Financial circumstances and regional conflicts forced Srinagar-based Maqbool Jan to drop out of school. Here’s how he made a name for himself and bagged four state awards for his art.
“The map of Srinagar is my humble attempt at highlighting the breathtaking landscape that houses Shikara boats, the finest Mughal architecture, picturesque Chinar trees, handicrafts soaked in century-old cultures and, of course, the pristine Dal Lake,” Maqbool Jan, the artist behind the viral map doing the rounds on social media, tells The Better India.
On 27 July, Basit Zargar, a photojournalist, posted pictures of Maqbool making the papier mâche cloth piece that instantly got thousands of likes and hundreds of retweets.
Oblivious to the several comments lauding his craft and skills, Maqbool, a resident of Srinagar and recipient of four state awards, continued working on the final finishings of his map of Srinagar valley.
“I am happy so many people saw my craft. Newspapers have also reached out to me,” he says, adding, “Kashmir is filled with so many art forms that are on the decline — papier mâché being one of them. Compared to when I started working on it 40 years ago, only a handful of artists practice this art form now.”
The 56-year-old, who started working on the map a year ago, asserts, “We need to spread awareness about it across India and social media could be a start.”
Preserving A Legacy
Papier mâché is a 14th-century art started by the Persian mystic Mir Syed Ali Hamdani. During one of his travelling expeditions, he introduced skilled artisans to the valley. The term ‘Papier Mache’ (‘chewed paper’) was coined by the French traders, where its primary base is a paper pulp reinforced with an adhesive for durability. It manifests into cloth, stone, wood surfaces to make lacquered products like boxes, trays, vases, bowls, bases of lamps and more.
This process of making the base is called Sakhtasaz and in the Naqashi stage, the objects are finely painted with designs and patterns such as almonds, chinar, jungle motifs, flowers, calligraphy, etc. These exquisite items, Maqbool claims, can last for 500 years.
Maqbool and his entire family, including his brother, children, wife and sister are engaged in this profession. They inherited the artisanal skills from their ancestors who were involved in Sozni embroidery that is used to decorate Pashmina shawls.
However, Maqbool was only 2 years old when his father passed away and the entire burden of the household shifted on his mother. She took up the work of spinning yarn using a charkha (spinning wheel) but that was not enough.
“The financial burdens coupled with war-torn regional conditions forced me to drop out of school in Class 6 and join a local karkhana (factory) of naqashi. We didn’t have much space at home so I would sleep in the factory, and before the workers arrived in the morning, I would clean the place. Ustad Ghulam Hassan, my employer, spotted my knack for art and hard work, and taught me the basic skills of the trade. With time, I mastered the art form and left the company to establish my own business using the antique tools my father had left behind,” remembers Maqbool.
Back then, Maqbool spent many sleepless nights perfecting his designs, precision and identifying the quality of raw materials. “I remember my shoe souls were perpetually missing and I skipped meals to save money. I channelled all my energy, financial resources and time towards papier mâché to establish a name for myself and also give the world one more reason to fall in love with Kashmiri art,” he says. He was conferred with the prestigious UNESCO Seal of Excellence for handicrafts in 2007-2008.
Maqbool’s next goal is to see his art on Parliament or state assembly walls. “This will be my biggest contribution to our country. Kashmir’s secular art adorning the walls from where India’s supreme legislative body runs the country will highlight its significance. One can hope then that the decision-makers will institutionalise this art form,” he signs off.
Take a look at Maqbool’s intriguing and soulful art pieces:
Map images source: Basit Zargar
Get in touch with Maqbool here
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)