The Kághazis’ Story: How the Indian Papermaking Industry Evolved, Declined and Transformed

In India, major centres of handmade paper production developed by the 15th century, and kághazis – people who made paper by hand – became a vital artisan community in cities and towns across the subcontinent.

This article is the sixth in a series on the history of labour in India. The first part dealt with carpenters, the second with tailors, the third with textile workers in colonial India, the fourth with the artisans in the attar industry, and the fifth with workers in the book industry.

Papermaking was a revolutionary technological practice that reshaped how people communicated and recorded information throughout history. Before the global rise of paper, people wrote on papyrus, parchment (untanned animal skins), palm leaves and stone. In India, major centres of handmade paper production developed by the 15th century, and paper increasingly displaced palm leaves and birch bark as the primary materials for writing. Kághazis – people who made paper by hand – became a vital artisan community in cities and towns across the subcontinent. Imperial courts, merchants, religious orders and record keepers all relied on their skills and knowledge.

However, in the 19th century, India’s kághazis faced economic calamities. The importation of foreign paper, the development of mechanised Indian paper mills and the colonial encouragement of prison-based paper production all threatened to end the tradition of Indian handmade paper production. In this essay, we trace the rise and fall of handmade paper production in South Asia. We explore how papermaking artisans responded and adapted to the existential threats posed by the colonial economy, sustaining, on a smaller scale, regional practices of handmade paper production into the 21st century.

Papermaking reached India through multiple routes. After the development and invention of papermaking in China between the second century BCE and the third century CE, papermaking technologies slowly spread westward. Around the seventh century CE, papermaking was introduced in Tibet, spreading from there to regions that are now Nepal, Bhutan and some of the Himalayan border regions of present-day India. Most Nepali and Himalayan papers were made of plant fibres from the bark of the lokta (daphne) bush, distinguishing them from other forms of paper produced in India, which were more commonly made from rags and tát, or hemp (san).

A key turning point in the development of South Asian paper production occurred in the 15th century, with the development of a papermaking industry in Kashmir. The rise of the Kashmiri papermaking trade is usually traced to the Sultan of Kashmir, Zain ul-Abidin, who ruled between 1418 and 1470. The Sultan reportedly brought papermakers from Samarkand, in Central Asia, to his court, and Kashmir soon became closely associated with paper art.

A Kashmiri paper maker, 1910s. Source: https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.26288765?searchUri=%2Fsite%2Fartstor%2Fopen-science-museum-group%2Ftwentythreephotographsillustratingnativepaperco160280-29915836%2F&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&searchkey=1662219932973

Kashmiri paper retained significant prestige in South Asia through the early 20th century. Other regional communities who engaged with paper production throughout the subcontinent often claimed to have learned papermaking from Kashmiris, tracing their practices to Kashmir as a form of increasing their economic worth. In other cases, papermakers highlighted their historical connections to dynastic patronage. Papermakers in Sialkot, in present-day Pakistani Punjab, traced their practices to Kashmir and received extensive patronage under the Mughal ruler Jahangir. In Rajasthan, the presence of a prominent papermaking community in Sanager is often attributed to Raja Man Singh, the Rajput Mughal official, while the well-known papermaking town of Junnar, in Maharashtra, reputedly received Maratha patronage. What emerges from our research is that papermaking was a localised industry with a patron in early modern South Asia.

Across South Asia, most papermakers were Muslims. Colonial observers attributed this to the fact that many papermakers also had to pick their own rags to produce rag-based pulp. They argued that this practice discouraged caste-Hindus from participating in the trade for fear of pollution. Muslim prominence in papermaking may have also been because paper use and production in India frequently spread alongside Muslim dynasties, with some papermakers claiming to have arrived in their regions with Mughal or other dynastic expansion.

As these communities spread and developed across the subcontinent, their art became known through variations of the Persian word kághaz (paper), which was used in an adapted form (often as kágaj or kágad) in a wide range of Indian languages, including Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali and Kannada. South Asian kághazis made paper not only through tát (hemp or san) and rags but also experimented with pulps and papermaking technologies, developing new, often delicate, and prized papers. A mid-20th-century report from Punjab captures a common Indian method of producing handmade paper. In this process, tat or gunny cloth was first “cut up by hand”, then moistened and pounded, and once pounded, washed, and made into square cakes by mixing it with an acid. These cakes were subsequently left to dry, then pounded and washed again, before being mixed with water and “stirred up continually by men with bamboo sticks”. The pulp was then ready for straining, and “the papermaker… catches a fine layer of pulp on the strainer, which, when the water is strained off, forms a sheet of paper”. The final steps in the process included polishing the paper and preparing it for use.

But by the time this report was compiled, India’s handmade papermakers increasingly faced existential challenges. Lucknow’s tax officer, William Hoey, mentions in 1880 that Lucknow, which was a centre of learning and intricate manuscript production, produced the most prized paper Arwali (made of tát), but the paper had become a thing of the past as “cheap printed” books reigned the market. Now only coarse paper variety was produced in Lucknow: wasli, which were used as boards to bind books and zard kághaz, a rough coarse paper of soiled white colour. Other types of paper were imported, such as the bamboo paper from Nepal to tie parcels, and the Badámí kághaz and Serampuri from Bally near Calcutta which was used for writing.

A paper finisher in Central India, 1930s. Source: Dard Hunter, https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=122739

Colonial writers often argued that the handmade trade could not possibly withstand the development of large-scale, mechanised paper mills. The earliest mechanised paper mills in India were developed by Europeans in Bengal in the early 19th century. There are multiple dates cited for the “first paper-mill in India”, including references to an unsuccessful mill set up by missionaries in Serampore in 1811, which was closed and rusting by mid-century. The earliest successful paper mills in the region were opened in the 1860s when mills were founded in Bombay and Calcutta. By the early 1880s, there were six private, mechanised papermills operating in India, “three in the Bombay presidency, one at Bally near Calcutta, one at Lucknow, one at Gwalior”. A seventh opened at Titaghur near Calcutta in 1884.

While mechanised mills grew rapidly between the 1860s and 1890s, an even more significant challenge for Indian papermakers in this period was the threat of imported paper. As of 1885, the paper produced by the seven India-based mills was still dwarfed by the amount of paper imported from Europe. Imported paper remained relatively more expensive, however. Some colonial officials were interested in decreasing their own reliance on imported papers and began to provide contracts to mechanised paper mills beginning in the late 19th century.

Handmade papermaking communities in mid-19th century India saw their trade challenged not only by imported paper and mechanised mills. They also faced the development of a major new site of handmade paper production: colonial jails. From the 1830s, British administrators in India used prison labour schemes to discipline and control Indian convicts. Papermaking was one of several trades identified as ideal for convict labourers, because it could be conducted within a relatively small-scale, easily monitored prison workshop. It was also praised by colonial administrators as both labour-intensive and easily taught, factors that they thought made it well-suited to convicts.

The earliest prison-based papermaking workshops were opened in Bengal in the 1820s and 1830s. From there, the practice rapidly spread to other provinces and regions of India. It became a significant component of state policy in Punjab beginning in the early 1860s. Due in part to the high price of imported paper, the colonial government of the Province of Punjab decided to contract all its paper for vernacular printing and records to the prisons. This policy meant that prison papermaking workshops scaled up, making it increasingly difficult for small-scale independent papermakers to compete. ​

Papermakers washing pulp in the river, Pune District, late 1930s. Source: K.B. Joshi, Papermaking in India

Some kághazi communities resisted these threats to their livelihoods and artisanal traditions. In Sialkot, where the renowned papermaking community faced significant competition and pressure from prison paper production, kághazis sought to highlight the superior quality and strength of their paper in comparison to the prison manufacturers. Dard Hunter, a prominent American scholar of papermaking, noted that “none [of the jails], with all their resources, have improved on the best Sialkot stuff”. In other cases, kághazis sought to establish contracts and formal relationships with the growing publishing houses across India, to ensure a reliable demand for their wares. Other kághazis shifted the materials that they used to save money and sell their papers at a lower cost than the jail and mill-produced products. Many began to incorporate scrap paper into their pulps, recycling their work to keep costs low.

Beyond kághazi communities themselves, other groups sought to revive and protect Indian handmade papermaking in the early 20th century, especially after the rise of the swadeshi movement. Papermaking was one of several trades that Gandhi praised as a potential cottage industry that could form the basis for an autonomous Indian economy. This project was taken up most prominently by K.B. Joshi, a Pune-based scientist and member of the All-India Village Industries Association. Writing in the early 1940s, Joshi argued that “the manufacture of paper by villagers in India will not fail to revolutionise their economics.” In 1940, with the support of Gandhi, Joshi founded a Handmade Paper Institute in Pune, which sought both to protect regional paper traditions and to promote the use of new materials and practices to make handmade paper competitive on the Indian market.

Ultimately, kághazis resistance to challenges to their trade, combined with new projects meant to revive handmade paper production, did see some limited success. Handmade paper production continues in both India and Pakistan through the present, although largely as a niche trade, attracting those interested in artisanal papers. While many papermakers saw themselves pushed out of the market by the rise of mechanised mills and jail papers, others successfully negotiated the threats of the colonial economy and sustained their trade into the present era.

Dr Amanda Lanzillo is a Lecturer in South Asian History at Brunel University. Follow her on twitter @lanzilloamanda.

Dr Arun Kumar is an Assistant Professor of British Imperial, Colonial & Post-colonial History at Nottingham University. Follow him on twitter @arunk_patel.