A letter of appreciation hanging on Mohammad Ashraf’s wall in his room- turned-workshop from Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam reads, "Dear Janab Mohd Ashraf Munshi, During my recent visit to Srinagar, I happened to see one of your beautiful paintings, which you had presented to Raj Bhawan, Srinagar in 2002. Through this letter, I would like to convey my appreciation for your creative work and skills.
My best wishes to you and your parents”.
Mohammad Ashraf, a 44-year-old artisan, is among very few practicing Paper Mache art in its true form. Ashraf has also received an award for his art by India’s former President Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam.
Ashraf rues the lack of government support. While making Paper Mache box at his home in Srinagar’s Alamgari Bazar he says “Paper Mache in Kashmir has a unique style as everything regarding it has a very long history. Paper Mache is the main entity for foreign tourists as Indians usually don’t meet the expense of the products. It used to bloom in Kashmir some 10 years back but at present, it’s about to get vanished. Paper Mache will soon be history. As of now, very few artisans are left as the young generation of Kashmir stays far away from this art. There is hardly any scope for them left in this field. There are no exhibitions of Paper Mache products in Kashmir and no policies to protect this art. Government has turned a blind eye towards us”.
The art of Paper Mache has travelled from Iran to Kashmir and was introduced by King Zainul Abidin in the 15th century. Paper Mache is also known as ‘Kari Qalamdane’. Paper Mache products generally have a dark background with suitable colours mostly black, green, blue and white. Paper Mache artisans convert a variety of articles into attractive works of art. Designing these products involve skilled hands as designing is very sophisticated.
Mohammad Shafi Mir, a Paper Mache artisan who runs a workshop in his home on banks of river Jehlum in Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal area says “only 30 percent market exists for us which is mainly due to the export we do. Making Paper Mache product consumes a lot of time and requires a huge sum of money instead people prefer artificial Chinese products which are much cheaper. This is the main reason for the shrinking space of Paper Mache. Only government support can keep Paper Mache alive in its true form. Children are not being taught this art. This adds to the alienation.
Shafi suggests Paper Mache must be taught in schools of Kashmir from the primary level. "50 percent artisans have left this field and switched to other professions. My passion for this art never reduced. Paper Mache to Kashmiri’s is a gift of God” he added.