What is Papier-mâché?
Papier-mâché is a composite material consisting of Papier pieces or pulp, sometimes reinforced with textiles, bound with an adhesive, such as glue, starch, or wallpaper paste. In Kashmir as in Persia, papier-mâché has been used to manufacture small painted boxes, bowls lined with metals, trays, étagères and cases. It remains highly marketed in and outside india and is a part of the luxury ornamental handicraft market.
Papier mache is a delicate decorative art which shows the artistic zeal of a craftsman. This art was introduced in Kashmir in the 15th Century by a Kashmiri Prince who spent years in prison at Samarkand in Central Asia. The art born in the land of Persia was highly favored by Mughal Emperors of 15th and 16th Century.
At first glance, all papièr mâchè objects look roughly the same, but there is a price differential which depends on the quality of the product. However, besides at least three different grades of papièr mâchè, some are actually cardboard or wood! The idea, however, is not to hoodwink the unwary, but to provide a cheaper product with the look of papièr mâchè. To make papièr mâchè, first paper is soaked in water till it disintegrates. It is then pounded, mixed with an adhesive solution, shaped over moulds, and allowed to dry and set before being printed and varnished. Paper that has been pounded to pulp has the smoothest finish in the final product. When the pounding has not been so thorough, the finish is less smooth.
Papier Mache, today, has become highly stylized and appealing by using real gold and silver paint and by adding intricate decorations. The designs and decorations of the Kashmiri Papier Mache, usually in the form of flowers and birds, have a strong Persian flavor. 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. Some items like bowls and vases are lined with brass, while on special orders boxes and other items are ornamented with gold and silver leaves and depict beautiful landscapes and objects like a house boat, that form an inseparable part of Kashmiri lifestyle.
The designs painted on objects of papièr mâchè are brightly coloured. They vary in artistry and the choice of colours, and it is not difficult to tell a mediocre piece from an excellent one. Gold is used on most objects, either as the only colour, or as a highlight for certain motifs. Besides the finish of the product, it is the quality of gold used which determines the price. Pure gold leaf, which has an unmistakable lustre, is far more expensive than bronze dust or gold poster paint. Varnish, which is applied to the finished product, imparts a high gloss and smoothness, and increases with every coat applied.