More popularly known as paper mache, Kar-i-qalamdan first came to Kashmir in the 15th century. Today, the original art has almost died out.
Kar-i-qalamdan is the local name for paper-mache in Kashmir. Paper-mache is the art of creating objects with mashed-up paper. Most typically it has been used to make or decorate pen holders, which have been very popular since this art came to Kashmir.
It was under the Mughals that the art of paper mache flourished, and not just penholders, but also numerous other items were made with it. During the Mughal era, many of the palanquins were made and painted by the craftsmen of Kashmir. Wood panels, ceilings, and even furniture were also favorite objects made with paper-mache.
In the 19th century, French dealers came to Kashmir to buy Pashmina shawls that were transported back in paper-mache boxes. The boxes were later sold for high prices and became very popular in Europe. So strong was the French influence that the word paper-mache replaced the traditional name of the art!
Unfortunately today, much of the paper mache products that are sold are no longer made entirely of mashed-up paper. Paperboard sheets are commonly used in place of it and are decorated and then covered with lacquer.
The process of making paper-mache is divided into two steps: The first step, Sakhtsazi, is making the object, which requires the paper to be mashed-up and then molded into a specific object. It goes through several processes and is continually smoothed down before it is sturdy enough to be painted. The second step, Naqashi, is painting the surface with geometric shapes, floral designs or patterns done in vibrant colors. Popular motifs include the thousand flowers design, cherry blossom and Persian rose.
Although invented in 150 AD in China, paper-mache only came to Kashmir in the 15th century by way of Samarkand. History credits two men with introducing Kar-i-qalamdan into Kashmir. Mir Syed Ali Hamdani is one such person who is said to have fled Persia to escape Taimur’s invasion and brought with him artisans who were skilled in various crafts, including that of paper-mache. Other traditions state that Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen, before becoming king in Kashmir, either travelled to or was a prisoner in Samarkand. He was inspired by the beautiful arts and crafts that flourished there, and upon his accession he invited craftsmen to come settle in Kashmir. Whatever the case may be, since that time paper-mache products have been an integral part of the culture of Kashmir.