In a workshop in Indian-administered Kashmir, artisans sit in meditative silence, focusing only on their delicate grip and careful strokes of a paintbrush.
The Muslim craftsmen here use an ancient art form, dating back to the 14th century, to create modern-day Christmas decorations to be exported to markets, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
From baubles to miniature Santas, demand for these handmade products is especially high around the Christmas season.
But while these artisans are making some money from exports of the traditional papier-mache pieces, the number of orders has dropped due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“I used to receive hundreds of thousands of orders for Christmas, beginning October every year,” says Muhammad Akther Mir, who runs the papier-mache workshop.
“For the last few years, we didn’t get any international orders, but this year, as the COVID-19 situation improved in other countries, I received orders for Christmas. But it is not the same as it used to be before. We did about 30 percent business compared to what we used to do. If the COVID-19 situation improves worldwide, I am hopeful that we will get more work.”
According to Mehmood Shah, the government-appointed director of handlooms and handicrafts in Kashmir, the art form arrived in the Kashmir Valley with Sufi saint Shah-e-Hamdan, or as he is otherwise known, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, an Iranian traveller.
“Along with him were sadaats [master craftsmen], they are credited for introducing many crafts and among them is papier-mache,” he says.
“Since then, it has been practised, it has changed different forms. And nowadays, it is one of the important sectors of our handicraft scenario.
“We have about 3,000 artisans associated with the papier-mache sector. And the papier-mache is not only consumed here locally, but within the country as well, it’s also exported.”
Papier-mache workshops and stores are abundant in Srinagar, the main city in the disputed region, each housing delicately crafted pieces that bring tourists from around the world to the valley.
Shah says the art pieces are “highly coveted”, the demand for papier-mache creates sizeable employment in the region.
“It forms one of the important aspects of the export scenario, and a lot of people are associated with this sector,” he says.
Though longboats are back on Srinagar’s famous Dal Lake, the number of tourists has drastically dropped, due to several reasons. There are almost no foreign tourists due to worldwide travel restrictions.
The Indian government’s decision to revoke special status assigned to the state in 2019 saw unrest and protests, driving tourism numbers down.
This was further hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traders like Mushtaq Ahmad have suffered.
“We were hopeful that, with the COVID situation improving, the restrictions on international flights will be lifted and exporters and tourists will come again, and business will resume,” he says.
“But [because of the new Omicron variant] the restrictions have been put on again and we are left with no business.”
Inflation and a rise in the prices of materials used to create traditional Kashmiri papier-mache are also making the art form an expensive and unviable task.
Mir, one of the stalwarts of the art form, is now appealing for help from the government to save the craft.
“The art of papier-mache is dying,” he says.
“In the old days, the material was cheap, the artisan used to earn good [money] from the craft, but now, the material is expensive, and the wages are less. It is really hard to run a household with the earnings from the craft. The government has not done enough to revive the industry, nor has it tried to gain the interest of an artisan so that he would be interested to carry on with the art.”
Locals are chipping in.
Despite having a small Christian community, local cafes are buying and displaying Christmas decorations, hoping they might catch someone’s eye and help keep the centuries-old craft alive.