band together the artists to strengthen them by design and business intervention, and push the boundaries of the crafts.
The in-depth understanding of the situation brought some clarity and intrigue—what does the future hold for Indian crafts and will they survive the brutal commercial competition? I walked back with new-found enthusiasm to support these niche arts and a diya to remind me why.
India Heritage Walks is a platform by Sahapedia that hosts diverse activities throughout India to bring people closer to their local heritage and culture. To take part in such workshops and other activities, you can visit their official website.