On a paper trail

Express News Service

Crafting handmade paper for over 30 years, Mohammad Altaf has earned his status as a ‘Master Kagzi’ (papermaker). He learnt this art from his father, as did he from his father. Altaf would love for his son and the other children of the village to continue the legacy but, as he points out, “there has been no patronage of this old and historically significant unit for quite some time, so it is difficult for us to continue making a living out of it”. He is but one of two Master Kagzis and 10 families practising this dying craft in the unobtrusive lakeside town of Kagzipura in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Nestled between the tourist attractions of the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Khuldabad on one end and the towering Daulatabad Fort on the other, this hamlet bears a 700-year legacy of producing some of the finest handmade paper in the world.

Craftspeople learning natural dye processes

Mohammad Sallaudin, the other Master Kagzi, recalls a time when paper was made by individuals in their homes. At its zenith, 250 different kinds were made using the same method. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, the lack of patronage led to a near wipe-out. But there is hope. “We are grateful that Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) showed interest in our work in 2017, and with luck, their involvement will bring Kagzipura to the attention of the government too,” he says.

Intach’s ongoing programme for the revival of this craft has a two-pronged approach: relying on the Master Kagzis to share the knowledge of the ancient craft with the younger generation and roping in industry experts to teach best practices for the creation and effective marketing of a new range of products. This includes paper bags, notebooks, folders, coasters, frames, envelopes, paper flowers, wrapping sheets, origami paper and more. Currently, these products can be bought through Intach’s website, their office in Delhi and Kagzipura paper’s Instagram page. A site museum is also being developed to commemorate the history of this unique paper-making process.

Vandana Manchanda, Director-Projects of the Architectural Heritage Division of Intach, says, “We felt that reviving this industry would address environmental concerns as the ecological benefits of following this method are tremendous.” The manufacturing process begins with chopping rags made from cloth waste sourced from Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and supplemented with paper waste, vegetable fibres and used tea leaves. These are beaten, pressed, dried and cut, and their mixture is bleached, soaked in water and beaten into a fine pulp to reach the desired thickness. The wet pulp is drained of water, pressed onto a fine muslin cloth and hung to dry naturally. The entire process is environmentally friendly, requires low capital investment and promotes local employment.

When Muhammad Bin Tughlaq set up the capital in Daulatabad in the 14th century, he demarcated 
a location for a brand new and increasingly popular industry that found its way to India around that time from China and Samarkand. The industry was the making of paper. Kagzipura, with its lush water body, abundant sources of natural dyes and peculiar reeds, which to this date haven’t been found elsewhere, lent itself to the manufacturing process admirably.

Later, Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, following a similar route in his pursuit of expansion down South, revived the paper karkhanas. Under Mughal patronage, Kagzipura became synonymous with producing the best quality handmade paper, which was used for making royal manuscripts, official farmans of the court and other documentation. Back then, some sheets would be over six feet in height and outlasted the British-made white paper by decades, if not centuries.

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