Exploring the crafty art of Papier-mâché

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Exquisitely eloquent in sounding, humble in origins and unencountered in precedence, the art of papier mache today might not be as favourably practiced as it had been through a long period of time in the past. But its gradual decline in relevance and popularity cannot take away the unique premises of this ancient craft form, that which boasts of a history in origin that is almost as old as the history of paper itself. Naturally then, it needs no mention that papier mache also developed first in China, the country that first learned to make paper and despite a name that sounds more contemporary and ‘western’ came to find expression in that part of the world much, much later. The term indeed is a French derivation, a loan word in English that translates literally as chewed paper, though exactly how and when the name stuck for this particular form of three dimensional art is not really known. What is certain however is that it had been the Chinese Han Dynasty who explored first this form of art based on paper sometime around 200 A.D. to churn out a variety of objects from warrior helmets and ceremonial masks to snuff boxes and mirror cases.

Even in its lineage that goes back a couple of millennia, the art of papier mache has not been without influences, whether or not that similarity was indeed inspired or a coincidence is something that still is not known for certain. The precursor in this case, like in so many other cases, happens to be a stemming from ancient Egypt where layers of papyrus or linen covered with plaster was used to make coffins and death masks. Known as cartonnage, these masks came to dominate the funerary scene of an empire renowned for its legacy of the mummies and its many a elaborate burial rituals. The technique used was similar to papier mache, but while the cartonnage had to stay restricted to the annals of ancientry within the Egyptian empire, the modern version of it spread all across the world, from Persia to Europe to Asia and so on and so forth, persisting through its uniqueness in such magnificence that found special expression in the Indian state of Kashmir. Imported from Persia by Muslim saint Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani to India during the 14th century, papier mache found its stronghold in the Heaven of Earth of Kashmir, so similar in its use in the manufacture of small painted boxes, bowls lined with metals, trays, étagères and cases, yet so distinctive that even earned it the specific identity of Kashmir papier mache, though much later, in the second decade of the twentieth century. Today one of the many GI tagged products of India, Kashmir papier mache art and craft stemmings command a global market and are therefore relatively well known even when there exists also another manifestation of the Indian papier mache, albeit in a much lesser prevalent form. Also accorded a GI status is Thirukannur Papier Mache that however owes its origin not to the Persians but to the French influence who brought it to Puducherry, where it is based presently. The wall hangings at the Kaps Koli, more famously Our Lady of Angels Church exhibit the aesthetics of this craft, which enjoys now a legacy spanning more than a century in the still very Portuguesesque town.

Apart from India, it also is another Asian nation of Japan that has its own version of the papier mache craft. Used to add decorative elements to armor and shields, papier mache soon came to be closely associated with another Japanese element of craft, a type of lacquer finish known as Japanning, usually applied onto furniture. Much more distinctive is the Mexican traditional handicrafts known as cartoneria or carton piedra, which are used as a wide range of decorative and religiously significant items even today. Particularly mentionable is the decorative casing of the pinata, whether broken extensively around Christmas or occasionally on birthdays and such other celebrations while other elements like mojigangas or toritos remain equally popular.

But while the ‘delicate’ premises of papier mache crafts, as they are viewed courtesy being products made from paper pieces or pulp, enable them to be moulded into mainly decorative items of artsy prominence, quite surprising is the many other ways in which this really unique form of art and craft lends itself to creation of more ‘formidable’ pieces of utility. From canoes and lightweight domes to even sabots and fuel tanks, papier mache has found use in various surprising ways, particularly after its introduction to Europe sometime around the 17th and 18th centuries. But while France was indeed the first of the European countries into which papier mache found its artistic way, it was in London where the craft form came to acquire its distinctly French name, presumably from French workers in London papier mache shops who perhaps chewed on paper to produce the products, which however might not have been the most traditional of ways to go around this whole intricate process in creation.

Affordable and practical, papier mache though flourished in England during the Victorian and Georgian times, sometime between 1720 and 1900. But while earlier practices involved the paper being sometimes moulded around some solid object or at other times pressed into a cast to obtain the desired shape, it was only during the late 18th century, precisely in 1772, that a certain Henry Clay patented a new method of making papier mache by pasting 10 sheets of cotton paper with a mixture of cooked glue and flour and only then pressing it all together in a metal press, further drenching the sheets on linseed oil and then dried at high temperature. What emerged out of this rather elaborate technical process was a rather rigid material that could be shaped almost like wood, making it therefore the ‘best’ papier mache to work with over the somewhat fragile pulp based stuff. Used therefore to make structural items, this process received a further upgrade in 1847 when Theodore Jennens patented the mechanism of steaming and pressing these laminated sheets into various shapes, that was employed into making of trays, chair backs, and structural panels. Both England and France began also to use the art form in making doll heads, prevalent however since the 16th century, quite sometime before papier marche emerged to gain prominence in the continent.

Ornamental papier mache came to gain ground in Russia as well, as it did in countries outside the European expanses. America took on papier mache as a craft form after its introduction into the country, even as a rather interesting use of it came about sometime later. A law passed in 1874 in the country allowed papier mache companies to mash up old banknote not longer in use and mould out of them small statues of famous Americans as well as replicas of important national monuments. Equally interesting is the many varied inclusions that the papier making process has incorporated throughout history, particularly in the modern realm that has seen such elements as tobacco leaves and garlic and cinnamon and cloves and pure gelatin and rice flour and rye meal and even mashed potatoes and bitter cucumber and broccoli and cabbage and cauliflower making the list of ingredients of what is very well a recipe of sorts. Only, this is a recipe that satiates not the taste buds of the tongue but appeases rather the aesthetic taste of the senses.


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