Indian art forms have a rich history, with artisans passing their skills and knowledge from generation to generation for hundreds, or even thousands of years. At Home From India, we are proud to support skilled craftspeople throughout the country, who create our product collections. Every artisan has a unique story…they are immensely talented, and take pride in their art and the quality of the products they make every day.
Paper mache was introduced to India back in the 15th century, from Persia. Recently, we interviewed one of our paper mache artisans, Mr. Villayat Hussein Mir. During our conversation we learned about his background, his business and what he sees for the future of paper mache art. We hope our conversation provides some insight into the life of an Indian artisan.
Tell us a little about your background—your birthplace, your childhood and how long you’ve been in the paper mache business
I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, which is the birthplace of paper mache in India. I have 2 sisters and 1 brother, and as was customary during the time, we lived in a large extended family, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My family has been in the paper mache business for hundreds of years. Every generation has passed down their skills to their children, and that is how the art has continued for so long. It’s in our blood. My father and uncle began their business in the 1970s, and that’s how they supported the family. My uncle was one of the best paper mache artisans in Srinagar.
Photo by Divya Agrawal on Unsplash
When did you start learning how to make paper mache items?
My parents insisted that my siblings and I get a good education and we all completed college. Since the first priority for the kids was education, we started learning the craft in high school, during our free time.
How did your family business operate when you were growing up?
It operated as a home-based, family business, with an emphasis on wholesale customers. My parents, aunts and uncles all had specific roles in creating every product. Their emphasis was always on quality…to be true to your art, every item you create must reflect the highest quality. Otherwise, there’s no point.
Because Kashmir was the only place in India where paper mache items were manufactured, there were many retail buyers who came there from New Delhi and Mumbai, to purchase our items. In those days, Kashmir also attracted many tourists, from India and around the world, who would purchase our products. Up until 1998, my family was able to make a decent living with our business.
When did you become actively involved in your family business?
I graduated from college in 1998, and took on a much larger role. At that time, the political climate in Kashmir unfortunately took a turn for the worse, because of the border conflict with Pakistan. As a result, tourists no longer visited Srinager, as it was unsafe. So that took away many of our sales, as tourists were some of our key customers. I had to figure out how to expand our revenue opportunities, so I decided to move to New Delhi for a short time, to exhibit at trade shows and find more retailers to buy our products. Our manufacturing remained in Srinager, so I traveled back and forth between the two cities, to pick up products and fulfill orders.
What was your experience after moving to New Delhi?
Through 2015, I was successful in finding new wholesale buyers, expanding the business and keeping it profitable. Things have gotten much more difficult since 2015--. It seems like since then, retailers have been more interested in getting low-quality items that can be produced quickly and cheaply. Some of my competitors are producing these types of products, and I don’t consider these items to be the true paper mache. When you are focused on quality, and follow the process that has been practiced for hundreds of years, it could take you five days to create a small elephant. But that truly reflects the art that our ancestors practiced. I will never compromise on the quality of the items that we create.
How do you decide what products to make?
We look at what’s currently in demand at our retailers’stores, which often varies based on location. While many of our products reflect very traditional paper mache designs and colors, we also adapt to the current environment. For example, this past Christmas we created paper mache holiday ornaments, featuring Santa wearing a mask! We’ve also made paper mache pumpkins. It’s nice to expand beyond the traditional designs with new products.
Are you children interested in continuing the tradition of paper mache?
My children are still young, and in school. Education is their first priority, though they are slowly learning the craft in their free time.
How is your business doing now?
I have 20 artisans working for me, including five who are disabled. and I travel back and forth between Kashmir and New Delhi. I am proud that we support so many people, while continuing our art. Currently, we are surviving, but just barely. I was in the process of contacting buyers in Europe, but because of COVID, all of those opportunities have temporarily vanished. Covid has wreaked havoc on my business, and I’m praying that things will return to normal at some point in 2021.
What are the main challenges that you face today and your thoughts for the future?
There are two main challenges for me—trying to find new buyers who appreciate the quality of paper mache as it should be (not mass produced), and retaining skilled artisans as many are leaving because they can no longer make a good living. I am looking to expand internationally, and social media and the Internet have been helping me to do this. I feel that the future of my business is going to be dependent on international expansion. The international buyers are the ones who truly appreciate my art. Sadly, many buyers in India are focused on mass produced, cheaper items. After Covid has passed, I’m looking forward to connecting with those buyers again and securing new opportunities for my business. I’m anxious to show the world “real paper mache”, which is truly an exquisite art form.
We were so happy to speak with Villayat Mir, to get an inside look at the life of an artisan today. Unfortunately, many skilled Indian craftspeople are now struggling to make a living and continue their art, in spite of their amazing talent. At Home From India, our higher purpose is to help these artisans earn a good income, so that art forms that are often thousands of years old will continue to thrive. When you support us, we can support them!