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Rajasthan’s Local Crafts: Handmade Paper Production

With a long history of royal patronage, Jaipur has an impressive tradition of craftsmanship that produces the most extravagant goods for everyday uses – whether gold and silver jewellery, decorative textiles, brass and silverware, leather goods, or even handmade paper. We decided that paper – given the importance of stationery in our lives – would be an interesting topic to explore, so we set out on a trip to Kagzi paper production factory, which began its life producing paper for use in the royal court, and now produces for both the domestic and global markets. During this brief tour of their facility, we learned about the history and methods of traditional papermaking in Jaipur.

We were surprised to learn that this method of papermaking was brought to India during the 16th century by invaders from Central Asia. In prisons in Bokhara and Balkh, Chinese inmates had already demonstrated their skill in producing paper from natural waste. The fact this paper proved to be strong, durable and resistant to alteration or forgery, and could be produced in large quantities, led Babur – the first Central Asian invader to settle down in India and create what came to be known as the Moghul Empire – to encourage some of his men to learn this skill from the Chinese prisoners for use by the Moghul court in India. All court papers came to be prepared on the paper so produced as also, gradually, manuscripts and other related articles used by the educated citizenry. Prior to this introduction of paper, writing in India was carved on stone (e.g., Emperor Ashoka’s edicts), handprinted or painted on fabric (e.g., pattachitras), or etched on palm leaves (e.g., Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts).

The present-day Kagzi family in Jaipur (the name kagzi itself means “paper maker”) traces itself back to the settlers who travelled to India with Babur’s army and who had learnt the craft from the Chinese. Papermaking requires an unlimited supply of water and solid raw materials. Initially located in the district of Alwar (a little south of Delhi, in present day Rajasthan), the Kagzi family moved to Jaipur when water in Alwar became a scarce resource. They were also encouraged by an invitation from the kings of Jaipur who promised them court patronage and an abundant supply of water (the Dhundar region of which Jaipur is a part has always been a well watered one). The kings of Jaipur had entered into an early peace treaty with the Moghul court of Delhi, which resulted in a considerable amount of cultural exchange between the two kingdoms.

Unwanted scraps of fabric come from all over India and are shredded here in Kagzi to make paper

Today, the Kagzi paper factory recycles unwanted scraps of pure cotton fabric (from garment factories in different parts of India) and paper in any form (handmade, machine-made, cardboard) to make beautiful and durable handmade paper. Using simple indigenously designed machinery, these raw materials are finely shredded and then pulverized into a watery pulp (e.g.,70 kg. of shredded fabric or fabric-cum-paper mixed continuously in 400 to 500 litres of water for over 4 to 5 hours produces the required pulp). Where required, natural colour (or a bleaching medium) is added to the water. The water is re-used until it cannot be re-used any further. The resulting pulp is then manually spilt onto a sieve to form a smooth and thin layer, which is covered with a thin piece of loosely woven cotton fabric. This fabric helps separate one layer from another when they are placed on top of each other. The men who do this have a good idea of how thinly the pulp needs to be spread to create the required thickness of paper. Where the paper is designed to have extra design detail, other natural materials such as grasses, pieces of silken thread, flower petals etc., are sprinkled onto each layer of sieved pulp, before being covered with cotton cloth.

Two men flip over a newly produced sheet of paper that has been formed by thinly spreading pulps of recyclables over a net

The layers are then pressed down by a machine press which serves to extract the remaining water from paper-in-the-making. The next step is the careful peeling off of layer upon layer of cloth to reveal the ready but still-damp paper. This work is done by women. After this, the cloth pieces go back for re-use until they can e re-used no further.

At this stage, further design variations may be introduced. For example, if the paper requires to have a creased look, each sheet is crumpled up by hand after removing the fabric and then straightened out again. In any case, at this stage, all the sheets go through a flattening process by being placed manually between two iron sheets and put through a machine roller, which produces a final crisp and fully dry product (the ones that were crumpled retain the lines of the creases in their smoothness). If screen printing or embossing is required, it happens at this stage. The sheets then go through a cutting machine for the final size and knife edges.

The Kagzi factory exports much of products to different parts of the world – sheets to the U.K., U.S., Japan and the Middle East, customized printed products to large department stores such a Tesco and Target; it also supplies shops and designers in the Indian market.

In summary, the handmade paper industry not only has an illustrious history, it is also an ecologically sensitive industry (prevents de-forestation as it uses non-wood pulp, recycled cloth, paper waste, flowers and grasses, and is non-polluting as it is acid free. Being labour intensive, it is suited to generate employment among India’s large rural population. It is also energy and water efficient, and requires low capital investment as it also uses simple and totally indigenously designed machinery.