Srinagar: The sun is about to set; a soft light falls on the grave of Syed Ali Shah for the last time that day.
A man in his early 30s pulls up on his autorickshaw along the edge of Baba Maqbar – the biggest Shia graveyard on the outskirts of Srinagar – and walks slowly towards the grave. Haggard and pale, and with numerous holes in his kurta, he bends down on his knees, puts his hands together and makes a deep obeisance.
Syed Ali Shah died of marrow cancer eight years ago, and his son, a national award-winning paper-mache craftsman, Syed Ajaz Shah, has made it a routine to visit his father’s grave at the end of every day.
Gaze fixed on the name of his late father inscribed on the tombstone while unsuccessfully trying to hold back tears, Ajaz slipped into the reveries of his award-winning moment in New Delhi on December 15, 2008.
Dressed in a white mandarin collar kurta-pyjama with a black waistcoat, Ajaz walked up to the podium, folded his hands in respect and amidst thunderous applause received the highest honour, the National Award, from the then president of India, Pratibha Patil.
It was a small jewellery box, measuring 14cm x 9cm x 7cm, that won him the honour.
“I am happy to inform you that you have been selected as a recipient of the National Award for Mastercraftpersons for the year 2006,” a letter from the Ministry of Textiles dated April 22, 2008, read. The award comprised a cash prize of Rs 1,00,000, a tamrapatra (ceremonial copper plaque) and angawastram (shawl).
The same box had won him a state award previously. “It encouraged me to improve upon it further by drawing some additional 29 moons and 12 margins in real gold,” Ajaz said. “It took me six months and many sleepless nights to come up with something that the world could look at it with awe.”
“There’s something spiritual associated with this art,” he said. “No doubt the brush was in my hand but the strokes were definitely not mine.”
The president returned the box to Ajaz, and he decided to keep it forever. But things didn’t work out the way he had thought they would.
Ajaz had to sell his award-winning piece to an exporter for a paltry Rs 30,000, who took with it the certification as well. He sold it barely a year after he won the National Award, to help pay for his father’s medical treatment.
“The award does symbolise my personal accomplishments, but it’s more than that,” says Ajaz as he picks up some earth from the grave, holds it tightly in his fist for some time and then drops it. “Along with his followers, many of whom were craftsmen, Mir Sayyed Ali Hamdani, a Sufi mystic from Iran known popularly as Shah-i-Hamdan, came to Kashmir during the late 14th century. For centuries together, the art has been feeding our impoverished families with dignity and honour.”
The paper-mache trade provides a livelihood to hundreds of families in Kashmir, and is practiced exclusively by the Shias, who account for roughly 10% of the population.
“In the earlier times, the frequent raids by state-sponsored groups on Shia pockets would restrict them to the indoors, mostly,” said Sajjad Haider, editor of Kashmir Observer and considered an authority on Shia Islam. “Paper-mache is something you could carry out from within the confines of your home, which is why it’s largely associated with the Shias.”
When his father was diagnosed, selling the award-winning piece was the only option for Ajaz. “It was the only thing that I could cash in on, but I had to part with it in the most unceremonious manner. My father didn’t survive long and with him, I buried the aspirations of keeping the torch of this craft burning. Every last penny in my pocket went into his treatment.”
The day his father died, Ajaz made up his mind to bid an adieu to paper-mache. After selling his wife’s gold, he bought an autorickshaw. “It takes me more than a month to produce something that costs around Rs 6,000 in the open market,” said Ajaz. “You can’t run a family on a mere Rs 200 a day. Driving an autorickshaw fetches me somewhere between Rs 700 to Rs 1,000 which is much better than what I’d earn from paper-mache.”
However, driving an autorickshaw also comes with a price. “I have a young daughter who I have to get married one day,” says Ajaz. “Driving autorickshaws is not considered to be a respectable job. Sooner or later, I may have to leave this too, and I don’t know what fate has in store for me.”
The state government had apparently promised a job to the National Award winners. “We were promised jobs as instructors by the government,” Ajaz says. “But they have put in a condition that the applicants must have passed the matriculation examination.”
He doesn’t understand why an artist or a craftsperson should require a piece of paper to prove his or her qualifications. “My art is my biggest qualification. Why, it’s my master’s degree, my PhD.”
After Ajaz received his award, Pathways World School, Gurgaon had requested him to hold a workshop there. “They didn’t see how literate or illiterate I was. They saw my talent, my skill and my expertise, and that is what I take pride in.”
On another occasion, when Ajaz was invited to participate in an overseas exhibition in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2013, his craftsmanship had left visitors spellbound. “The craftsmanship demonstrated by Mr. Syed Ajaz Shah attracted a number of visitors to the exhibition, who appreciated it generously,” the Consulate General of India wrote in his appreciation letter.
Ironically, to ‘encourage’ paper-mache artists, the government of Jammu and Kashmir had decided to include it as a curriculum subject in schools, but the decision did not take off. “The government has charted a fresh course to revive the dying and dwindling art form,” then education minister Naeem Akhtar had told Hindustan Times.
“Neither did we receive an order in this regard, nor any funds from the Department of Education,” principal of the Government Higher Secondary School, Nawa Kadal, Fatima Shaheen Tak, told The Wire.
The Craft Development Institute (CDI) in Kashmir seems to think that issues like Ajaz’s do not fall in their jurisdiction. “It’s not our mandate to look after the craftsmen,” Nazima Qadri, public information officer, CDI, said. On its website, though, the CDI says, “By providing relevant craft education to young people and envisioning employment opportunities that will make it an attractive career option, CDI endeavours to renew the promise of hand-made crafts, give it a new direction and drive the handicrafts industry towards inspired change.”
The Wire attempted to get in touch with the director of the Department of Handicrafts for his comment, but he passed the query to his assistant. “We don’t have any rehabilitation schemes for artists, though we provide them loans with a 10% subsidy,” Mushtaq Ahmad Shah, assistant director, Department of Handicrafts, said.
Ironically, during the fiscal year 2017-18, the Jammu and Kashmir government sold Kashmiri art worth Rs 1,090.12 crore in the domestic and international market. Yet taking care of artisans doesn’t seem to be too high on the government’s agenda.
“If you’re serious about saving the art, you’ve got to save the artist,” says Ajaz as he walks out of the graveyard, starts his autorickshaw and disappears into the labyrinthine of the interior city.
All photos courtesy the author.