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Ever heard of papier mâché bluetooth speakers?

Young Kashmiri designer Burhan ud din Khateeb is rethinking traditional papier mch for contemporary, functional products

Burhan ud din Khateeb (right) with an artisan.
Burhan ud din Khateeb (right) with an artisan.

A miniature shikara, jewellery boxes and decorative wall hangings intricately painted with foliage motifs—the craft of papier mâché, instantly identifiable with Kashmir, provides one of the most ubiquitous souvenirs from the state. Its history goes back to ancient Egypt, from where it travelled to Kashmir in the 15th century.

“But I wanted to find out why the papier mâché artefacts in Kashmir were so similar year after year," says Burhan ud din Khateeb on the phone from Jammu.

Khateeb, 25, is an independent product designer who picked up the traditional craft, and is using technology, to reinvent it and create functional objects such as Bluetooth speakers, lampshades and clocks. In the process of finding new relevance for a traditional craft, Khateeb’s intent is to augment the income of the artisans he works with.

A graduate of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, Khateeb is currently working on a project called “Upgrading The Skills And Training In Traditional Arts/Crafts For Development (Usttad)", led by the Union ministry of minority affairs. NID is a knowledge partner for the project under which the ministry selected about 25 crafts from across India. Khateeb was chosen to work on papier mâché.

It was the perfect opportunity for Khateeb to go back to his roots. His initial research led him to the reason why lack of innovation plagues Kashmiri papier mâché and some other traditional crafts: “Crafts that are made with the help of moulds, like papier mâché, by extension become repetitive." Khateeb began by prototyping objects like lamps, clocks, stationery and furniture. “We made 25-30 such product prototypes in the Usttad workshop." A hanging lamp, for example, has been made with recycled paper pulp cones, wood and wires. Another product, a portable speaker, takes its inspiration from whales. It was initially challenging to work on new products with traditional artisans, admits Khateeb, but “they are fast learners". “They also appreciate the useability of the new products."

The Tessellate Bluetooth boombox.

Two of three workshops, which created 60 prototypes, have been held so far. “The idea is to give the government about 75 prototypes after the three workshops," says Khateeb. After a final selection by the government, these will be produced and sold through the online marketplace Shopclues.

Khateeb grew up in Jammu. Though he joined the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar in 2010, he soon realized that he wasn’t keen on engineering. Drawn towards architecture and design, he joined NID in 2011. “In my fourth year at NID, we had a course in systems design in which you learn about the impact of the products that you design on people and systems," says Khateeb. “I realized how people had used industrial design to create meaningless things. In terms of pollution, it has been completely devastating."

Khateeb’s learning curve has been informed by ideas of sustainability, bridging the gap between design and craft, and meaningful livelihood creation. His journey has taken him far and wide, to learn from others.

A papier mâché floor lamp.
A papier mâché floor lamp.

After graduating from NID in 2016, he got in touch with Singgih S. Kartono, an Indonesian designer who had studied design at a premier institute in Indonesia and returned to his village to work with local craftsmen. Khateeb soon found himself amid bamboo fields in central Java, working with artisans to develop packaging products to replace plastic and conducting workshops with children. “It was heartwarming to see that there are people who are going against the grain," he says. He spent about three months there.

After returning from Indonesia in May 2016, Khateeb started working on a digital healthcare project with a partner in Srinagar. In July, however, Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani was killed by security forces—widespread clashes followed, forcing a shutdown. “It was devastating for my project but then I had learnt in Indonesia to not lose hope," says Khateeb.

Khateeb’s work cannot be judged without understanding the ground realities in Jammu and Kashmir. “With the conflict in Kashmir, the tourism industry has suffered a lot and the market for decorative arts has shrunk significantly, forcing artisans out of their craft," he says. “Capitalism is based on making more for less. That and the concept of infinite growth—they are both flawed. Hopefully, with our work, we will be able to bring more people to live a more sustainable life."

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